Note : some spoilers ahead
It was sometime in 2011-12 that I was assigned the court beat by my office. I had been to lower courts before but never covered them regularly. One of the first things any person who goes to an Indian court would notice is that they look and feel nothing like the courts Bollywood has told us exist. High court has some of the flowery language and the imposing structures, but most other courts are rooms with chairs lined up and a slightly raised platform for the judge; sometimes there isn’t even a proper witness stand, the accused just stand somewhere near the judge’s platform. High court was always a stimulating experience, intellectual Parsi (noted ones mostly Parsi in Bombay HC) lawyers all in flowing robes talking on points of law, making commentary on oddities of our lives and the judges leaning forward and listening to them as the AC hummed on. Sessions court on the other hand was a tough nut, trials didn’t start on time, they didn’t always follow the order mentioned on the notice board, there was no AC and there were too many criminals roaming the lobby accompanied by cops. Lawyers here were mostly vernacular.
As I spent time covering courts, any time I saw a movie scene showing courts, I would wonder if anyone would show courts as they are – the court staff shooing you away a mile ahead in the corridor if a judge was passing by, how each court room had stacks and stacks of papers that seemed to have hardly ever been taken out from that position, how journalists would sometimes use these stacks of papers to sit on when the court was full, how tareekh pe tareekh is not just a dialogue but something every journalist and lawyer buys a special diary to note in.
Jolly LLB tried to capture some bits about lower courts humourously, but Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court does more seriously. Your first introduction to the lower court is of a wide shot with a police van coming in and just in front of the van is a lawyer literally selling his services to a lady walking in – affidavit, notary I do everything ma’am. This is exactly what happens when you enter a lower court compound, the many salesmen lawyers, men and women who are just starting out follow you like tourist guides in Agra. That Tamhane shows this as his first shot of a court in the movie, shows how real he wants to keep this movie.
But I felt the title Court is a tad misleading. The movie doesn’t just talk of the trial, a better title would have been Humans of Mumbai. On one hand you have the folk singer, a dying breed and hence aptly an ageing man, on the other the suave pub going, supermarket shopping Gujarati lawyer. You have the middle class Maharashtrian prosecutor whose family cheers while watching a play on Marathi manoos and then you have the upper middle class judge who does his job as per law but believes in gem stones and goes on a summer vacation of the kind where families play antakshari on the bus and men discuss MBA salaries over drinks. And last but not the least you have the sewer worker’s wife, living in her squalid quarters, no charity for her, all she wants is a job now that the husband is dead.
While the starting point of the movie is the trial, the movie is more about a lived in reality. This reality is so relatable to anyone who has even fleetingly lived in Mumbai. While that is one of the biggest strengths of the movie, it can also be a drawback. Foreign audiences may relate to the complicated nature of governments and their attitudes to dissent but may not get the subtleties about life in a BDD like chawl or the references to mill workers and several cultural references. These are specific to Mumbai, a part of folklore in this city of Bollywood, but not elsewhere. I felt this about Maharashtra’s earlier Oscar nomination Harishchandrachi Factory also, some of the references were too local for an international audience. And yet, as some reviewers have already pointed out, it would be nice if the government selects Court for the Oscars next year.
As I walked out from the hall, that only had 20 people in attendance, on to the street, I noticed the pace of my walking, it felt as if I was a character in the movie. After all, I was living the same reality, walking the same streets, seeing the same conflicting narratives. After all, I am as of now, a human of Mumbai.