Chaitanya Tamhane on Court, virtual film festivals and how Alfonso Cuaron influenced his craft
There’s not one but several reasons why Chaitanya Tamhane’s directorial debut, Court (2014) remains special. Critically acclaimed for being perceptive and powerful, the multilingual courtroom drama premiered at the 71st Venice International Film Festival (where it won the Best Film in the Horizons category), after which the film went on to win 18 other awards at several film festivals. Upon its release in India (2015), Court won the National Film Award for Best Feature and was India’s official entry to the Oscars. Even six years after its initial release, the film — that revolves around the legal proceedings that unfold after a folk singer gets accused of inciting a sewage worker’s suicide — continues to find its way around the world.
Now in its 25th edition, as the European Union Film Festival comes with an eclectic line-up of over 42 films across six genres and 37 languages, Court is one among the two full-length features from India that are being showcased (alongside Satyajit Ray’s 1956 classic Aparajito). We catch up with the Mumbai-based filmmaker over a phone call as he reveals more about the inspiration being the film, its making and why it remains relevant.
Excerpts from the interview:
Court is still finding its way to film fests like the EUFF. What do you feel about people still discovering and appreciating this movie?
This is something I was talking to my producer just yesterday. I had heard about a few other screenings of Court that are also happening now. I feel really grateful that at a time where there is an information overload, with so much new content coming out, for a film that was made six years ago to still have a life and continue its journey and find an audience, it feels very special. Thanks to fests like the EUFF for acknowledging the work we have done and facilitating the access to the viewers for the film.
What inspired you to explore the Indian judicial system for your debut film?
I have heard some stories about the Indian court being a bit chaotic and also a great piece of theatre. I remember I was watching some typical courtroom drama on American television and I realised what we have seen in films have always been so dramatic. I wondered how it must be to be in an actual courtroom and how the proceedings would unfold. I got curious, so on a whim, I decided to go and sit in a lower court, the Magistrate Court of Mumbai to be a fly on the wall and observe what’s happening. We generally see High Courts and the Supreme Court on the screen so I wanted to see how it worked on the more grass-root level. Once I started visiting those courtrooms, I was utterly fascinated with what I saw. Because it was still deciding life and death for people, deciding the fates of individuals and yet at the same time, was very casual and rather slow-moving. I thought, this judge could be one of my relatives, or this applicant could be one of my neighbours, it's not some people who are far removed from our society, who are operating within these institutions and I wanted to tell their story.
The kind of nuanced portrayal of the system as shown in the film must have taken a lot of research...
Yes, the first phase of research was when I was scripting. As I visited the courtrooms, I interviewed a lot of lawyers and read up a lot about them. That’s how the script came about. And when you have to translate it on screen, to execute that world into something tangible for the camera, you also have your team, your collaborators like the production designers and the cinematographers for the next phase of research, that helps in visually executing it. We tried to get as many documents as possible to try to recreate the courtroom as authentically as possible and cast accordingly. The funny thing was that you can’t take pictures or record videos in the courtroom. So we had to rely on our memory, secretly sketch things, make notes and all.
The film, as opposed to typical courtroom dramas, stays close to reality. Did you have to dramatise any part of it so as to keep it engaging for the viewers?
There is no such thing as reality here. Everything is a cinematic interpretation. It was not a documentary on courts. It was a story, a narrative with a dramatic framework, with a dramatic context to it. So it was not so much about exaggerating something but it was more about doing what is right for the story that you are trying to tell.
You specifically sought non-professional actors for the project. How did it help the film?
We wanted authenticity. We wanted you to feel it when you watch the film. For you to have an immersive experience where you really feel like you are in that courtroom. As if you have seen those faces in real life in Mumbai. I feel that kind of textures can only come from people who actually inhabit these spaces rather than making actors do it.
The festival graced several film fests and was even India’s official entry for the Oscars. Did you have a global audience in mind while filming it?
Not really, for both Court and even the film that I made afterwards (The Disciple). You can’t really try to read anyone’s mind or guess how the audience will react. You do what you do with the conviction that you have and you hope for an audience. But at the same time, our standards were international. We had this ambition for sure, that the film in terms of its craft and its making has to hold up to international standards but not necessarily in terms of content like tailoring it for any particular audience.
But yes, the film is rooted in a very specific cultural context. But you grant some intelligence and intuition to your audience that no matter which part of the world you are from, there are certain themes that are very universal in nature.
While Court follows the life of a folk singer, your second film, The Disciple is about the journey of a classical musician. Do you see yourself drawn to stories related to music?
I have thought about this myself (laughs). I guess I'm in some way attracted to the notion of performance art and performers. But the difference in these movies is that in Court, the story of the folk singer is the springboard and the catalyst that goes on to the lives of people who work with the judiciary whereas, in The Disciple, the story is purely about just one musician’s journey. So in that sense, they are very different stories.
You got to work with Alfonso Cuarón for the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. How did he influence your filmmaking sensibilities?
Working with Alfonso and getting to know him made me a lot more sensitive to different aspects of filmmaking. Because filmmaking is an amalgamation of so many different art forms, so many different themes- there is a visual side, there is the sound element and there are the performances, the lights, so many things. You will have a natural affinity towards some of those aspects, but maybe not some of the others. I think I have become in a well-rounded manner, more sensitised to a lot of other aspects of the film, which I wasn’t before. Knowing him and seeing him at work has really expanded my vocabulary as a filmmaker, not just on an artistic level, but also from a technical level.
Now that EUFF is going virtual for the first time, how do you think festival-goers will respond to a completely digital film festival?
There is not much to think about this year. What is the option we have? This is one way in which cinema is thriving. One way in which film lovers are getting to watch the kind of films they want to watch. Because what is the alternative in a pandemic?
What are you presently working on? Can we expect an OTT release?
I'm right now in the process of detaching myself from The Disciple. It will come out sometime next year to audiences worldwide. As for other projects, I’m exploring different things and have a few existing ideas for sure.
And OTT projects, it’s very early for me to predict. The situation is too uncertain right now to predict anything. I guess it will depend on the stories that I want to tell, whatever be the medium. The platform doesn’t matter. Every project I do is special, the dream in fact is to get to make the next.
Featuring film across four categories — Euronama: European Cinema Today, Masterpieces of European Cinema, Poetry On Screen: Satyajit Ray & Chaitanya Tamhane and Climate Change: 6 Shorts of Interdependence, the EUFF celebrates award-winning films across Europe alongside the most recent cinematic triumphs at Cannes, Locarno, Venice, Berlin, Sans Sebastian, among others.
“With the specific goal to increase the sense of unity between people and countries, we have decided to structure the Festival in a more complex way with the creation of four distinct sections that echo and dialogue with each other. They focus on crucial issues and stylistic choices, as shall be explained by the directors and film critics who will accompany today's films and the history of cinema through video messages, interviews and their presence at the Festival’s numerous side events,” shares Veronica Flora, the curator of EUFF.
Going fully virtual for the first time, the festival will celebrate the diversity and depth of cinema and culture by offering a varied mosaic of films that includes everything from Agnès Varda’s seminal Cléo From 5 to 7 and Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue, to Bergman’s Persona, and Bunuel’s surrealist masterpiece The Exterminating Angel, from Antonio Pietrangeli iconic I Knew Her Well to the classic of the Czech New Wave, Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde, up to the dramatically current Ali: Fear Eats the Soul by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
On till November 30. Open to all. Register online