Court was the surprise package with the ‘Best Feature Film’ at the 62nd National Awards 2015. Court won best film in the Orizzonti section as well as the Lion of the Future ‘Luigi de Laurentiis’ award for a debut film. Chaitanya Tamhane, 27, who directed the film, calls Court a “complete subversion of the courtroom genre”, is perhaps one of the finest expressions of Indian cinema in recent times.

It takes on the country’s broken judicial system with a Dalit singer-activist in the centre, and has been filmed with a largely non-professional cast and crew painstakingly handpicked from streets, government offices, hospitals, banks and so on. Court has just been bestowed the FIPRESCI Prize for the Best Indian film in 2015 which will be awarded to the director and producer at the Bengaluru International Film Festival on February 1. The citation states: The film is steadfastly truthful in that it is not driven by preconceived political or social ideas but by a sense of what is happening in India and how things actually work out.

The narrative is layered with different sub-plots which by their very nature touch upon contemporary issues creating blocks in our lives, but they are so understated that you hardly notice them. Yet they leave a mark on your conscience and your sub-conscious as you walk out of the theatre. Court is the protagonist of the film, the central character that sucks the viewer into a real life portrayal of what goes on inside a courtroom, how and why.

But this needs a storyline and the director provides it through a small incident revolving around Narayan Kamble, a frail and sick man of 65, a performer of folk songs at small functions who makes a meagre living offering tuitions for children. One day, he is arrested during a street performance. The complaint is that he sang a song that drove a sewer cleaner in the neighbourhood to commit suicide inside a sewer. The complaint adds that his songs, written and composed by him, are filled with unmentionable obscenities and incendiary lyrics.

Narayan Kamble is not even aware of the existence of this sewer cleaner. There is no proof that the cleaner knew Kamble or had heard his songs. Till the end, the audience, the court and the entire legal and judicial fraternity within the film remain in the dark about whether the sewer cleaner had committed suicide or had died of suffocation and lack of proper protective gear at work. Yet, Kamble is sent to police custody all over again after he was granted bail earlier on a surety of Rs. One lakh paid by his defence attorney. When the defence attorney requests the judge to allow bail as the man is quite sick and the court will go on vacation the following day, the judge simply asks him to go to the higher court which will not be on vacation!

The title Court is almost misleading, in the sense that it is extremely distanced from the metaphorical meanings that attach itself to any film presenting any ‘court’ on celluloid. The film repeatedly draws attention to protracted legal proceedings that adversely affect ordinary citizens both mentally and financially. Debabrata Sengupta, one such citizen, says, “The inordinate delays in the disposal of cases have resulted in considerable backlog of untried cases. Even though much work needs to be done; courts in India are shut for a long period during the year. Could the activities of the Indian courts be brought under the ambit of the Essential Services Maintenance Act? This might speed up the process of delivering justice.” Another reason for judicial delays is the snail’s pace at which proceedings progress, partially due to the disparity in the ratio between the number of judges and the population.

Court does not point accusing fingers at corrupt practices that delay judgement or try to raise slogans against wrong judgements and unfair practices. Tamhane lets the film speak for itself and underscores the lacunae in the legal, the police and the judicial systems as they stand today and have stood for decades.

“I never wished to make my film a social or political comment. I wanted to tell the story that I wanted to tell. It wasn't as if I had set out to make a social comment. I started researching on it. I began visiting the sessions courts and discovered that the way the legal system and the courtroom proceedings have been shown in our films that is completely contrary to reality, and that comes across in the film,” says Tamhane.

It is the very ‘ordinariness’ of the story-telling strategy, the acting by an almost entirely amateur cast, the precise attention to physical detailing of sets, the interiors of different homes reflecting the social class the respective dwellers belong to as well as of the courtroom itself, the brilliant camera that moves into some of the narrowest bylanes of dilapidated Mumbai chawls moving back and forth from and to the court, and the powerful songs lip-synched by Kamble and rendered by Dalit activist and singer Sambhaji Bhagat (who also wrote and composed them) that makes Court such an extraordinary socio-political statement on celluloid. A statement on how the police, the legal and the judicial systems are structured to work against the best interests of the litigants and others.

Says Chaitanya, “I began thinking of a real courtroom setting in an Indian situation after I finished my long tour of foreign film festivals with Six Strands. I discussed this with my friend from theatre Vivek Gomber, and he asked me to begin writing the script. He plays one of the two major roles – the defence lawyer in Court. He also stepped in to produce the film. I set off on a chain of interviews with people belonging to different cross-sections of society. I made notes, penned down free-association essays, followed by six months of casting and eight months of sighting and fixing locations entirely in Mumbai. Slowly, very slowly, Court was born. I visited many courts in Mumbai and found that they were far removed from the courts we see in cinema. I wanted to create a more realistic vision of what a real court looks like, how it functions on a day-to-day basis, the people who attend court professionally or as witnesses, accused and victims and so on.”