In certain sectors of Indian filmdom the story of Court is the stuff of fairy tales.
The story goes something like this: Actor Vivek Gomber having previously worked with director Chaitanya Tamhane on a play, offered to pay Mr. Tamhane a monthly fee for the time it would take him to write the script for his next project. When Mr. Gomber read the finished script he worked with Mr. Tamhane to try and secure the funding needed to get this film made. When that money didn’t materialize he offered to fund the movie himself.
As a filmmaker who has thus far enjoyed only the mildest of flirtations with producers, I can confidently declare that audiences would laugh at and dismiss out of hand, any make-believe narrative in which a first-time producer backs the vision of a first-time director with such unwavering faith.
Then in the time-worn cinematic tradition of piling trials and tribulations upon the protagonist, Court was rejected by several major film festivals; until the Venice acceptance paved the way for two wins, and made it the first time most people had heard of the film.
This film, which was made in the most independent of spirits, is now making its way into theatres, to be evaluated by paying audiences for the very first time. The latest in the list of accolades and awards it has won is a National Award. So I don’t really have to oversell the pedigree of this film. Or do I?
Court is not a feel-good film, by any stretch of the imagination. The courts mentioned in its title aren’t the ones where incredibly fit people hit a tennis ball around. The primary settings in this film are the dreary courthouses in Mumbai wherein everybody, from the accused, to the lawyers, to the judges pass their days in a slow-moving stupor that feels so authentic, you might imagine you can actually smell the city inside whatever air-conditioned cineplex you watch this movie in.
Court is the film you should watch this weekend because, for years, we–you, me, and most definitely the film industry–have championed half-baked efforts as examples of how India has produced world class cinema. Hell, we are still talking about the only Academy Awards success Indians have received for a movie that was too cliché even for our weaned-on-coincidence, nourished-by-logic-lapses masses.
This is the first time in recent memory that we have a movie that is deserving of our support, and worthy of representing our nation on a global stage. This is the film that should be our submission to the Oscars this year. This is the one our professionals should be supporting, and our cinema teachers referencing when they talk about New Indian Cinema.
Because Mr. Tamhane’s film holds up a mirror to our world, shows us a slice of Mumbai reality, in a calm, confident manner, that has been absent from Indian cinema for so long it feels like this film is the one which signals the birth of that confidence. Because the performances, the production design, the costumes, the casting, the sights and sounds of Court reminded me of the world I live in. I live in the Mumbai depicted in this film. I breathe that air, I sweat under that sun, and I felt like I was given a window into lives being lived right now, somewhere in my city.
While the central narrative in Court is downright depressing, it is not a dark movie. In fact there is room for a lot of self-reflective humour in the way the various players within this narrative live out their private lives. Be it the wealthy defence lawyer, the middle class public prosecutor, or even the judge presiding over the case, Mr. Tamhane’s script and the unblinking eye of cinematographer Mrinal Desai’s camera capture it all with a humour and compassion that will leave you floored by the amount of just pure truth that is on screen in one movie.
Court is being celebrated for its victories at various film festivals but I think the true winner here is Indian cinema, and the box office success of a film like Court will encourage many more filmmakers who actually have something to say with their stories. Filmmaking is difficult work, uncompromising filmmaking is — sorry, was — impossible. And then Court came along.