Court is a singular film and one of the most interesting and, despite being disturbing in its exposure of injustice, most enjoyable films released in the UK in 2016. It has been a prizewinner at festivals around the world and in 2015 was selected as best film in the Indian National Film Awards. Released by the independent distributor ‘day for night’ you can trace its journey across the UK on the company website. If you are in the UK there are still a couple of dates left on its tour. Don’t miss it! Court was released in North America in 2015 by Zeitgeist Films and is now on iTunes in the US.
Court is the first feature film by Chaitanya Tamhane. It’s an impressive production that is the result of meticulous research and preparation. Tamhane takes aim at the Indian judicial system, but also exposes issues of social class and caste. There are many Indian films that feature court scenes but these are usually high profile cases and the court procedures are only seen for a short time. No One Killed Jessica (India 2011) and Guilty (Talvar, 2015) are two recent films that have explored high-profile cases with the attendant interest of the Indian media. After lengthy research and observation of a local court, Tamhane decided to base his story on what happens in a ‘Sessions Court’ in a Mumbai district where cases are usually mundane with little interest by the media. As the name implies, these courts should deal with criminal matters within a single session, but in practice the use of adjournments and the culture of Indian bureaucracy means that cases can drag on for several months or even years while the accused is detained on remand – unless bail can be agreed and surety found. Tamhane wrote a detailed script based on his research but what transpires on screen appears as though it is part of a documentary.
The approach adopted by Tamhane and his crew is very simple – and thus unconventional. Cinematographer Mrinal Desai (who worked second unit on Slumdog Millionaire – a very different kind of film) ‘simply’ plonks down his camera and films in long takes (and often framing in long shot) from that position. It seems simple but requires careful choreography of actors and well-chosen positions from which to view the action. It perhaps sounds dull and although the film is in ‘Scope with vibrant colours, there aren’t many exciting vistas of Mumbai. Yet it works and more than that it works well. The film opens by following a character from an informal schoolroom in a housing block across the city to a square in another suburb. The character turns out to be a performer who climbs onto a makeshift stage and launches into a song/performance poem with lyrics that encourage protest and resistance. During the performance the camera first moves in to frame just the performance itself and then pulls back and, just like the classic scenes in a Rossellini neorealist film like Rome, Open City (Italy 1945), we watch in alarm as police enter the square with officers carefully positioned in the crowd while their leader strides onto the stage and arrests the performer. He is Narayan Kamble, the accused man whose trial we are about to witness.
The same camera style is employed throughout and often it is highly effective in creating that sense of realism often termed the ‘reality effect’. The fixed camera means that we are invited to watch everything that is happening without the framing ‘directing’ us to look specifically at the characters in the central narrative. The camerawork is accompanied by an editing style that works in two ways. Sometimes scenes end quite abruptly and the story seems to leap forward to the next scene. On other occasions the camera continues to film when the characters in the main story have left the scene and sometimes the sequence begins before the characters appear. This means in court that we see the tail-end of one case and the beginning of others. The overall effect is to confirm that what we are following in the main story is just one element in the daily life of the city.
Many of the actors in the film are non-professionals. Some are friends or colleagues of the director. Although the courtrooms look like the ‘real thing’ filming is not allowed inside them so Tamhane built sets – you aren’t likely to notice. The film’s story appears to have been based on a specific real life case, but there are many similar cases.
Finding the human story
A key aspect of the film is the focus on each of the central players (except the accused) – and their lives outside the court. We follow the judge and the prosecution and defence lawyers. The object of this is not so much to drive the narrative forward as to fill in the social context of the trial. All of the central characters are ‘real people’ outside the court with the kinds of problems that everyone has. Crucially the three characters represent different social strata.
The crime at the centre of the court case is frankly ludicrous and the prosecution is based on an obscure and obsolete Victorian criminal code. The purpose of the legal action is to persecute social activists – the kind of community music/poetry activism depicted is real enough and is explored in the recent documentary Jai Bhim Comrade (India 2011) by Anand Patwardhan which focuses on activism in Dalit communities (i.e. the lowest caste groups). Tamhane decides not to tell us about Narayan Kamble himself – apart from what is revealed in the court exchanges. The object is to expose the injustices and bureaucratic incompetencies of the court system. The ‘humanity’ of the film comes partly through the almost surreal humour that underpins certain scenes. Tamhane does not directly undermine any of his characters. Instead he invites the audience to come to their own conclusions (though he does decide what to show as well as how to show it).
The importance of language
The film uses four languages. The official languages of the court are Hindi and English. However, the working-class Mumbai communities use the local language Marathi (which, incidentally, has quite a strong local/regional film culture) which is allowed in court. The defence lawyer is a middle-class, upper caste man who takes the case much like a pro bono lawyer in North America. At home he speaks Gujarati with his family, but in court he speaks English – and is seemingly at a disadvantage with important defence witnesses who speak only Marathi. He speaks the local language but not fluently. Sometimes, characters use phrases from different languages in the same sentence – a common feature of Indian cinema. Do the judge and the prosecution counsel have an advantage in speaking three languages in court? Mumbai attracts migrants from across India so in some cases witnesses may not speak any of the three languages of the ‘Bombay’ court (as it is still officially known). The court system is clearly out of date and needs reform. The language question suggests that one of its chief problems is the lack of equal access to quite literally ‘speak’ in court.
The language of the judicial system is English and the archaic laws were introduced under the British Raj. They are now being used by Narendra Modi’s government to curtail the actions of political activists in much the same way the British curtailed political activity in the early 20th century. The three legal figures in court are all in one sense ‘middle-class’ which is a difficult concept in Indian society and in practice they live very different lives. The defence lawyer inhabits a global world of delicatessens and Western music bars with an income boosted by family wealth. The judge is part of a clubbable local community with its outings and social events. The prosecution lawyer has perhaps the most difficult job in managing both a professional life and her family – but this in turn perhaps makes her harder on the people she prosecutes. In the UK she might be a lower middle-class Tory, especially hard on working-class activists.
Court, in its quiet way, dissects and exposes the workings of contemporary India. It’s essential viewing.
The filmmakers discuss how the film came into being:
Here’s a good example of the new form of Indian cinema the (H)indie or ‘New Bollywood’ film. Talvar boasts two of the stars of crossover films in India in lead roles and a third in a cameo role. Irrfan Khan is now one of the best-known Indian stars worldwide after appearances in global blockbusters like The Life of Pi and Jurassic World, as well as both Indian independent and mainstream Bollywood films. Konkona Sen Sharma is known for Bengali films, Bollywood films and the independent films of her mother Aparna Sen. Tabu starred opposite Irrfan Khan in Mira Nair’s The Namesake (2006) and a host of other independent films as well as Bollywood films. Here she has a small role as the wife who Irrfan’s character is divorcing. The film is a directed by Meghna Gulzar with script and music from Vishal Bhardwaj, the director of acclaimed Shakespeare adaptations Maqbool (2003), Omkara (2006) and Haider (2014). Each of the three stars have worked with Bhardwaj before (Tabu and Irrfan Khan play the modern-day Macbeths in Maqbool) and Talvar appears as the production of friends who just happen to be Indian cinema aristocrats. I thought at first that this was a real ‘independent production’ because none of the major Indian (or Hollywood) media corporations was involved. Then I discovered that Junglee Films is actually the new ‘movie arm’ of the Times of India Group – which describes itself as “India’s biggest media corporation”, owning mainly print and broadcasting brands. This makes it surprising that the film has not so far been released in the UK and Junglee Films seeks to make films for ‘the diaspora market’ as well as the Indian film market. (See press notes.)
Talvar is what used to be known in Hollywood as a “torn from the headlines film”. In fact it is the fourth attempt to create a narrative inspired by a double murder case in Northern India in 2008. (See this Wikipedia page.) The story involves a dentist’s household in a ‘colony’ in the city of Noida – a modern planned city in the ‘Capital City Region’ of Delhi, known for its wealthy residents. When the cleaner comes in the early morning she finds the door locked and when she gets in she is faced with the distressed parents Ramesh (Neeraj Kabi) and Nutan (Konkona Sen Sharma) who have seemingly just discovered the body of their 14 year-old daughter lying on her bed with her throat cut. The police are called and an investigation begins – but it is not until some time later that a second body, the male household servant, is found on the roof terrace. The film then proceeds with what is often now referred to as a ‘Rashomon approach’ following Kurosawa Akira’s famous film in which the same incident is viewed from the several different perspectives of the characters involved.
The first investigation by the Uttar Pradesh Police is clumsy with evidence not collected, lost or damaged and a second investigation is ordered by the Central Bureau of Investigation. This team is led by Ashwin Kumar (Irrfan Kahn) a brilliant detective with some odd habits. His investigation offers a different suggestion as to who is guilty but he is then taken off the case and a second CBI team with another rather odd detective takes over and produces a third version of what actually happened. Finally, the new CBI Chief tries to make sense of what the three investigations have achieved before a judge takes over and prosecutes the parents.
The film is 132 minutes long – about standard for a Hollywood procedural with a similar plot. I did notice a point in the narrative where an ‘Intermission’ might have been placed for the Indian release. The film does use songs, but in the Western mode such as playing over a montage and not in the Bollywood manner, effectively pausing and reflecting on the narrative with choreographed dance moves. The film also has more of a sense of an ensemble cast, so that the stars are not constantly on screen. The question is whether Irrfan Khan’s star status (and undoubted on-screen charisma) means that we believe his character’s version of the events of the murder more than we do the others. This is important because the audience (in India at least) knows that the parents are in prison.
It isn’t difficult to see why the film has created so much interest in India. As well as the intriguing puzzle of a version of the old ‘locked room’ murder case, the film offers a form of commentary on several aspects of contemporary Indian society. The Indian police have a very bad reputation for brutal treatment of suspects, the senior officers and government officials are depicted as covering for each other as part of a club culture and the perennial question of Indian bureaucracy comes up in relation to evidence. A more specific discourse here deals with a Nepalese migrant community in North India where suspicion of minorities from the North and East appears rife (the dead house servant is Nepalese). And in all of this the divorce of Ashwin and Reema (Irrfan Khan and Tabu) seems particularly poignant. I have seen stories which involve campaigns to investigate murders and seek redress and I’ve seen films which depict legal procedures in India but I don’t think I’ve seen a detailed police procedural before and not one that involves family relationships in this way. The media coverage/intrusion seems almost lost in the midst of everything else. It’s almost as if there is too much to fit in and I would like to see the film again to fully understand how it works. I’m sure, however, that this is a very important film and I hope a UK distributor decides to pick it up.
Charlie has been designated a ‘superhit’ by Indian commentators – an indication that its reception by audiences and critics should lead to success after its launch on Christmas Eve in Kerala and January 8th in the UK. That sounds an obvious point to make but the Indian convention of designating films in this way is unusual and not necessarily based on ‘real’ box office figures. I can only give a limited response since, despite assurances by the distributor, the film was not subtitled at Cineworld in Bradford. Fortunately, the outline narrative is straightforward. ‘Tessa’ (Pravathy) is a young graphic designer who arrives home for her brother’s engagement party to discover her mother plotting to arrange her daughter’s (i.e. her) marriage. Tessa escapes to Kochi (Cochin) where she finds a flat in an old house. It is filled with an amazing array of art objects and clutter and eventually Tessa finds a draft of a graphic novel (pictures only) which seems to tell the story of a magical ‘do gooder’ character. We see the ‘real’ events featuring ‘Charlie’ (Dulquer Salmaan) as Tessa reads the draft. Tessa will then seek out Charlie, not finding him until the end of the narrative, but having learned to love him through the stories that she discovers from the other people whose lives have been affected by Charlie.
Without the dialogue, there is always the music and action to enjoy, the local ‘colour’ and beautiful landscapes and in this instance the costumes – bohemian and hippie, drawing on the Malabar Coast’s tourist history perhaps. Kerala is certainly in my top 3 most beautiful places in the world and the film spends plenty of time in Kochi’s ‘old town’ and then up in the mountains in Munnar (with the tea plantations). I understand that some of the scenes on the sands were shot in Gujarat. The narrative is also careful to honour the three religions of the state so there are scenes with Christian, Muslim and Hindu festivals. The film is suffused with ‘magical’ elements. Charlie performs magic tricks and CGI features heavily in some of the music scenes. But there are also terrific scenes shot to capture the crowds, especially in the closing festival sequence in which, as the title at the beginning of the film informed us, “no elephants were harmed”. The song clip below accompanies a montage in which Parvathy’s character begins to enjoy the strange room she has rented.
I can’t comment on the romance (or the numerous sub-plots) without some knowledge of the dialogue, but I enjoyed all the performances. It was good to see Dulquer Salmaan again after OK Kanmani and Parvathy was equally impressive. She is another Southern actor who is more ‘real’ (i.e. less fantasy) than many Bollywood stars. Her personality shines through. Again, unlike some Bollywood films, Charlie takes place in a recognisable India. However, the narrative does focus on some of the more touristy spots in Kerala – which has its big, modern cities just like other leading states. Although definitely a romance, the film does include some fight scenes and dramatic moments – not everything Charlie does has a positive outcome, even if his intentions are good. For a more informed view of the film, look at this English language review from Australia. The blogger either knows Malayalam or she has actually seen the subtitled version.
At Bradford Cineworld last night you could choose between 2 Hindi films, 2 Malayalam films and one Pakistani film in Urdu. Often there is a Tamil film too (it was Pongal last weekend and several Tamil films were released in the UK). We have a local Malayali community in the Bradford district and they occupied the back rows of the cinema (I was on my own nearer the screen). The Malayalam screenings are a relatively recent development in Bradford cinemas, I think. I had a similar experience with How Old Are You? in 2014 but that was a different distributor – and a different kind of film. The website of PJ Entertainments, distributors of Charlie, seems to suggest that they were active in the UK from 2010 until 2014 but returned in January 2016 with a new slate of releases. They need to sort out their operation quickly. When I asked why the film wasn’t subtitled (the film’s credits even list the person responsible for the English subtitles) the Cineworld duty manager said that they had received the ‘hard drive’ but no subtitle track. I didn’t mention that the projected film had also suffered from vertical thin blue lines running through many scenes – a fault in the DCP I assume. It’s great that distributors release films for diaspora audiences, but they could do much more to attract other audiences and getting subtitling sorted out would certainly help. I won’t be put off. I did enjoy Charlie and I’ll look out for other titles that sound attractive – but having to check with the distributor and the cinema first is a drag. As a personal preference, I rate South Indian films highly and I’d like to see them competing with mainstream Hindi films in the UK. For most of the cinephiles I know, South India with four prolific film industries remains almost unknown and that’s a shame. Charlie director Martin Prakkat has a couple of earlier films that sound interesting.
Here’s the trailer for Charlie:
Bajirao Mastani is currently racking up admissions worldwide. I was drawn to it for two reasons. It stars Deepika Padukone and there have been (unsuccessful) attempts by activists to censor it in some way. The latter is not unusual but in this case seemed to revolve around communalist politics. I enjoyed Bajirao Mastani but I’m glad I read up a little on the history of the Maratha Empire in the 18th century before the screening and I admit that my experience of Hindi historical films is limited, so I probably missed some meanings as well as the cultural import of the music and dancing.
Bajirao (played by Ranveer Singh) was at 19 the eldest son of his family on the death of his father, the peshwa or prime minister of the Maratha Empire in 1720. He proved himself to the court and replaced his father, becoming a successful warrior who took on the Mughals and their governors (such as the Nizam of Hyderabad) to the North, South and East in order to expand the Maratha territory from what is now Marahashtra across much of Northern, Western and Central India. The empire reached its greatest extent towards the end of his son’s leadership in 1758. A few years later its power was challenged by the British. Director and co-writer Sanjay Leela Bhansali begins his film by acknowledging help from historians but but also offering a disclaimer stating that he is not claiming historical accuracy as the basis for his story. What this means is that some military actions have been ‘moved’ chronologically and that others (the majority) have simply been ignored so that what begins with the suggestion/promise of an action picture becomes a palace-bound romance and melodrama of intrigue and plotting. The crucial decision is to focus on Bajirao’s relationship with Mastani (Deepika Padukone), the daughter of the ruler of Bundelkand in North Central India after he was freed from the threat of Mughal occupation by Maratha armies. The historical Mastani sounds like the ultimate fantasy Hindi cinema heroine – a trained court dancer also adept as a horsewoman and educated in arts and literature. Deepika Padukone makes a brave stab at convincing us that she can do all these things. It seems likely that Mastani was the daughter of a Rajput father and a Persian dancer and therefore brought up to respect both Hinduism and Islam. This did not go down well with Bajirao’s family. Nor did the fact that Bajirao was already married to Kashibai (Priyanka Chopra). In several ways, the most powerful character is Bajirao’s mother who orchestrates the systematic exclusion of Mastani within Bajirao’s household.
Watching the film I was reminded of two Zhang Yimou films. The classic melodrama Raise the Red Lantern (HK/Taiwan/China 1991) sees Gong Li as the youngest concubine in the household of a warlord in the 1920s attempting to survive and prosper as the ‘fourth mistress’. In Curse of the Golden Flower (HK/China 2006), Gong Li is this time the Empress who is being poisoned by her husband and who plots to take power herself with the aid of her son. I mention these two films because I think that there needs to be more attention to the links between Indian and Chinese cinemas and I think it helps to understand how narrative ideas develop. I’m not suggesting that Bhansali consciously used Yimou’s films but perhaps he responded to similar cultural mores in the households of Asian ruling families. Bhansali’s decision to spend more time on palace intrigue and less on military manoeuvres is important. Whether the balance between the romance and the drama works is open to debate. Some audiences have complained that the romance is not allowed to develop fully. For me, the strength of the film is the presentation of Kashibai who maintains her love for Bajirao and who brings herself to support Mastani as best she can because of that love for her husband – and because it is the right thing to do? This is contrasted with the actions of her mother-in-law Radhabai who faces the same dilemma but is more wedded to the survival of the family.
The controversy surrounding the film seems to derive from attempts by activists to try to ‘own’ the historical story in terms of what it suggests about the Hindu and Muslim figures in the story. Hindu activists argue that Bajirao led his armies in a campaign to win India back from the Mughal invaders and to establish/re-establish a Hindu state. The film narrative shows Bajirao devoted to his Muslim lover and to their son and Bhansali provides dialogues in which he argues for love ahead of religion – the narrative clearly sides with Mastani in her internal exile rather than the family’s aversion to admitting a Muslim. Bhansali does seem to be addressing contemporary issues (so Mastani has a speech in which she refutes the easy identification of saffron and green as the colours of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’). If I understand Indian history correctly, all of the armies of the imperial powers included Hindus and Muslims – and no doubt other religions and other nationalities. Most territorial wars do.
Whatever audiences make of the romance or the intrigue, or indeed of the music and choreography, most of them will enjoy the production design of this film which seems to meld ‘real’ locations, studio sets and CGI very well. For older audiences there will be a real frisson created by some of the scenes in the ‘hall of mirrors’ that surely must be an hommage to Mughal-e-Azam from 1960. I also thought one of the night-time outdoor dances was designed to invoke the earlier film as well. I can’t comment on the actors’ handling of the dialogue but in terms of their movement and use of their bodies, Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh are very impressive. Overall, I’m not surprised that this film has become a major hit across Indian diaspora territories. It’s worth noting too that amidst all the discussion of roles for women in Hollywood films, this film features three roles for women out of the four leads in the narrative.
Here’s the official trailer (with subtitles):