BY STEVE ERICKSON | Sometimes, less is more. Earlier this year, the Israeli film “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” offered a minimalist look inside that country’s divorce courts, which are governed by conservative Orthodox Jews. It didn’t try to “open up” its story. Indian director Chaitanya Tamhane’s “Court” offers a riveting glimpse inside his country’s decrepit legal system, but it makes the mistake of trying to delve into its characters’ private lives. It gives them just enough time for us to get a glimpse of their homes, but not enough to gain any insight into their inner workings. The protagonist, folksinger Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), arrested for inciting the suicide of a manhole worker with one of his songs, actually gets less screen time than his lawyers and remains a cipher, whose life is explained in court rather than dramatized by his actions.
Americans’ view of Indian cinema is colored by two poles: Bollywood and the late Satyajit Ray. The former produces a vast quantity of films, many of which are marketed to the South Asian diaspora in the US and gross two or three million dollars without crossing over to Anglo audiences. The latter still defines Americans’ idea of Indian art cinema; in fact, Film Forum recently gave a lengthy run to Ray’s “Apu trilogy.” Other Indian art-filmmakers, like Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen, are almost unknown here. That may be changing; “The Lunchbox,” an Indian film that falls outside both Bollywood and art film conventions, was one of the most popular US foreign language releases of 2014. Even at home, “Court” took many by surprise when it won India’s equivalent of the Oscar for best film, a rare feat for an independent film.
At the start of “Court,” Narayan sings a song lamenting the political and moral decline of India. He performs in an open square to a curious audience; rather than playing for money, he makes his living doing workshops about writing poetry and folk songs. (Someone introduces him as “the people’s poet.”) He’s soon arrested and taken to court. His lawyer, Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber), fiercely defends him against public prosecutor Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni.) Even the fact that Narayan owns two banned books is used against him, even though one of the books was published in 1899. It becomes clear the judicial system is a carry-over from India’s colonial era and not updated for a country that proudly calls itself “the world’s largest democracy.”
Tamhane never moves the camera. Usually it’s close to the actors; occasionally, as in song performances, it’s far from them. It always faces them frontally, but sometimes he chooses unusual angles from which to film them. The unfortunate result is a certain stiffness.
Narayan is defined by his music, though we get to see a few scenes showing off his feisty personality — for example, when he complains about the number of pills he has to take in a hospital. Judging from his lyrics, he seems like an Indian equivalent of the late Nigerian singer Fela Kuti. According to Tamhane, he’s comes from a tradition of 1970s protest singers. His lyrics seem vague enough that the government’s determination to prosecute him looks ridiculous. It’s as absurd as the heavy metal band Judas Priest’s trial for supposedly inserting subliminal messages telling listeners to kill themselves in their music. At least Narayan gets enough out of the experience to write a book about the trial.
Particularly in films about countries like India, critics and other spectators tend to see them as opportunities to glean nuggets of information that will inform the bigger picture. This is especially true here since we see few realistic films about that country; Bollywood’s garish fantasies have as much direct connection to Indian life as “Avengers: Age of Ultron” does to American life. “Court” exposes a feudal mentality that may be specific to India or applicable more widely to post-colonial countries around the world. I just wish the film had more confidence in its own strengths.
COURT | Directed by Chaitanya Tamhane | Zeitgeist Films | In Marathi, Hindi, English & Gujarati with English subtitles | Opens Jul. 15 | Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. | filmforum.org