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Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court is one of the best satires on India I have seen on the big screen. Deservedly, it won the Golden Gateway of India prize for Best Film in the International Competition section at the Mumbai Film Festival that ended on Tuesday. It is Tamhane’s feature debut film and is a wonderful new addition to the resurgent and spirited world of Marathi cinema. Incidentally, two other Indian debut films received top honours at the festival this year: Bikas Ranjan Mishra’s Chauranga in Hindi, which I want to watch soon, and Avinash Arun’s Killa, set on the Konkan coast, a terrific film in Marathi about a mother and a son and their life in a new town.

Court goes into the living rooms, courtrooms and slovenly margins of Mumbai. On the surface, it is an elegant yet scathing indictment of the absurdities of our judicial system. But Tamhane’s concerns go deeper; he is interested in how the world outside seeps in to decide the directions and intersections in human lives.

The writer-director’s rigour and commitment to realism are exceptional. Court is free of any kind of frill, and the way it combines elegance with brutality is somewhat reminiscent of films by directors like Govind Nihalani, Goutam Ghose and Shyam Benegal in the 1970s and 1980s. But he has no activist zeal; Tamhane wants to show life as it is, and gently laugh at it.

Vira Sathidar, a democratic rights activist, leads the cast of largely non-actors. He plays Narayan Kamble, a Dalit protest singer, and had never faced the camera. Pradeep Joshi, a music teacher in a school for specially-abled students, plays the judge. Usha Bane, the widow of a manhole worker, plays the role of a manhole worker’s wife. Tamhane fixes his camera on his subjects and their settings in one angle for long runs. The art direction is detailed but not obvious. The acting, Tamhane says, is the result of intense rehearsals and numerous takes.

Narayan’s songs about social ills are suspected to have abetted a manhole worker’s suicide, and he is on trial in a lower court. Tamhane is as interested in the monotonous procedure, and the way archaic laws play out in courtrooms, as in the lives of the three lawyers who practise them. The pivot is Narayan, a gruffy, downbeat and forceful man, and through his trial, funny and pathetic, Tamhane shows how freedom of speech is still a foreign concept in our courts and minds.

The film-maker, in his late 20s, is political without being preachy, and dramatic without showing off any dramatic tools. With a deliberate and painful sparseness, he strips his story of cinematic magic or mystery. The pithy screenplay has humour, cynicism, bitterness and enough bite to stay in your head long after you have watched it.

No date has yet been set for the release of the film, which has won applause across film festivals, including the Lion of the Future award at this year’s Venice Film Festival. It will be a pity if Court does not get a theatrical release in India.

Political Animals is a fortnightly column on the intersection of culture and politics.

Also Read | Sanjukta’s previous Lounge column

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