I walked into Cornell Cinema to watch Court with absolutely no context and fairly average expectations, but Chaitanya Tamhane’s directorial debut sets the bar incredibly high for his future work. Though it was slow-paced and at times disregarded plot entirely, it was absolutely beautiful and had me laughing constantly. While at first it seemed to be a commentary about India’s court system, it turned into an intimate look into the characters’ lives and as a result produced a really beautiful conception of life in Bombay.
In general, the film concerns itself with the trial of a folk singer who is being tried for writing a song with controversial lyrics. One of my favorite parts of the film was its use of color and cinematography. Being from a rural area myself, I am not usually very impressed by cityscapes, but Court completely overwhelmed my senses; while the scenes in the court were mostly dominated by shades of grey, white and light pink, the scenes in the city of Bombay were explosive with vivid yellows and oranges powdered with the dust from the streets. Although the city was bustling, it was not suffocating and I found myself longing to be there, if only to catch a glimpse of the women’s radiant saris or to have a taste of the street food.
Though Bombay was illustrated beautifully on screen, I did not feel like it was romanticized too excessively, for Court also provided a look into how poorer residents of the city lived. While looking for a witness, one of the lawyers runs across a woman living in a rundown apartment complex in the middle of the city, but even the passage that led to her home was lit up with bright colors and conveyed a sense of warm comfort to the viewer. There were two others scenes that stood out to me in particular, both of which took place in lawyer’s houses. The first lawyer lived with his parents and had to go through the embarrassment of having his mother interrogate his colleague about his love life while trying to eat lunch. This scene, while very stereotypically Indian, struck a chord with me because of its accurate depiction of family life; I cannot count the number of times I have witnessed a similar scene in my own family. In any case, the other scene was quite different because it took place in the home of a lawyer with her own family. Her husband watched television as she served him dinner and grunted as she did so — another scene I have witnessed so many times in my own life, but have never stopped to think about. While this depiction of gender roles was fairly subtle and certainly not shoved to the forefront of the viewer’s mind, it made me think about the behaviors I have observed in my own life.
I think a big part of the reason I felt I could make connections with so many characters in the film was because of the incredibly realistic acting paired with the humor they brought to each performance. After watching Court, I did a little research and discovered that none of the main characters had made an appearance in Bollywood before. I was shocked. The acting was so real and convincing that I wanted to linger in each scene after it had finished. While the humor in the film was not necessarily very obvious throughout, I thought the sarcastic tones of the court scenes were performed to perfection.
The film’s portrayal of activism also caused me to reflect upon my own actions and experiences. While not directly poking fun at it, Court definitely did not take activism too seriously; the plot revolves around the trial of a folk singer who had supposedly controversial lyrics in his work. Right after he was bailed out of jail, he returned to the streets and continued his work, essentially disregarding the court and lawyers who had been trying so desperately to control his actions. I loved this depiction of activism because of how it made fun of itself. One of the things I took away from this film was to not take anything too seriously, regardless of how important it may seem in the moment, an idea I can definitely get behind.
In any case, I do think the film was more about the lives and character of the city of Bombay and less about any sort of direct message to its audience, and I enjoyed the lightheartedness that surrounded the atmosphere of the film. The only criticism I had for the film was that without cultural context a lot of the scenes do not make a lot of sense; for example, there are scenes during which the defendant speaks in Marathi, but without understanding the importance of the language, it became a little difficult for me to fully understand the comments some of the lawyers were making. However, I do not think this took away from the overall impact or understanding of the film.
One final point I want to touch on was the epilogue of the film. Court seemed to have been over after the lights dim to darkness over the last court scene, but there are a couple of scenes of a random family at a Bombay resort that close off the story. The very last scene in particular was amazing; a group of children scare an older family member awake in the midday heat and he lashes out against one of the boys, whose whines can be heard until the credits start rolling. I am not entirely sure what the implications were at that point, but it made me laugh until my stomach hurt, so I enjoyed it.