A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
A courtroom drama usually offers at least some of the following elements: a fiery orator, high stakes, an evolving case, thrilling arguments and some degree of resolution—even if it’s not a happy one. “Court" offers none of these elements. The oration from the lawyers practically dares you to stay awake. The case itself is jaw-dropping in its staidness. The arguments are routinely filled with jargon, and this jargon may even be irrelevant. For most of its 116-minute runtime, a resolution appears quixotic.
And yet, Indian filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane’s first feature is a masterpiece, one of the best films of the year. How did this happen?
“Court” deals with an aged Marathi folk singer living in Mumbai, Narayan Kamble, who’s arrested on a bizarre accusation. The state alleges that a song he performed drove a manhole cleaner to commit suicide, and that he is therefore responsible for the man's death. The case comes to the attention of Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber), a well-educated and well-off lawyer who picks up Narayan’s fight. He’s up against the public prosecutor Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni), who couldn’t be bothered with the plight of Narayan or the logic of the case. Together they’re in front of Judge Sadavarte (Pradeep Joshi), who doesn’t care for anything except upholding his archaic morals and interpretation of the law. In the funniest scene in this surprisingly funny film, the Judge refuses to hear a case because the plaintiff, a woman, is wearing a sleeveless top. There are times when it feels as though the real accused in "Court" are India's judicial system and society.
Nearly 60 years ago, Sidney Lumet locked the “12 Angry Men” of a jury inside one room. The setting’s claustrophobic nature would help viewers understand why people’s lives deeply influenced how they interpreted the law and cold, hard facts. Tamhane takes the opposite means to achieve a similar end. His script, carefully structured but not gaudily so, considers the characters’ lives outside the courtroom as essential to comprehending what they do once inside it. This approach is integral to the movie’s humanistic tone. No character is a villain hell-bent on destroying Narayan’s life. They are all just cogs in an unfair machine.