Review by Conor Bateman
Chaitanya Tamhane’s feature debut is a savage, and savagely funny, attack on the legal system in India and its perpetuation of class division. Tamhane’s wit is woven into the tragedy of Narayan Kamble, the ageing folk poet played by belated debutant Vira Sathidar, who is arrested on a paper-thin charge of abetment of suicide. His ability to rouse unrest is undermined by an audience more interested in the latest Bollywood songs than his words, and he appears to pose no real threat to the government or community at all. His gradually indefinite incarceration is less a result of political conspiracy than the incompetence of the lawyers and judges involved.
Echoing the legal system’s penchant for shifting Kamble’s case from court to court, Tamhane shifts away from the singer’s plight as the film goes on. We see the supposedly righteous human rights lawyer representing him (played by producer Vivek Gomber) carefully selecting gourmet cheese in a supermarket. The prosecuting attorney is shown telling her colleagues at lunch that she just wishes the singer would be sent to prison for twenty years so everyone could move on.
The absurdity of the law is ripe for some very dry humour. Reams of bafflingly still-valid Victorian-era legislation are read out by the prosecutor only to have the judge decide not to bother about interpretation. This is much to the chagrin of Gomber’s character, who at one point finds himself having to explain why an Arthur Koestler novel found in Kamble’s house does not fall under a very broad definition of terrorist literature.
The bleakly comic social portraiture is complemented by Poola Talreja and Somnath Pal’s wonderful production design. The public-at-large appear easily distracted by spectacle, and the contrast between the beige walls of the courts and the colourful set of a rapturously received xenophobic play speaks volumes about a widely held willingness to ignore the plight of others. Mrinal Desai’s cinematography is also worth praising: the film’s final sequence, which shows the trial judge and his extended family going on a holiday together, is shot as if Ed Lachman had stumbled across from the set of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy.
Sixty years ago, the story of an impassioned folk singer tried on trumped-up charges would have been a perfect fit for the Bengali melodramas of Bimal Roy or Ritwik Ghatak. In Tamhane’s hands, though, it becomes the premise for one of the most adventurous and pointed comedies to come out of India in recent memory.