Portrait of a murdered young woman

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned – this proverb, sometimes used in jest by men referring to an ex, sometimes said in all seriousness by men and women – flies in the face of all recorded evidence about relational violence across the world. If Chennai techie Swathi’s case is anything to go by, there doesn’t even need to be a relationship, but a mere obsession, and a spurned man can decide to kill you.

 

I had been mulling about this piece since Swathi’s family first came out with an appeal to not tarnish her character, but wanted to wait till the culprit was caught. Now that Ramkumar has been arrested, one hopes, the police builds a water tight case against him and secures justice. But Swathi’s death has burst the bubble most of us urban women live in, a world where the woman has agency. It has proved once again that it is the woman’s sexuality (character for the more morally inclined) that trumps everything, even death.

 

One can’t really blame Swathi’s family for spending more time talking about her character than raging about public apathy or the need to catch a killer who has exposed the lack of safety in Chennai’s middle class neighbourhoods. Their fears were proven right each time after all. When a young woman is murdered in India, if she is unmarried, the first things that come to everyone’s mind is a rape attempt gone awry or a stalker (jilted lover is a euphemism just like eve teasing, please don’t use it). The unfortunate part is that whichever be the case, it is considered to be the girl’s fault. If a girl raises an alarm about a stalker, she is first asked if she smiled or spoke to him a lot and encouraged him somehow. Or she is asked if she angered him somehow. The onus is always on the girl. One doesn’t know if Swathi’s family buys this argument, but they surely knew that the society jumps to this conclusion, hence the fervent appeals to not tarnish her.

 

In this twisted world of patriarchal assumptions, a girl’s life is worth less than perceived assault to her character. An FB post was circulated all across Tamilnadu within days, where a deranged boy had posted that all girls who betrayed lovers should be killed like Swathi – the underlying assumption, that every man is entitled to romantic reciprocation. Yet another Whatsapp message circulated, claimed responsibility for her murder, slandering her with exaggerated claims of her love life. Fed up with all this, Swathi’s sister, whose own life had come under scrutiny, wrote a well-meaning, if misguided note on FB, talking of how her sister was a pious girl, always visiting temples, always saying her prayers. Her post underlined the cultural narrative that bad things happen only to bad girls. We only have to look at Suzette Jordan’s case to understand what happens when bad things happen to a girl whom society deems bad. Which is why when bad things happen to normal girls, everyone has to overemphasise her goodness, we have to give her names like Nirbhaya.

 

Then of course, gossip mongers got to know about Swathi’s male friend. That this male friend was Muslim and was close enough to have come to the crime scene when the police reached, seemed to be enough for the rumour mongers to make claims of love jihad. Wild allegations were made about how being upper caste meant she wouldn’t get justice in caste conscious Tamilnadu. One piece even went on to talk of how her body was not touched because she was a Brahmin girl who cannot be sullied by the hands of commoners, even in death. Both sides of the caste divide did their best to exploit this; to what end, only they know best. As for the religion angle, less said the better.

 

The accused Ram Kumar comes across as a loner who perhaps bought into the narrative that every man is entitled to the love of the woman he fancies. Moreover, romantic companionship is perceived to be the only companionship worth having and also the one that solves all the other problems in one’s life.

 

The conversations around Swathi’s murder have proved once again that we delude ourselves when we are surrounded by people like us, that women have progressed in our country. The truth is agency and consent are still mostly only available to men.

 

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Too poor to afford the mall culture

In 2013, Honey Singh’s Blue hai paani song played everywhere. I had heard the song several times but not seen it, until one day I ended my TV withdrawal phase and switched on a music channel. There in front of me was the biggest reason I realised I didn’t want to be a teenager or a really young adult in the present. Whatever YRF and Karan Johar I had seen in the 90’s had already messed me up and it wasn’t even this lavish. I remember thinking to myself, Oh my God, if I were 13 now, I would resent my middle class background because it would mean I would never party like those kids in Blue hai paani and I would also at the same time be bombarded with messages of how my life would only be perfect if I could say ‘photo meri kheench’ in the trendiest clothes beside said blue paani on a sunny din. I was reminded of this recently when a Buzzfeed article about the so called Urban Poor went viral. The article had a resonance because everyone starts out with a low pay. But something was missing.

Then my friend Alison shared it on FB saying that Buzzfeed was being a tad insensitive to the ones who are actually dirt poor. Then I realised what was nagging at me. The author did not really condone the culture that was forcing youngsters to keep up appearances. She was saying that it is the way things are and so she feels sorry for these kids who have to go without just so that they can afford to have a car and go to a fancy restaurant. She goes on to talk about how she notices what her juniors want and finances some of those wants but does not seem to be sitting down and talking to them about financial jurisprudence and being an example as a senior who would rather have that meeting at a chai ki tapri or Udipi than at a Starbucks. I do realise that the author’s intention was good when she wrote that piece, that is to underline the kind of mad rush to keep up appearances in our society today, but there is a fine difference between the privileged young people she talks of and ones like this youngster who had to face poverty because of sudden changes in her financial situation. You must empathise with ones stuck in situational poverty but it is a bit hard to feel sorry for ones who are only going broke to keep up with the Joneses.

But why keep up with the Joneses you may ask? And this is another aspect I wished the Buzzfeed piece had addressed more specifically. Sure there are references made to how the corporate culture demands certain things as a rite of passage but shouldn’t those be the things to be emphasised and ridiculed more? On FB and elsewhere I termed this as the desire to have an Instagramable life. There is immense pressure on the youngster today to be this ‘cool’ (whatever that is) person. In the current capitalistic and mall culture economy, ‘cool’ always means spending more and more money. ‘Cool’ is when you only have vacations abroad, when you watch movies only at multiplexes, your coffee is Starbucks and you can only party at Social. While earlier these things were done once in a while for special occasions, now the Instagram culture is all about doing it weekend after weekend, just so you appear ‘cool’.

More than a decade ago, I moved from my small town to study in a prestigious college that was a bit above our social strata. That was the first time I realised that my comfortable existence back home would have been termed a lower middle class existence in a cosmopolitan city. I was never openly discriminated against. But I genuinely couldn’t even go to Café Coffee Day those days as I couldn’t afford it. I remember having a daily budget, I think it was 75 rupees for all 3 meals of the day.I did miss out on bonding sessions/project meetings that were held at places I couldn’t afford. None of my classmates were obnoxious enough to say I was a loser because I couldn’t splurge but sometimes there would be remarks like oh you are so studious and boring, loosen up a little won’t you. Again, while at that time it seemed to feel bad, now I look at it and realise these were pretty vanilla statements by people who just defined fun as how they saw it. It was not necessarily a mean indictment.

But things were much worse when I started working. There is a silent judgement and bullying in the capitalistic corporate culture that requires you to be a brand slave. You are supposed to have business lunches at places you wouldn’t normally go to, wear labels. You are supposed to fit in with the crowd that had  a foreign education and that still ends up borrowing money from their parents despite a 6 figure monthly salary. You are supposed to have the same kind of depth of understanding of wine and cheese that someone who dined at 5 stars from a young age has.

When you start working in an industry that is considered elite, like media or banking for example, you enter with the misconception that these people who have had more opportunities and exposure than you, will actually be liberal and empathetic. But you are shocked to realise that in the boardroom it is a class war all over again and the school bullies have actually got worse with age and affluence. Hence I spent most of my 20’s not feeling enough. It was hard to convince myself that compared to where I started in life, whatever I was doing was an improvement, perhaps even an achievement. It didn’t feel that way and I had enough interactions with fellow humans who didn’t let me forget I was monetarily worth less than them. Imagine being told by someone that they wished they had invested the money they spent on buying a birthday gift for you? Imagine what that does to you when said person knows your financial status intimately?  Yes, that happened to me.

Irrespective of all this, I wouldn’t call myself Urban Poor neither then nor now. I also don’t think I was particularly brave to have come slowly to the next level of financial security. I just did what I had to, to survive. Perhaps my parents were even worse off at my age. There were many things I couldn’t afford those days, some of those I can afford now. But there are several others things I can’t afford even today. I still feel insecure about being able to tackle financial emergencies. But so do several others, some even poorer than me.

The problem is that the current culture of social media one upmanship has blurred the differences between wants and needs. Every desire therefore is now a need without which you are not ‘living your full potential’ or ‘not chasing after your happiness enough’. Your life is not good enough unless you are able to curate it and present it like this brilliant exhibition of good times. This also explains the rise of the get rich quick schemes and how even well educated people fall for it. Of course, every problem need not be treated with the argument that there are children dying in Somalia so you cannot complain. But you also can’t feel sorry when Mukesh Ambani complains about high tax rates.

The problem with the Buzzfeed piece is it wants me to believe that one cannot resist peer pressure. One can and it will suck when you resist it, but you will be better off mentally and financially for it. The society too needs to stop judging, after all you wouldn’t feel compelled to keep up with the Joneses unless the Smiths were constantly judging you on it. Also, it takes just a few seniors and bosses to make the change and become the kinds who shun the established corporate culture under their watch, why not be one of those, rather than feeling sorry for that junior? I am sure as a boss or senior you can afford that?

 

The passion Tamasha

The movie Tamasha has been hailed for the theme of finding oneself and following that elusive thing called passion. Interestingly, films and other forms of popular culture always equate passion with a creative field. Equating passion with say, what happened in Pursuit of Happyness is a rare thing. It is tough to make a story about a stock broker, staring into his computer for hours before making a kill at the market. Or a movie about the endless powerpoint presentations MBAs have to make (which has been ridiculed a lot in Tamasha). A movie on number crunching on excel sheets, no thank you. And where is the dramatic arc in the story of the guy who sits at the ticket counter punching out train tickets for you? And yet, are these lives not important?

In the recent years, there is this over emphasis, if you will, on following one’s passion. If you look at who talks the most about passion, then it is self help and start up bloggers, who, hello, are trying to make a living selling that idea (or a book/product) to you. That might sound too cynical, but there is a small grain of truth in it. And almost all of them will ask you to quit your job right this minute. Now lets not get this wrong, passion is a good thing to have. But the way it is being presented as panacea these days is bordering on toxic.

What a lot of the passion stories fail to talk about is the hours of plain old hard work and putting your nose to the grind that comes before the proverbial success. The stories in popular mass media end with the first book/music concert/acting gig, a bit like how famous romances of yore always ended in both the protagonists dead. No tallying bills, looking after snotty kids for Romeo and Juliet please. And similarly no bills again for our fictional heroes and heroines who followed their passion, they just do their thing and walk into the sunset.

Anyone who followed their passion successfully or otherwise would tell you it didn’t solve everything. That there were days when they didn’t jump out of their bed excited about work. That there were days when they worried if they would make pay day. That there were days when they were just bored. That there were days when they were so swamped that they wondered if they did the right thing by jumping into it. Some may never regret it, some may regret and even quit and it doesn’t matter.

What this lopsided representation does is create a lot of people who shall suffer from expectation hangover (a fine term coined by Christine Hassler). It creates this expectation that if it is your passion, you shouldn’t have to struggle, thereby making it all the more harder for those who do venture out. You see talent is not scarce. A lot of those who venture out actually have that level of talent. But when it comes to daily survival, a lot depends on your financial backup, the network you were born with or managed to build and your own emotional capability to go in for the long haul.

Quitting traditional fields and striking out on your own is in itself emotionally draining. Suddenly you find yourself alone, even if your deviation is just about not joining the family business. It takes great amount of courage to start and that is in itself commendable. But then so is just sticking to your job. In fact, life, whether you chose the well worn road or the one less travelled is never easy. But being told that passion means joy every day, every minute is only going to create more space for terrible disappointment.

The follow your passion or start your own company bogey also ties in nicely with the current economic scenario. If everyone who gets laid off or is unable to find their footing in the work place, can somehow be convinced that it is all upto them to now find something for themselves, then corporations and countries can be let off the hook somewhat. Empathy can take a walk. In fact, there is enough blame-y literature telling people they are not worthy human beings if they didn’t do something about their passion. If one tries to infuse a bit of practicality into the argument, one is likely to be chastised for not having faith.

The trouble though is that culture really hasn’t evolved enough despite all this to let people be. Earlier the dominant narrative was that of getting a job, keeping it and eventually retiring; only now it has been replaced by the passion narrative. Now the ones who stick to 9-5 jobs for whatever reason are the ones facing stigma, which was earlier reserved for the ones who broke the norm. It is merely replacing one norm with the other.

What is important perhaps to remember more than anything is that every life counts. That guy who delivers your newspaper, he may not have some grand passion, he just works day after day to take care of himself and his loved ones. That superstar you all envy, he may have all the fame, may travel to the best of places, but at the end of the day, he too does what he does to take care of himself and family. One must strive to have a better life for sure, but also take pleasure in the seemingly small achievements that add up to build one’s own life. What is important is to know that every life on this planet counts whether they live it examined or unexamined.

The girl who wouldn’t die

For almost 3 months now the life of an average Mumbai reporter has been taken over by the Sheena Bora murder case. It has been excruciating to deal with the various macabre details coming out of what was clearly a ruthless murder where the murderers had unshakeable faith that the girl had to go.

I have always been fascinated by how those who commit crimes rationalise it in their heads. What happens inside the head and heart of a person who decides that they have to kill and that the killing is justified. This was no accidental self defense killing, this was planned, this was considered the best way to deal with things by certain individuals.

Just a day after it was filed, some of us got a summary of the chargesheet filed by the CBI and a few days after that my bureau chief Megha Prasad accessed more details including some witness statements from the chargesheet. What emerged was the story of a girl, whom Indrani and her cohorts tried to eliminate, but she just wouldn’t go away.

According to the chargesheet, Indrani had had Mikhail and Sheena very early in life and she had given them in the care of her own parents. Years later when she married Peter and her pictures appeared regularly in Page 3 sections, her parents called her and said they were getting old and financially weak and to please take care of the children. The chargesheet mentions atleast two instances even this early when Sheena was administered sedatives. Despite all this, Sheena eventually came to Mumbai and started staying with the Mukherjeas. Indrani’s other daughter Vidhie recalls this was around the time when she was in std 3 and that both Sheena and Mikhail were introduced as Indrani’s sister and brother respectively to everyone.

Sometime later Rahul and Sheena entered into a relationship and they intended to get married. This was the beginning of a lot of friction. Both Rahul and Vidhie note several heated exchanges between Indrani and Sheena over the relationship. Both acknowledge that Peter knew about the mother daughter relationship since 2009. Sheena tries to reason out and even writes an emotional email asking Indrani shouldnt her happiness be what is important. Indrani the CBI claims then changes tack, tries to be accepting of the relationship and makes a show of rebuilding the relationship to build up to the dinner meeting with Sheena the night she was murdered.

After they disposed off the body the murderers must have thought Sheena is gone, their problems solved. But most exchanges amongst the family state that the convenient explanation of Sheena having gone to the US is not bought by most.

So far we do not know exactly what Peter thought. He only once said that Sheena was a taboo topic in his marriage to Indrani so he never raised it much. Rahul of course was the first to question and he kept on questioning for a long time. He went to 4 different police stations with no results. Police told him that since Sheena was an adult and had gone with her mother they couldnt do anything else. Why he didn’t file a habeas corpus is something we wonder though.

Vidhie also it seems was fond of Sheena somewhat. She was too young to understand most of what was going on. The first time she got to know Sheena was perhaps her sister and asked Indrani about it, Indrani shouted at her and said Rahul is telling lies to separate Indrani and Peter. After Sheena’s alleged murder, Vidhie gets an email from a fake account set up by Indrani posing as Sheena wishing her on her birthday. Around new year Vidhie tries to contact Sheena and wish her and with no reply forthcoming she mentions this to Indrani. What happens next is really twisted. Indrani posing as Sheena writes to Vidhie sometime late January accusing the young girl of lying. She berates Vidhie saying even she didnt respond to the birthday wishes and that her lies have caused enough confusion and so she should stop.

Even Sheena’s friends dont stop asking around. There are enough murmurs and a recent story by Midday states that despite telling everyone that Sheena was in the US, Indrani and Peter did contact a senior official informally as late as 2013 saying Sheena was missing but they later told the police she had been traced. This obviously was an attempt by Indrani to show she was concerned too.

In 2015 when Vidhie was deciding whether to study in the US or UK, Indrani even told her that Sheena being in the US could help her settle. This despite her having told the girl not to contact Sheena anymore.

On several occasions during the 3 years before the case was cracked, Indrani faced uncomfortable questions from near and dear ones and from those who knew Sheena. It is perhaps a mix of a sense of denial or the modern ‘busy’ness in our lives that a few emails here and there and a couple of fake FB posts could lull people into not digging deeper. The murderers thought Sheena died, but she lived on in the infrequent but continuing questions of those who knew her. She lived on in the emails, smses and various other digital evidence drummed up to stop those questions. They killed her, but she refused to die.

P.S. we are yet to read the entire chargesheet, this is based on what we have read so far

 

 

 

The Stockholm syndrome of a stake out coverage

My earliest memory of a stake out for a story gone wrong is of back when Lalit Modi (I hope he won’t tweet about this now) was still IPL commissioner. Modi would keep flitting in and out of Mumbai and on this particularly unfortunate day, when he was expected to react to something the BCCI had done, he was lodged at the Four Seasons in Mumbai. By a quirk of fate, yours truly, had the job of standing outside Four Seasons on a hot and humid May day waiting to see if Lalit Modi might drive by the gates, hopefully lower the car glasses, and give a reaction when one put the mic in front of him. That was not to be. And I spent an entire day along with another channel reporter, staking out at the Four Seasons gate. Any area near a 5-star hotel is supposed to be kept pristine, which means there were no food outlets, nothing except a chai tapri nearby, which is of no use as such on a hot and humid day. We spent the entire day hungry, somewhat thirsty, scoping out each Mercedes that drove out of Four Seasons. At around 8 in the night, our bosses felt it was enough and we left the place. To our utter chagrin, sometime in the night, Lalit Modi, broke his silence on Twitter, declaring that he had had a relaxing day at the Four Seasons spa!!

A stakeout or chowkidaari, as it is referred to in journalistic slang, is a phenomenon of the 24/7 news business and is quintessentially TV. A reporter and cameraman are expected to stand at a place where dramatis personae of the story are expected to be or expected to arrive and watch every movement around the area. It is as taxing physically as covering an election/protest rally, but somewhat less rewarding emotionally because an outcome is not guaranteed. At the end of a stake out you may or may not get a visually exciting story or sound bite, but you have to wait nevertheless. Veterans in Mumbai are likely to tell you stories of the great stake out outside the hospital when Pramod Mahajan was battling for life for 12 days after being shot, or of the time the 93 trial was on and Sanjay Dutt was in and out of jail. Stake outs are not as hazardous as papparazzi style chases, which has caused bodily harm to many a photographer and video journalist. But the odd tearing of clothes and pulling of a muscle is common, so is the possibility of dehydration and starvation.

The recent Indrani case was an example of a prolonged stake out. The story played out from 3 main locations, the Khar police station, the Worli residence of the Mukherjeas and the Bandra court. Reporters were deputed almost 20 hours a day on these locations. When I had just started journalism, channels had enough reporters to afford stake outs in 2 shifts. But today every channel in Mumbai has less than half a dozen reporters, which means any given reporter spends 12-16 hours at a stakeout, talking on national TV non stop, with very little time for breaks. While you are talking, you also have to keep an eye out for who is coming and going, you are not to miss shots or bites, you are also supposed to speak to your sources to get newsbreaks and generally be alert and coherent enough to make sense on national TV. The viewer who shall question you on social media is not bothered that you have been out in the sun for 10 hours already when he spots that grammatical error in the sentence you just spoke, or that this is the 10th day in a row that you have been pulling 16 hour shifts. It is simply not his concern and perhaps you cant blame him for wanting consistent quality for the cable money that he has paid.

In this particular case, the only place with food outlets close by was the Bandra court. The Khar police station had nothing in the vicinity except a college stall that sold wada pav and samosa pav and cold drinks, the staple Mumbai diet of any stake out. Outside the Mukherjeas Worli residence, the only recourse was the Traffic police headquarters canteen, which served lunch.

Stake outs are sometimes inconvenient for female journalists because most of the times there is no ladies wash room around. There are times when female journalists don’t pee the entire day during a stake out because there is no proper place. One day I had to request the Khar police to allow me to use the lady officers’ rest room at 10 pm, but with the suspects in the same police station, the police didnt want to allow any journalists anywhere in the station complex. It took a bit of convincing by a male colleague before they let me use the loo, but a female constable was standing right beside the door and told me not to latch it. Desperate times. At the Worli residence, the Traffic headquarters was more co-operative.

But its not all gloomy on a stake out. Mostly it is the rare occasion when we meet our cohorts from other channels and some newspapers in months. In the brief breaks when the channel is on a commercial or some other breaking political news has taken over, everyone tries to catch up. You exchange stories related to the coverage at hand and also about personal victories and losses. After mobile cameras became a reality, it is also the time when you get FB pictures for an entire week clicked. All this in the hope that it will make the endless wait more bearable. Many enduring friendships have started on such stakeouts, a few successful and a few not so successful romances too. Industry gossip is exchanged, some bitching about work is done. There is a sense of bonhomie, an empathy of shared suffering.

In a stake out, the reporters are hostage to the news requirements of the situation. As you share half a sandwich and the last few drops from a water bottle with each other, you develop a sort of traumatic bonding with your cohorts. You want to leave the place, you dislike the disruption to your normal life a lot and yet you don’t want to miss out on that one visual or sound bite when it happens. It is some form of Stockholm syndrome. In fact, Stockholm Syndrome, perhaps defines the love hate relationship every TV journalist has to his/her job. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

Days later when the story somewhat cools down and you pass the same locations again while on a different shoot, you reminisce, you open your Facebook and check photos from the time, you perhaps contact one of those friends you haven’t met post that stake out. Whether a stake out made you a better TV journalist is debatable, but mostly you have material for a few blogs and many more stories to tell people over drinks. So, see you at the next stake out.

P.S. Apologies to residents in Khar and Worli for any inconvenience, we were just doing our jobs.

The unsung heroes of the Salman trial

A lot has been written and said about the Salman trial and the various dramatis personae in it other than the actor. But this conviction could not have been possible without two unassuming and totally undramatic people – public prosecutor Pradeep Gharat and Judge D W Deshpande.

In the initial days court reporters were not entirely impressed with Judge Deshpande. He seemed mild mannered in front of actor Salman Khan and did not object to court staff bringing their kith and kin to catch a glimpse of Salman Khan. But over time it was evident that Judge Deshpande may be mild mannered, but he was firm on lefal points. In general judges are imposing characters, trying to show the lawyers their superior knowledge of law or just trying to be superior. Not Judge Deshpande. He would mildly intervene only if the arguments were veering off the issue of law. He would reprimand in his soft voice and he would side with whoever was right, be it the prosecution or the defence. Which is why it was no surprise when he came on verdict day and told Salman in a mild and factual voice – The court has concluded you were driving the car, all charges against you have been proven. There was no drama, no observations or rhetoric, no spouting of metaphors on law, just a plain sentencing. That this was a high profile case was almost muted the way he pronounced the judgement.

Almost matching Judge Deshpande in humility and sincerity was public prosecutor Pradeep Gharat. Gharat was brought in by the Mumbai police after some unsatisfactory turns in the case with the previous public prosecutor. He came into the case after the victims had already been examined which means he only had the other material and ancilliary witnesses to examine. Gharat says the police came to him during a lunch break and he filed his vakalatnama the same afternoon. From the very first day Gharat kept a friendly but low key profile. At no point was he overly dramatic. He never let on that this was a highly watched case, that it could raise his profile significantly. To every question he always had a smile. Gharat was also not deterred by the battery of lawyers from a big shot firm that Salman had hired. One of junior lawyers among this crowd would always laugh at Gharat’s pronounciation of English words. This lady lawyer would forever be giggling at him, enough to provoke even the most saintly amongst us, but through the year long trial there was only once that he reprimanded her. This lawyer with her fancy degree and fancy firm job still was no match for the vernacular bred but arguing in perfect legal language Gharat, but she perhaps couldnt really imagine that. In media interactions too Gharat would smilingly give an account of the day even when things would not have gone his way.

For Gharat and Deshpande there will be many more cases that will come and go. But for everyone who witnessed the trial from close quarters they will now be forever etched in memory as silent but effective officers of the court.

Court – a misleading title

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.