Edge-of-the-seat courtroom dramas are undoubtedly one of the most riveting genres across films, television and books. Sharp- suited lawyers, clever wordplay and a case that could go either way till the very end are usually what make us gravitate towards them. Strip a film of these dramatic elements, and what you get is Chaitanya Tamhane’s brutally honest debut feature, Court. This multi- lingual film is set in a stuffy lower court of Mumbai. The cases are petty, like that of a man accused of stealing his neighbour’s watch, and fighting them are dispassionate lawyers who speak in thick legalese. The scenes are long, often filled with silences, and the narrative moves slowly. Needless to say, this is not the kind of cinema Indian audiences are clamouring to watch on a weekend. As for viewers in the West, Tamhane feared that some of the themes he had explored were way too local to make a connection. “One is operating out of some kind of naiveté while making such a film,” says Tamhane, “We were treating this like our first and last film. We had a producer who’d given us his unconditional support, even though he knew its commercial prospects were zero. There was an acceptance that this is not going to set the box office on fire.” Last week, the film had a limited release in Maharashtra and a few metro cities.
The first-time producer is Vivek Gomber, 36, an actor who grew up in Singapore and also plays the role of a wealthy defence attorney in the film; after a long day of shooting, he’d slip out of his costume and put on the producer’s hat to sign cheques. If the film’s commercial prospects felt low, even critical acclaim looked difficult at first. A year ago, Gomber says, he was flooded with rejection letters from all the coveted film festivals across the globe. Among the first few outside India to see a rough cut of the film was a programmer from a top film festival. “She made notes like, ‘In the first 10 minutes, 20 people will walk out, and after 30 minutes, 40 people will walk out.’ She was genuinely concerned,” laughs Tamhane. The tide turned when the film was accepted by the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Lion of the Future Award for the Best First Feature. By the time we meet at the suburban office of Gomber’s company Zoo Entertainment—which, by Tamhane’s admission, is so inconspicuous that no one ever finds it—the film has picked up 19 awards, the most recent being the National Award for Best Film.
Tamhane sounds every bit the 28-year-old greenhorn indie filmmaker that he is. “We didn’t really want a studio to acquire us or a star to present the film,” he begins. He had learnt early that he was incapable of working under a boss—this was his big takeaway from his jobs at Balaji Telefilms and UTV Palador, both of which he had quit by the age of 20. In Gomber, who he had earlier directed in the play Grey Elephants in Denmark, he found a trusting friend and an ideal producer who would not meddle with his creative vision. “We did look for a co-producer initially, but it didn’t work out,” says Gomber, “We thought, ‘If it happens, great, or we’ll just do it ourselves.’ Obviously that meant we needed to have a lot of contingency plans. This is not a cheap film. We did not compromise on the integrity of the film. Those were the only rules of the game.”
The plan seems overambitious, even a tad arrogant, but makes sense when you see how things worked out for other films in a similar space. Consider the fate of NFDC-backed Qissa, which was released recently only in a handful of theatres after a two-year-long wait, or Kanu Behl’s Titli, which is still sitting with Yash Raj Films. “I didn’t want to do that to [Tamhane],” says Gomber, “I didn’t want to be that guy.”
Born and raised in a chawl near Century Bazaar in Central Mumbai, Tamhane has never trained at a film school, nor assisted a filmmaker. He started work at 18 as a writer at Balaji Telefilms to earn some pocket money while studying literature at Mithibai College. Tamhane has a short film, a documentary and a play to his credit, but Court is his first stab at a full-length feature film. His production designers hadn’t even set foot on a film set. The casting director was a first-timer as well. The biggest gamble was hiring regular people they found across offices, parks and slums as actors with major roles. The role of Narayan Kamble, a Dalit protest singer accused of abetting the suicide of a manhole worker, is played brilliantly by Vira Sathidar, the editor of Marathi magazine Vidrohi. A resident of the slums in Dahisar, Usha Bane plays the manhole worker’s widowed wife, whose performance has found mention in several reviews in the foreign press. The rest of the actors are singers, bank officials, doctors and members of senior citizen clubs in Poisar who sportingly took a few days off from work to be a part of this project. “It was a deliberate choice and the need of the narrative. It’s not like I couldn’t get actors to work in the film. But the film is very realistic in its tone, so if you get actors you’ve seen elsewhere, that illusion will completely fall apart,” explains Tamhane. It took 10 months and four rounds of auditions to whittle down a database of 1,800 people to 40. Since none of them had faced a camera before, they didn’t shoot more than one scene a day. It took them a minimum of 30-40 takes before they found their rhythm. “It was very exhausting,” says the director, “I had to put up a brave face for the actors. But internally, I would cry every day.”
The rigorous planning of three years that went into making the film is evident in every frame. And yet, there’s a certain detachment with which Tamhane speaks about cinema. To him, it’s the process of research that is valuable. He took considerable time visiting courts, interviewing lawyers and reading up on legal processes before attacking the script. It was an amusing incident involving a friend that lured him to the courts in the first place. “One of our friends needed to show some proof at a police station in the form of a printout. But the constables just didn’t know how to connect the printer. They couldn’t figure how to attach the wire. So for two hours, this went on,” he says.
It took one visit to the metropolitan court in Andheri and a sessions court in Goregaon to have him hooked. “Sometimes it was very funny, stranger than fiction. And sometimes it was scary to see how such grave decisions were being taken with an air of casualness to it,” he says of his court-hopping days. Amazingly, that’s exactly what one feels while watching Court. You laugh out loud when a judge refuses to entertain a woman’s case because she’s appeared in a sleeveless top, but are also disturbed when a harmless protest singer is locked up for months on end on charges that clearly have no merit.
The film is not merely a comment on India’s flawed judicial system. Tamhane also turns the lens on the lives of his characters beyond the courtroom, revealing the vast disparities in their lifestyles, beliefs and politics. “While researching it, I came across a lot of things that became difficult to ignore. Once you’ve seen something, you can’t unsee it,” he says. “It was a painful and interesting process for me because I was forced to form my own politics while I was writing.”
The same can be said of Tamhane’s previous works too. His short film Six Strands on the Indian tea industry was conceived during a trip to Darjeeling where he witnessed the miserable working conditions of estate workers. His 2006 documentary Four Step Plan was on plagiarism in Indian cinema. At the time, he was exploring world cinema, and he noticed how Indian filmmakers had liberally lifted so many of their stories. His play Grey Elephants in Denmark was about the world of magicians. For the past eight years now, Tamhane has been practising magic on his own. He even considered it as a career option when other avenues weren’t working out. It was during this clueless phase that Gomber offered him some money to develop a script. “He looked so sad and morose and he’s such an amazing, bright and sensitive human being. I told him to write freely. It’s very important to encourage people to create fresh ideas,” says Gomber.
Indian films haven’t had much of an impression on Tamhane. Even after much prodding, he struggles to come up with the name of at least one Hindi film that he truly admires. He doesn’t watch too many movies, he admits, despite having attended film festivals far and wide. However, the films that have moved him all belong to world cinema. “At Balaji, there were some of the most intelligent people who were having a mid-life crisis. They were there to pay the bills. It’s through them that I got introduced to Wong Kar Wai and Vijay Tendulkar,” he says. The film that changed his life was the Brazilian film City of God by Fernando Meirelles. “My mind was blown away to pieces.”
The idea of using non-actors in his film was borrowed from the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. His fascination with magic perhaps also has a similar source. “Some of the earlier filmmakers were all magicians,” he says. “There are so many similarities between magic and cinema. The characters in a film are, after all, an illusion we are creating.” If the magic of Court is anything to go by, it may be worth waiting for the other tricks Tamhane, already being hailed as one of India’s most promising young directors, has in store for us.