The order in disorder

As “Court” wins the National Award for the Best Film, Anuj Kumar speaks to young director Chaitanya Tamhane.

Updated - March 27, 2015 08:00 pm IST

Published - March 26, 2015 08:31 pm IST

Director Chaitanya Tamhane

Director Chaitanya Tamhane

What is a court room without drama? Our films have turned courtrooms into such showcases of oratory that when Chaitanya Tamhane’s subtle comment on dysfunctional judiciary opens you feel that you have stepped in the wrong room. However, soon you discover that it is your upbringing in the filmy courts that is responsible for the acquired taste.

This year’s National Award winner for the best film, “Court” is an accomplished piece of work on the times we live in. It is about a folk artiste Narayan Kamble who is booked for abetment of suicide by a sewerage worker in Mumbai. Inspired by the imprisonment of cultural activist Jeeten Marandi, the folk singer is accused of performing an inflammatory song that could have incited the man to kill himself, the film talks about censorship, manual scavenging and the dreary ways of judiciary without being judgemental or strident. It goes beyond the courtroom to observe lives of people when they are not in black robes, humanising them. The characters speak in Marathi, English, Hindi and Gujarati but you never miss the pulse. The long shots technically detach us from taking sides but as Kamble says in the song it constantly probes you to look for the enemy. And by the end when the foe starts taking shape, the conscience pricks.

“Court” has received the Hubert Bals Fund from Rotterdam Film Festival and has had a great run at the prestigious film festivals. It is releasing in India on April 17 and Chaitanya feels the National Award will give it the much-needed push.

Excerpts from an interview:

What was the catalyst? Are you fond of court room dramas?

I am not a big fan of genre films. I had never imagined that a courtroom drama would be my debut film. But when I went to a lower court in Mumbai, I realised that it was very different from what I had seen in conventional courtroom films. I was immediately fascinated by the setting and the people who inhabited that world. I have always loved researching and engaging with different worlds during my scripting process. This time, exploring the legal world became my research project.

How did you keep yourself away from the filmy depiction of courts? How did the naturalism fall into place?

I didn’t have to consciously keep myself away from the conventional depiction of courts in other films. My source of inspiration was always real life and what I had observed rather than films. The narrative, right from the beginning, was meant to have a naturalistic tone. The only aspect where we had to consciously move away from the established norm was in building the sets of the courtrooms. Since you can’t shoot in an actual courtroom, we had to rely on sets of courts. All the available sets available in Mumbai were the very typical, ‘filmy’ courts that we have seen in Hindi films. We decided to build a set of our own, from scratch, to depict the session courts we had attended during research.

Like in the scene in the printing press the camera is focussed on a man putting together a magazine. There is a strange rhythm to it. How did you arrive at such a design?

The film has its own internal design and rhythm. This design evolved very organically on set, as we were shooting the scenes. Once we had established a certain rhythm for the initial scenes, then it became a language of its own, that we followed consistently. This rhythm might also have to do with my personal temperament or preference for the kind of films I like to watch.

For a large part it appears that there might be a bigger agenda behind silencing Kamble but as it turns out the film suggests that the real problem lies with the interpretation of laws and lack of will. Perhaps that’s why you have looked into the life of both the lawyers and the judge beyond their call of duty.

For me, the personal lives of the lawyers and the judge was the most interesting aspect of the script. It was my main motivation for writing the film. I wanted to know what mental and social space these characters inhabited outside of the courtroom. The intention was to not paint the characters in black and white, but instead, to lend them dignity beyond our preconceived notions.

The film makes a strong comment on caste, manual scavenging and censorship without raising the tone. Did you want to highlight the banality with which we treat these issues?

In my research, I realised that fates of ordinary lives are decided in the courtrooms with a sense of casualness and banality. This observation lent the film, a deadpan, detached tone to it. This tone brings out a certain sense of humour, even in the saddest of situations.

Coming from a young director this tone sometimes disturbs as it hints at all round surrender? The song that Kamble sings asks to know your enemy. Who do you think the real enemy is?

It really depends on your interpretation of the film. It could be interpreted as if there is no enemy and it could be interpreted as if the entire collective is its own enemy. I must also clarify that I don’t personally endorse the sentiments that Narayan Kamble expresses in his songs.

What is your process of writing? How did you arrive at the subversive tone and the long shots?

It took me about a year to write the entire script. This involved interviewing a lot of lawyers, academics, spending time in courts, sifting through news articles, etc. I made a lot of notes and jotted down all the ideas that came through. Gradually, the characters and the situations evolved. After which, the main process was of choosing what to include and what to let go off in the script. Elimination played a major role in the writing. The detached perspective with the long shots was something that was always integral to the narrative of Court.

Tell us about the casting? Your crew members also don’t come from mainstream

We auditioned about 1800 people from different walks of life, who had never faced the camera before. From teachers and railway workers to drivers and waiters, we met just about anyone who was interested in being in a film. After six months of intensive auditions, we shortlisted about 150 people who fit the parts in the script. Among them we found our final cast, and the interesting faces that did not fit any of the speaking parts, got cast as background actors. To make the non-professional actors feel comfortable with each other and with the lines of the script, we rehearsed extensively. We would also shoot only one scene a day, with an average of 30 takes per scene. On some days, we even went up to 60 takes.

Yes, a lot of the crew members were first timers or came from a documentary background. The production designers had never been on a film set and were doing production design for the first time. The editor had never edited a fiction film before this. The casting director had never casted prior to Court. I myself was a first time director and Vivek Gomber, a first time producer.

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