September 23, 2015
An ageing folk singer-performer and Dalit activist, Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar) is arrested during a performance in a Mumbai slum. The charge: allegedly abetting conservancy worker Vasudev Pawar’s suicide. Kamble, according to the police, performed an explosive song which incited Pawar to kill himself by drowning himself in a manhole. Perhaps because of the total lack of drama in the way all this unfolds and the matter-of-fact nature of the arrest, the absurdity and the irony of the charge and Kamble’s arrest is biting.
Reality is surreal business in Chaitanya Tamhane’s award-winning film, Court. Inspired perhaps by the state witch-hunts of dissenting activists like Dr Binayak Sen, Vilas Ghogre, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, and members of Kabir Kala Manch, Tamhane’s film languidly moves through the workings of a court case in Mumbai.
Slowly, it unravels the social reality of the conservancy worker and the blatant, political arrests in lower courts. Why did a “gutter-cleaner” enter a manhole without any equipment? Was it because, as the state suggests, that Pawar was driven to kill himself because he heard Kamble’s songs? What kind of equipment is he given by the municipality? What kind of a life does his profession afford him?
And then there’s the social activist-cum-singer Kamble, who actually does want to write a song about suicide — not because he wants to incite people to such acts, but because nothing else communicates the hopelessness he sometimes feels about Dalit lives. Sathidar, who plays Kamble, should know. He’s a human rights activist in real life and editor of the radical Nagpur-based publication, Vidrohi. The songs he sings as Kamble were voiced by Sambhaji Bhagat, a friend of Vilas Ghogre, the Dalit poet and activist who committed suicide to protest the 1997 killing of Dalit residents of Ramabai Colony, in Mumbai.
Much of Court is akin to a real life courtroom, where cases often unfold without drama.