“Law is not set in stone, it has to be interpreted”: An interview with Court director Chaitanya Tamhane

16 April, 2015

In the film Court, Narayan Kamble is a social activist in his mid-sixties who goes around the streets of Mumbai and leads his ensemble of activist-supporters through the city’s working-class spine. Kamble is arrested and charged with inciting a sewage worker to commit suicide through one of his songs. What follows is a trial—its tenets so bizarre—in which the narrative follows the lives of each of those involved, including the public prosecutor (Nutan), the natural pivot of the judiciary (Judge Sadavarte) and the defence attorney (Vinay Vora). Court has received a number of accolades over the past year, including, most recently, the National Film Award. Manik Sharma spoke to Chaitanya Tamhane, the debutant director of the film about working with untrained actors and striving for an objective realisation of the film.

Manik Sharma: What were you doing before the idea of Court came to you?

Chaitanya Tamhane: I’m a graduate in English, and I’ve been associated with writing in some form or the other since the age of seventeen. At nineteen, I had started doing my own independent projects, which included shooting a self-funded documentary called Four Step Plan in 2005. I then wrote a play called Grey Elephants in Denmark in 2009. A year later I shot a short film called Six Strands. But none of these projects yielded any income, something I was being constantly pressurised for at home. It was probably the most depressing time of my life, as I did not want to sell my soul for a desk job but wasn’t making any money either. I was twenty-four when the idea of the film really began taking shape in my mind.

MS: Was the inspiration behind Court a singular experience? Or was it a mixture of different elements?

CT: Quite a lot actually. I’ve always liked research, so I followed a few cases, but what I was most intrigued by was the setting of lower courts, something that has always been overdramatised in mainstream cinema. Also, the world of folk music fascinated me—artistes like Sambhaji Bhagat. Of the cases, a significant lead that I followed was the case of Jitan Marandi—a bemusing case of mistaken identity—which encouraged me to explore the satirical aspect of the judiciary. Apart from these, talking to activists, lawyers and diving into newspaper clippings was fairly regular. I did a year of research on all aspects before I could see the film panning in my head.

MS: The central peg—though largely subverted in reviews—is the implication of the Section 306, abetment of suicide. Of this law, even the country’s highest courts have failed to present an interpretation that is clear, let alone a layman. There is a crucial psychological side to consider in this. How did you zero in on such a situation? And what, if anything, has your research told you about the law?

CT: I had all the elements listed that I wanted to be in the film. What I did not have was a case. The idea of the case came to mind when I read an article by S Anand in Tehelka about the plight of manhole workers. I was reading about suicide as well, and it just popped into my mind—to connect the two. But the film isn’t really based around the technicality of the law. It is more of an anthropological look, rather than a mechanical one. That said, I will tell you the one common insight I got from all the people I talked to and this wasn’t just about “abetment to suicide”: it was that law is not set in stone, it has to be interpreted. And that is what Court explores to an extent. How the prejudices and perceptions of the people interpreting these texts can bear heavily on the meaning that is acquired; and I don’t need to tell you that this is an aspect often left understudied, or unexpressed.

MS: For a realistic project like Court, it is imperative that you get performances out of actors close to the baselines of realism. So how difficult is it to “act” real? And how did you manage to get these performances out of your acting crew?

CT: The film is an observational piece. So, yes, the realism of the actors was crucial. To be honest, it was one of the more challenging parts of the filming process. I wanted to see a consistent grammar of acting across the board. But the cast of the film was huge, and nearly 80 percent of the people involved were untrained actors. A handful had done theatre, but the rest had never faced a camera before. We created a database of eighteen hundred people and the auditions lasted for about ten months. The film has uncharacteristically long takes, so there was never the provision of hiding bad performances during the editing process. On the day of the shoot, if an actor made a mistake, we had to start all over again. So we only did a single shot a day, but the number of takes always ranged between forty and sixty. That was indeed a test of everyone’s patience. Sort of the price we had to pay for attaining that level of realism.

MS: Court will always be measured by the objectivity with which it handles the story. Did you at any point want the script to speak for you, be a mouthpiece for your personal thoughts, as is the case with a majority of the films made in the country?

CT: I’ll give the answer to this in two parts. First, I think there is no such thing as objectivity. There is no such thing as a singular, absolute truth. So any piece of art will eventually have a subjective rendition on account of its creator. Yes, mainstream cinema has a tendency to make this clearer, but I would find it hard to imagine a film where the maker’s mind has not—consciously or subconsciously—been inserted in the film. Second, the idea of the film, though, is largely objective, and even while writing the script I never had the urge to send a strong message or pretend to stand for one. While we have tried to attain that impression of objectivity, I don’t feel it is close-ended for any art, let alone filmmaking. You can thus call it a sort of illusion of objectivity.

MS: What was the most difficult part for you personally, in realising Court? Was it the writing? Working with untrained actors? Or directing that one long-take scene that served up to your expectations, repeatedly?

CT: To be honest, it is the scriptwriting part. Writing is the loneliest job on the planet, and at times it made me miserable. At the time of filming, you have a hundred people around you. But when you write, and write especially on things that are not derivative, it becomes agonising. It made me feel lonely, and at times I promised myself I won’t do it again.

MS: Do you see yourself as an essential filmmaker? Someone who will go on to make films that are important firstand brilliant later?

CT: I don’t really think in those terms. I want to reinvent myself every time. So I will do what I feel like doing. There are no fixed formulas in my head.

MS: Anand Gandhi has supported you for some time. And now Vinay and Kushboo—Vinay Shukla and Khusboo Ranka—had worked with Anand Gandhi on the national award winning Ship of Theseus) have a documentary slated for release this year. All of you are friends, and earning plaudits left right and centre. Do you see a change lying in the wake of the country’s conscience when it comes to filmmaking?

CT: Yes we are good friends, and Anand has always supported me. As for the part about change, I do not necessarily think in terms of shifting consciences or being an agent to one. But what I would definitely like to see is filmmakers, new and experimental, get the space and opportunity to showcase their talent. The idea of a mainstream as opposed to the voice of subversion must go. This machine of filmmaking has to change on many levels and each of us should find a way of coexisting.

MS: Keeping aside the accolades that the film has received, why should anyone watch Court, which is slated for a nationwide release later this month?

CT: The simplest answer I can give you is it’s funny. If you want to have a good laugh, watch it.