Few films fit the definition of a “festival film” more precisely than the 2014 Marathi film Court. It, premiered at the 71st Venice International Film Festival on 4 September 2014 and was not released in India until over a year later (15 April 2015), having done the rounds of several festivals in the meantime, reaping the usual harvest of gongs of one kind or another and of golden critical opinions. Even the initial idea for the film seems to have occurred to Tamhane (who both wrote and directed the film) while he was trawling the festival-circuit with his earlier short film, Six Strands (2010). It was partly funded by a Dutch fund specially designated for such “festival films”. It was subsequently India’s official entry for the Academy Awards (“best foreign film” Oscars) but was not nominated.
The Marathi film industry has a long and distinguished history. Before the 1940s it had as important a place in Maharashtra as the Bombay-based Hindi film industry and boasted, in the person of V. Shantaram, one of the India’s finest directors. If war, famine, political instability and partition in the forties were a disaster for the once mighty Bengali film industry in Calcutta (which lost 40% of its territory and 50% of its cinemas), it was the consequent growth of the Bombay industry that dealt a severe blow to the Marathi cinema industry. Based originally in the princely state of Kolhapur and then in Pune, it was increasingly unable to compete with the Bombay cinema, whose ranks were now swollen by incomers from Punjab and Bengal.
In recent years the Marathi film industry has recovered considerably and seems to be eagerly pursuing a strategy of “niche” marketing. In the 1950’s the Bengali film industry successfully responded to disaster by the invention of the Indian “art film” and many Bengali film-makers have tended to play to an “international” market ever since. For the Marathi industry, it is the continued presence of ”Bollywood”, that gaudy, greedy cuckoo in its nest, that obliges it to adopt a similar marketing strategy.
Court tells the story of an elderly teacher and activist who is put on trial on a totally trumped-up charge of “abetting a suicide”. The film concentrates mainly, as the title implies, on the proceedings in the court, as the case against the man is postponed on one pretext after another from session to session. In between the film follows briefly the lives of each of the lawyers, the young man defending and the older married woman who is the prosecuting counsel and finally also the judge himself, as he goes off on holiday with his family during the summer court-recess.
I have a problem with this film and that problem is directly related to the fact that it was initially written for, and played to, a foreign audience. Watching it, I had something of the same feeling that I occasionally have with films by “non-resident Indians” (those of Canadian director Deepa Mehta for instance). Here was a film being offered primarily to a foreign audience which would, however, have no proper context in which to understand it. To take a simple instance – but one crucial to the entire film – the law against “abetting suicide”, ill-advised and open to abuse though it may be, is part of the Indian Penal Code for quite specific reasons, but, for a European or US audience, it just appears to be a total absurdity and its consideration for a single moment by a court equally so. The events in this film do not so much appear to be an abuse of the system but rather evidence of a complete absence of any judicial system worthy of the name.
This is compounded by the various vignettes of the lawyers and the judge with their families that make up the rest of the film. The various conversations are, in each case, notable for their inconsequential nature, giving the sustained impression of a world of muddle, illogic, superstition and prejudice. Someone in India can discern a context for this in terms of the social and political divisions peculiar to Maharashtra and of the rise of a certain right-wing nationalist ideology there, but no such context is explicit in the film or available to a foreign audience.
The films centres entirely on a certain bourgeois élite; ordinary folk only appear fleetingly as suborned or intimidated witnesses. The man on trial is supposedly an ex-mill worker but we only ever see him as teacher and activist, dressed throughout in the standard strip of an ageing middle-class lefty. His behaviour too is characterised by an (inexplicable) obstinate foolishness that needlessly worsens his situation.
For a foreign audience, the message is clear. The problem is not the Indian justice system; the problem is India and the behavior patterns of Indians themselves. In effect we seem to be witnessing a modern version of “orientalism” and it is remarkably similar in form to the classic variety – muddle, illogic, superstition and prejudice, represented as inherent qualities of Indian life and of the Indian character and as the source of all its problems..
There was an occasion in 1980 when retired actress Nargis, newly nominated to the Rajya Sabha, publicly accused Satyajit Ray of using his films to “export” Indian poverty. In an interview about her statement, she argued that negative images should always be balanced by positive ones. Pressed to elaborate, she hesitated before rather lamely pronouncing the single word “dams.” All this is arrant nonsense. Film-makers have every right to show whatever aspects of Indian society they choose, negative or positive, and are under no obligation to “compensate” in the facile way suggested by Nargis.
On the other hand, a director does have a certain obligation to provide a social and political context for criticisms made and a film should inform an audience rather than rely on its ignorance to achieve its effect. Court is a disturbing film, therefore, for two reasons. It is legitimately disturbing for the picture it gives of the Indian judicial system, but it is rather less legitimately disturbing because of doubts over what audience the director is playing to and what reaction he intends to evoke.