Saturday, April 25, 2015

Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court: Anti-cinema cinema or minimalist manifesto

The initial reaction to Chaitanya Tamhane’s “Court” is a sense of disappointment, a feeling that the drama of a protesting poet is missing or that the death of a scavenger is not shown starkly, to evoke rage and sympathy. There was a feeling that the film did not tell a coherent story and that it ended quite abruptly.
Thinking back about the film – and you are inclined to think back about it and try to make sense of it though not exactly in the manner that the poet had said about recollecting emotion in tranquillity – you realise that there is a method in the refusal to dramatise, or even politicise, the protesting poet’s plight. It is not even an indictment of the unresponsive legal system where justice is perpetually delayed and the issue of justice merely disappears in the deadening routine. The viewer is not allowed to get angry because no one, not the judge, not the police officers, not the public prosecutor is portrayed as a villain.
And similarly, the protesting poet is no hero either. He is not writing or singing the protest songs because he is fired by this deep sense of injustice. He seems to do it as a matter of routine, a matter of habit. The words of his song reflect anger and anguish, but he remains clinically indifferent to the feelings himself. He does not harbour any sense of victimhood either. There is a similar sense of stoicism in the wife of the man who dies in the sewer. She does not cry out against social injustice. The defense lawyer is no hero. Defending the accused poet is just another assignment for him.
Here is a story that has no heroes or villains, no drama and no politics. How can one make a film without any of the ingredients that are considered necessary to make a story interesting enough. There is no sign of brilliant cinematography. The frames are flat and they follow one another, with a little bustle thrown between long stretches of tedium. There is no cinematic virtuosity of sharp editing, no pleasing or unusual photo angles, indistinct music and a deliberately sedate screenplay. There is a temptation to call this anti-cinema cinema in the same way as there is anti-hero cinema or anti-hero novel.
But Tamhane has done things differently to make his point, and he is making a point. He is showing a composite picture of quotidian reality with its political, social, economic and cultural overtones. The protesting poet says that he does not remember the angry poem that the police accuse him of abetting the suicide of a scavenger whom he does not know, but he says that he may write that kind of angry poem. The scavenger’s who fled to her village after the death of her husband and who is brought back to take the witness stand says that her husband used to drink before getting down into the sewer to beat back the foul smell, and that the only precaution he had was to see whether a cockroach was peeping out from the sewer or not. If the cockroach showed up, he knew that there was enough oxygen down there. On the day the cockroach did not peep out, he would keep away from work. She tells the defense lawyer that she does not need monetary help but she wants a job.
The defense lawyer, despite the disaffection in the family, is better-off economically and socially compared to the public prosecutor who goes home in the local train and cooks a meal for husband and children. The judge goes to a beach resort along with his extended family and he does not remember a thing about the cases when he is away.
What has impressed the viewers is that the lives of the prosecutor, the defense lawyer and at the end that of the judge are shown, but which have nothing to do with the unfolding of the main story. The private lives of these cogs in the legal system can be seen as an oblique criticism. Tamhane refrains from any aesthetic indulgence. The actors are all inconspicuous, except Usha Bane, who plays the role of the wife of the dead scavenger and Geetanjali Kulkarni, who plays the public prosecutor.
There will be many who would see the film as a subversive political text, emphasising the call for revolution in its subtle portrayal of the dead scavenger's life through the narration of his wife and the unobtrusive character of the protest poet, who does not breath fire and brimstone once he is done with his song sung on the stage of a sparsely-attended street-corner party meeting.
The frames are flat, following one another in a tedious procession. There is no play of light and shadow. The light is uniformly dull. The deserted tenements where the scavenger's family stays and where the lawyer drops her off is nondescript. It seems that Tamhane is not looking to make any point through symbolism of any kind.
The non-narrative style is a reflection of drab reality, where nothing significant ever happens. There is no revolution. The judicial custody of the protesting poet means nothing either. The repression is bureaucratic. The police go about their work like meet worker-ants. There is a hint of randomness in it all, reality that does not gell, stories and individuals who drift on their own trajectories.
This does not seem to be the deliberate plan of Tamhane. There are indications that he had a political idea in mind. He began writing a script about the protesting poet and the dead scavenger and the lot of the deprived people with the politics of it all in mind. His intention in making the film was to make a political point.
The film seems to have come out differently. It is possible for the viewer to ignore the politics and look at the stylistics as the substance of the work. Most of the readings of the film have been politically-oriented. And these readings are not really off the mark. What is more interesting however is the flat tone, in the musical sense of the term, of the film. There are no sharp notes. The note never rises. It is always a notch down. It is the anti-aesthetics of “Court” that might endure, and it may even heighten the understated political comment implied in the film.

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