In his decade-long career, Chaitanya Tamhane has directed one short film, one documentary, one play and one film. The film, Court, recently picked up the National award for best feature film, after winning nearly 20 awards in international film festivals. Court follows the trial of a folk singer who’s accused of abetting suicide. Much like any court case, the film is a slow, measured take on artistic liberty and judicial lethargy in India.
The day we catch up with him, Tamhane has been running around from interview to interview, answering ‘how did you come up with the story?’ type questions. With a cup of coffee in hand, he’s ready for another round.
Did you expect Court to get a mainstream release?
Do you think it’s a mainstream release? It’s a very independent, quiet, limited release. There was a question on who will release the film, because none of us had done this before. So, it felt like an overwhelming thing to do. But, we’re very happy that we’re doing the release ourselves. We never hoped that a big studio or mainstream stars will present the film. We wanted to control the marketing and publicity of the film. We had a different vision for how to bring the film out.
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. A lot of activists filed petitions with the government that this has to stop. 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. I spent a lot of time during scripting there. Then, afterwards, we had to recreate the court in the set. So, the production designers, actors and me went to the courts and spent a lot of time there. One day I’d befriend a lawyer, one day 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 very fascinating and also educational. I was forced to form my own politics while researching. I got to know Mumbai in such a different light even though I was born and raised here.
We’d visited a Sessions court recently. It’s a depressing place.
Yeah, 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. Each lawyer has a very different personality and vibe. Sometimes, they say very technical, monotonous things.
What was the impression you got while interacting with lawyers and judges?
One was the insight that 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. Or, how they’re interpreting a situation or the law even. I came across a lot of judgments that state 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 was how casual 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 for so many years. It’s very touching on some level.
Were you sure you got the legalese right?
I didn’t care about it that much. I didn’t want the details to be oppressive. There are a few creative liberties we’ve taken. I wanted the film to focus on the experience of going to a courtroom.
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. And, that you would not be aware of it if you weren’t cued into that circle. But, I realised the kind of power they had. They talk directly to the common people. 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 would have happened if none of the film festivals had accepted the film?
I have no idea. We would have released the film online. Of course, we would have been a lot more depressed. This has really been a dream run. It’s true that films such as these need to have some validation from the West till people in India start taking notice. Also, the National award has put a lot of spotlight and media coverage on us, very correctly timed with the release. A lot more people are curious now to see the film.
What was the most common reaction you received at the film festivals?
We went to countries we would have never travelled to — Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine, Hong Kong, Sweden. The common reaction was that this is a mirror of our society, that we can relate to being in an institution, of dealing with the judiciary, of power dynamics. We thought the film is set in such a specific cultural milieu that people abroad will not be able to connect the dots. They surprised us. Since Europe has such a great history of persecution, some countries had been the oppressors, and some had been the oppressed.
Were you expecting the National award?
Not at all. If you see the kind of film it is, it’s very surprising.
What is your writing schedule?
In the beginning, it’s a very torturous process, because everything is a possibility. Soon, you have to narrow it down to a structure, characters and scenes, which is why it takes me a while. Of course, the internet is a big distraction. Every time I would sit down to write, I would find every excuse to not write.
Which was the toughest day of 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] he’s dropping her to her house. Because the roads of Mumbai are not very smooth and we didn’t want to use a tow truck, we decided to do a green screen shoot. Except for the set of the court, everything else in the film is real location. We were in a studio, and it was a very strange setting. Ten people were shaking the car, and lights were revolving around the actors. And, it was just not organic at all. Usha Bane, who’s playing the wife, she’s a non-professional actor. She’d done workshops with me in a very different setting. For her to be on a set like that, she just didn’t perform as well. And, Vivek had to fake the driving. I was not feeling it. That was the day I said pack-up, came out and I puked, because it’s very directly related to my gut whether I get a scene or not. That was the day I told everybody we don’t have the scene. Eventually we ended up shooting the scene for real.
What were the challenges of working with non-actors?
I don’t micromanage so much. I’m cautious of not over-directing. But, yes, there are long scenes with no cuts. And, if one thing goes wrong, we have to do it all over again. It’s a huge cast so every day we would be working with different people. Every day was a great test of patience and having the faith that the scene will work out. Slowly around the 20th take, things will fall into place and I’ll find the rhythm. The non-actors would feel they’re 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.’ Every day, my heart would be stressed. ‘We have to cancel the shoot. We made the wrong call. This is a stupid decision. It’s not working out.’ And, slowly it would start working out. Every day this would happen.
What do you have against Bollywood?
Nothing. It’s just that I don’t associate myself or the work I want to do with Bollywood. I think the mainstream media expect you to go that route because it’s so dominant and powerful. I’ve nothing against it. It’s just that ‘mera lena-dena kya hai uske saath?’ Just the person I’ve evolved into, I think I’ve outgrown it. If I were to work in Bollywood, I’d be a colossal failure.