A supernaturalistic study in class, bureaucracy, and censorial stupidity, Chaitanya Tamhane's debut feature, Court, plants viewers in the plastic chairs of an Indian court of law as 69-year-old protest singer Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar) is tried for a crime he didn't commit by lawyers and a judge speaking a language, English, he doesn't understand. Accused specifically of singing antistate lyrics that the prosecutors claim goaded a sewer worker to suicide, Kamble is being railroaded for his history of troublemaking in song and in published materials — with a commanding voice, he denounces the pitiless systems that keep people like him in punishing poverty.
He's not actually in the movie, much. Instead, Tamhane reveals the public case for and against him, as well as the private lives of the lawyers making the arguments. Tamhane's camera is still but observant, the perspective what you would see if you were sitting in these rooms in a brace that prevented movement of your head. But what we observe is written and staged with rare power, even when it's just the prosecutor (Geetanjali Kulkarni) going through her dreary paces, reading aloud archaic laws (some colonial) against sedition. For the defense, Vivek Gomber is peppery, impassioned, rational, convincing, and sympathetic: He's persuasive railing against 19th-century precedent, demonstrating that the state's sole witness is a plant, and pressing for Kamble's release on bail as the proceedings grind on — the singer is old and in ill health, and it's unjust for him to rot in a cell while his guilt is still in question.
The trial is fascinating, especially in its low-key, offhand, undramatic ordinariness. At the margins, Tamhane offers glimpses of the rest of the docket: Early on, at an arraignment-like hearing, a judge calls out to citizens penned in the court's rear to raise their hands if they plead guilty to the charge of riding in a train's handicapped car; in the loftier session court where Kamble is tried, the judge dresses down the next litigant for failing to wear modest clothes — her blouse is sleeveless, so he will not hear her case that day.
But Court proves most illuminating when Tamhane contrasts public and private lives. Before the judge, those lawyers don something like Western formalwear, and it took me a few minutes to recognize that the nice commuter discussing the health benefits of multigrain bread was that pitiless prosecutor. Now in a sari, worried about dinner, chatting with a train passenger, she is more than a dutiful enforcer of a fusty, fearful bureaucracy. She's a mother trying to get by. We then see her with her family and at the theater and dishing with coworkers — when the Kamble case comes up in conversation, she complains about it like you would an annoyance at your job. She knows if he's found not guilty, he'll soon be back, charged with something else, so why not get him 20 years and be done with it?
The portrayal's not exactly sympathetic — the play she goes to see is a stridently anti-immigrant farce. But Court is wise about how those charged with maintaining systemic injustice are usually invested, first, in their own perseverance, which in this case means the perseverance of that system. She's not rich, and she has a family, and she holds the views of people like her. The defense attorney, by contrast, comes from money, and scenes of him outside the court could have been filmed any place on Earth where the well-off have their own groceries and nightclubs. The system has rewarded him, and he has the luxury to worry about people like Kamble. He's doing the moral thing, in court, but outside it, he seems kind of a prick.
Court is one of the strongest debut features in years. It stings us with the injustice of his wealth and leisure while the prosecutor scrapes by — and the protest singer languishes in jail.