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. Continue reading