The Indian Legal System
When an elderly folk singer and grassroots organizer known as the “people’s poet,” is arrested on a trumped-up charge of inciting a sewage worker to commit suicide, we see a ridiculous trial and harrowing display of institutional incompetence, with endless procedural delays, coached witnesses for the prosecution, and obsessive privileging of arcane colonial law over reason and mercy. Director Chaitanva Tamhane’s first film has a brilliant ensemble cast of professional and nonprofessional actors and is a wonderful union of comedy and tragedy.
The film is set against the background of Indian society as represented by its legal system, and what it reveals is none too flattering. “The plot involves an activist poet, Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), who, during a public performance, is arrested on what are soon revealed to be trumped-up charges of indirectly abetting the alleged suicide of a sewer worker after he supposedly heard a song of Kamble’s which implored people like him to kill themselves—and in a manner similar to the way he died”. The charges come from outdated laws that the Indian government has apparently not seen fit to either revise or repeal altogether. While Kamble’s lawyer, Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber), argues for the reconsideration of such laws, the public prosecutor, Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni), sticks to the letter of these laws. There is procedural rigidity that the legal back and forth ends up being dragged out over the span of many months. The film actually goes deeper than merely exposing the flaws of a country’s judicial system. This is where those character-building detours are crucial.
A lunch scene with Vinay and his parents implies much about the generational gap between the progressive young single lawyer and his more-tradition-bound parents, especially when it comes to love and marriage (his parents are more concerned about having grandchildren than he is at the moment). While Vinay, for all his political activism, lives in a comfortably upper-class background, Nutan is squarely part of the working class, possibly without the upbringing to imagine a way of thinking beyond her immediate daily concerns of caring for her family. We see anti-immigrant sentiment running throughout India’s working class—perhaps the kind of sentiment that Kamble is constantly fighting against in his public performances.
Tamhane looks at these flawed characters and troubled institutions and dissects them. Each scene makes the points it wants to make, clearly and economically, before moving on to the next. Tamhane purposefully has extended scenes in order to include a seemingly unrelated detail that nevertheless adds an extra layer to the film’s overall societal critique.
We see the scenes in the courtroom with a mix of realism and an eye on the absurd. The court case itself is bizarrely fascinating as we watch the two lawyers chip at each other’s arguments and the judge occasional halts proceedings to record a statement that a clerk types into an ancient computer. There is no urgency to it and no scenes of anger or heightened emotion.
The prosecutor complains that she’s bored of seeing the same faces. “Sentence him to 20 years and let’s go onto something new,” she says allowing us to see the careless erosion of human freedom by a system that is nevertheless run by human beings with all their frailties and complexities. The film is reminiscent of Kafka in the way it shows inhumane bureaucracy.