India: “Justice” System Produces Political Prisoners

Vira Sathidar, right, in a scene from “Court,” directed by Chaitanya Tamhane. Credit Zeitgeist Films

 The wheels of justice grind slowly and mercilessly in “Court,” Chaitanya Tamhane’s quiet, devastating critique of the antiquated Indian legal system. As it follows the case of Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), a 65-year-old folk singer and social activist accused of inciting what is presumed to be the suicide of a sewer worker in Mumbai, the film conjures an absurdist nightmare of bureaucratic incompetence, indifference and social inequity.

Narayan is first seen teaching children Indian geography in a crowded Mumbai classroom, then hurrying to board a bus that takes him to an outdoor theater where he is introduced to a small crowd as “the people’s poet.” Backed by a troupe of musicians, he sings a forceful song urging everyone to rise up against “religious, racist, casteist and nationalist jungles.” Midway through, Narayan is arrested.

The remainder of the movie observes his protracted trial. A travesty of justice that another filmmaker might have directed as a farce, the work has a gravity, a measured pace and a detachment reminiscent of a Frederick Wiseman documentary — “Court,” however, is fictional.

 

The Mumbai courtroom, in which the white-bearded Narayan dispassionately listens to charges that could land him a 20-year prison sentence, is a social microcosm of a country mired in hidebound colonial traditions, class prejudice and corruption.

In a public arena, Narayan is a forceful, charismatic advocate for social change. As a Dalit, he belongs to a caste once considered “untouchable,” and is treated by the judge and the prosecutor as an eccentric rabble-rouser and public nuisance. His young defense lawyer, Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber), seems to be the only person interested in doing more than going through the motions of courtroom etiquette.

Because Narayan has long been seen as a political troublemaker, his guilt is presumed, and the movie gives you a queasy sense of how easy it is for rebellious public figures in India to find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

The heart of the trumped-up case is an allegation that Narayan performed an original song in a Mumbai slum, urging sewer workers to commit suicide, a “seditious” act. But, as the trial drags on, it becomes increasingly clear that no such song exists.

For the public prosecutor, Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni), a smug middle-aged woman obsessed with obsolete judicial rules, the trial is just a formality to silence a gadfly. The sole witness she produces who recalls hearing the song has testified in similar cases and obviously been coached.

The lack of evidence doesn’t prevent the trial from dragging on for weeks, many of them spent going over laws that date to the 19th century. The judge, Sadavarte (Pradeep Joshi), puts on a studiously neutral face but voices no opinion. His primary goal is to keep the trial moving.

Defense witnesses testify that the manhole worker, who died from inhaling fumes, had no history of suicidal tendencies. His widow (Usha Bane) recalls that he found his job so noxious that he got drunk every morning before leaving home, but that he was not depressed. We learn that nobody supplied him masks or other protection of any kind from the hydrogen sulfide gas to which he succumbed while underground. To determine where the air was too toxic each morning, he would look for signs of life crawling out of the pipes. If a cockroach appeared, it was safe to go underground.

The movie follows the prosecutor and defense attorney out of the courtroom to observe them with their families. Nutan, the prosecutor, is a harried mother who is just trying to get through the day and sees Narayan’s case as unworthy of serious scrutiny. Narayan’s lawyer is a public defender from a prosperous family, who has a social conscience and cosmopolitan tastes in music and food. The movie doesn’t specify what drew him to the case but implies that it was his belief in social justice. His continually nagging mother is obsessed with his finding a wife and producing grandchildren.

Time and again, the camera draws back to offer panoramic shots of Indian life in the streets or in the courtroom. Scenes are drawn out longer than they need to be, the better to evoke a complex social mosaic and convey a stately overview of Indian society. Late in the film, the courtroom is emptied, the lights are turned off, and the camera lingers in near-total darkness to contemplate another day of legal injustice.

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