I hadn’t heard of Court (Chaitanya Tamhane, 2014) until it made the cut for India’s offering to the Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Film category. I saw it recently at Bangalore’s Experimenta Film Festival, as part of a special program exploring “Politics of Form” – looking at how filmmakers use film form as a visual conduit, if you will, of their personal politics.
Tamhane’s filmic manifesto checks all the expected boxes: socialism – tick; freedom of speech – tick; India’s painfully sluggish court system – tick; corrupt law enforcement – tick; class systems – tick; upper-middle class sensibilities – tick; infuriating bureaucracy – tick. Even lampooning superstitious beliefs gets a big old heavy-handed tick in a scene where your average middle-class middle-aged middle-weight middle-intellect middle-India man implores his friend to change his mute son’s name to something more auspicious to get the damn kid to talk (I wonder if there are ways to reverse the process and mute the unmuted?). Halfway through the film we’ve got a pretty good idea of where Tamhane is coming from and where he’s going, but what comes as a surprise to us, and quite possibly Tamhane as well, is what we’ve learned about his politics of gender.
I caught up with Vivek Gomber, actor and producer of Court, outside the screening to ask him if their depiction of women in the film was something they had consciously and deliberately constructed. His answer was underwhelming (my fault, not his, for being disappointed in his dismissal of my reading). It wasn’t, he told me, and they weren’t trying to say anything about women in India. Not intentionally, anyway. He paraphrased writer-director Tamhane’s words on the topic, saying that he (Tamhane) wanted to portray court workers and lawyers as regular people (“They could be my uncle or aunt”). He succeeded – tremendously – and the result is an unavoidable, jarring look at the lives of women in India today.
We catch glimpses of the court players’ lives outside the courtroom. Defence attorney Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber) drinks wine alone in front of the television, goes on a date at a swanky bar, and lunches with his parents on Sunday afternoon. But I leaned forward in my seat when we saw how public prosecutor Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni) spends her time outside the Sessions Court. After a long day in court, the sari-clad 40-something Marathi lady commutes by train, compliments a fellow passenger on her sari, and then confesses that she has to go home and cook dinner for her family. Her husband’s recent unfavourable health report means the responsibility of his diet and sugar and fat intake falls on her shoulders, and hers alone. At home she cooks dinner in a loose nightie, offering her legal reading services to a friend on the phone, and chases her kids to eat, serving salad to her tv-watching husband who doesn’t even look away from the set. Her daughter orders this prosecutor in a free speech vs. The Indian State court case to “bring me rice”. Later in the evening, Nutan does paperwork to prep for the next day. Incidentally, “Nutan” is also the name of my own mother, which got me thinking as I watched, horrified – Did I brattily order my working mother to serve me food when she got home like a short-order cook? Probably. Hasn’t every Indian child?
The duties and responsibilities of Indian women seep into and dampen every aspect of their lives. Coming home after a long day at work to cook for your husband and children is one thing, but peeling an orange and distributing segments to male colleagues in the law offices is another. I’ve worked in many a workplace and no man has ever peeled an orange for me.
The other women receive similar treatment. Vora’s mother gets called a nag (for airing some pretty rational annoyances) and is told by Vora to “serve me a plate” of lunch and “open the door” (no “please”) for his friend. Sharmila Pawar (Usha Bane), wife of a dead sewage worker, had to leave the city after her husband died and now has no work to support her young family – an example of a very real situation the wives of manual labourers in India face due to unsafe working conditions and no real education. Vora’s female legal assistant doesn’t have a name and doesn’t speak – ever. Even fictional women in the film diegesis haven’t heard of feminism. Nutan’s family see a Hindi slapstick comedy play where a young Marathi girl brings home a North Indian boy to meet the parents. Her father, in a display of eye-roll worthy Marathi virility, banishes his daughter and wife to the kitchen to make tea while he really takes care of things (kicks the N.I. Boy out of his daughter’s life), as only a man could do. The theatre audience roll with laughter, such is their acceptance of the family-life tableau in front of them.
The long takes and neorealist style force you to pay attention, not only to what happens on screen but how it happens. When we see interactions between mothers-and-children and husbands-wives that remind us, and even make us feel a twinge of guilt, about our own relationships with the women in our lives, yet another layer of the story materialises. These women have more than one dimension – but those extra dimensions say more about the filmmaker than the characters themselves.
There could be many reasons for the consistent and telling representations of Indian women in Court. It could be a completely intentional move by Tamhane, and I certainly hope it is because his script has demonstrated razor-sharp commentary on every other political and social shortcoming of modern India. Could feminism be one of them? I never actually asked him.
The other reason could be that this is simply how Tamhane, as a young Indian man, sees women. This is not a criticism but an acknowledgement of an almost instinctual ability to depict gender on-screen, as he has a visceral ability to depict the beating heart of the relationship between Indian culture and civil disobedience.
The final reason is the lack of female writer, director, producer on the film. Female voices affect female representations on-screen, and Court is a brilliant example of how a finished film reflects this fundamental variable. Gender is important, and it permeates not only how we view film, but how we make film. I hope Tamhane and Gomber become more informed and sensitive to representations of gender in their films so they can execute them as deftly as they did their sociopolitical tick-boxes. They’ve already unknowingly made the most plaintive depiction of women-on-screen this year.
I urge you to see Court if you can (it’s had a very limited release) and come to your own conclusions.
I wish Court the best of luck at the Oscars!