Things You Should know about Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court – India’s Entry to the Oscars
The verdict is in: Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court is India’s official entry to the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars next year. Court actually beat a list of 30 entries which included Masaan, Haider and PK.
In his decade-long career, Chaitanya Tamhane has directed one short film, one documentary, one play and one film. Court follows the trial of a folk singer who’s accused of abetting suicide. The film is a measured take on artistic liberty and judicial lethargy in India. We talk to Tamhane about Court:
Which case led you to this film?
There were many different cases that inspired me. I remember one of the initial sparks was the case on Jiten Marandi, who was wrongly accused in a Chilkari murder. He’s a protest singer, a cultural activist in Jharkhand. One of the names of the accused was Jiten Marandi. Because they couldn’t find that Jiten Marandi, they sentenced this guy to death. There were also Kabir Kala Manch, Sambhaji Bhagat and Vinayak Sen — a lot of cases inspired me.
Can you take us through the prep of the film?
I visited a lot of lower courts in Mumbai. One day I’d befriend a lawyer, one day I’d talk to a judge. I was also researching the work of cultural activists, attending political meetings, press conferences, looking into their music. It’s a vast world you’re navigating, which is fascinating and educational. I was forced to form my own politics while researching.
A Sessions court is a depressing place.
Yes, it’s a very depressing place. It can give you a headache sometimes, if you’re there for too long. You can’t make out what’s happening. There are no mikes. Even if it’s your own case sometimes, you don’t come to know.
What was the impression you got while interacting with lawyers and judges?
One was the insight about who the person is in real life — their mindset, their biases, their prejudices, their upbringing — how that plays a part in the justice they’re imparting, how they’re interpreting a situation or the law. I came across a lot of judgments stating that astrology is a real science, homosexuality is unnatural or rape is not rape at all. I was wondering where all this was coming from. The second insight was about how casually life and death decisions were being made there, how fates were being forged, how destinies were being determined. Your life was completely at the mercy of this one person. Third, I realised that the law is not set in stone. The law is an interpretation. Apart from the case, there were so many different stories that were unfolding in the room. So many people from different walks of life have been coming there for so many years. It’s very touching, on some level.
What was your impression of the cultural activists?
I realised that there’s this parallel movement which is happening under the radar, which isn’t covered by the mainstream media at all. I realised how art can be used as a form of dissent. They’re actually intellectuals. Their main weapon is not their music; it’s their thought, their ideology. And, the politicians know that. They know the kind of power these activists wield, which is why there’s so much scrutiny over what they do.
What was the toughest day of the shoot?
We had to shoot a car scene. We had a sewage worker, who you never see in the film. His wife and the defence lawyer, Vinay Vora [played by Vivek Gomber, also the producer] is dropping her to her house. We decided to do a green screen shoot, and it was a very strange setting. Ten people were shaking the car, and lights were revolving around the actors. It was just not organic at all. Usha Bane, who’s playing the wife, is a non-professional actor. For her to be on a set like that, she just didn’t perform as well. That was the day I said pack up, came out and puked, because it’s very directly related to my gut whether I get a scene or not. Eventually, we ended up shooting the scene for real.
What were the challenges of working with non-actors?
There are long scenes with no cuts. And, if one thing goes wrong, we have to do it again. It’s a huge cast, so every day we would be working with different people. Every day was a great test of patience. The non-actors would feel they were holding up the scene, that ‘is it not working because of me?’ I couldn’t communicate my frustration or helplessness because, then, they would lose their confidence. I had to put up a brave face and say, ‘It’s perfect. We’re getting there.’