Squawk at the movies: “Court” by Chaitanya Tamhane


Last night we elbowed our way through hordes of leggy young tourists overrunning the shopping mall that used to be SoHo, over to the Film Forum to see an Indian film called “Court.” It’s about a 65-year old poet and protest singer in Mumbai whose songs spare no one.

He’s arrested and accused of singing a song advising the (Untouchable) sewer workers that “all of us should commit suicide by suffocating in the gutters.” When a worker is found dead in a sewer two days later, the police draw the only possible conclusion: the poet is guilty of “incitement to suicide.”

The trial prosecutor (in the white sari, below) could be straight out of the Bronx DA’s Office, demanding a 20-year sentence for this frail old man, digging up his brushes with the law from 30 years ago, (“Your Honor should know about them”),  citing censorship laws from when India was a British colony, putting in dodgy evidence and stretching the anti-sedition laws to cover just about anything.

Court poet Court defense and prosecutor

Indian court - judge

The defense lawyer (in the suit, above) is a young activist bachelor with a laptop and a car, buying dinner from a Western-style deli, drinking beer at a hipster bar with his friends and being awful to his parents who want him to get married. The prosecutor, in contrast, rides home on a shabby commuter train, cooks for her husband and children and does her legal research at night from an old law book.  The antagonists are apparently metaphors for the new freedom and the impoverished, antiquated system.

The courtroom isn’t all that different from the Bronx Hall of Justice, packed with anxious, bewildered defendants and their families bullied and humiliated by barking court officers. Endless rounds of meaningless proceedings and adjournments, forcing the presumed-innocent accused to languish in jail for months or years.

The judge tries to look fair but is hopelessly corroded by the habitual wielding of unquestioned authority. Sound familiar?

One striking difference from the Bronx is that instead of having the court reporter transcribe the proceedings verbatim, the judge dictates to her his comically biased summary of the testimony. But is that so different from here, where “the facts” always come down  to a judge’s interpretation?

Off-duty, the judge takes his family to a comic play about kicking out “immigrants” (i.e., a different ethnic group), which the audience cheers wildly. He later advises the father of a mute boy that he can be cured by wearing a stone with healing powers. Is he more superstitious than Bronx judges predicting the future dangerousness of sex offenders based on an “instrument” that’s as scientific  as a crystal ball?

The poet’s health deteriorates after months in jail, but when bail is finally granted, he goes out and performs even more pointedly satirical songs, writes a pamphlet about the indignities he’s been through and gets arrested at the printer’s.

It’s the saddest movie since “Bicycle Thief.”

Rent for five bucks from Kino: https://kinonow.com/

About Appellate Squawk

A satirical blog for criminal defense lawyers and their friends who won't give up without a squawk.
This entry was posted in Civil Liberties, Judges, Law, Law & Parody and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Squawk at the movies: “Court” by Chaitanya Tamhane

  1. Paul Liu says:

    “One striking difference is that instead of having the court reporter transcribe the proceedings verbatim, the judge dictates his summary of the testimony. Naturally, it’s a highly biased interpretation. We could barely restrain ourselves from jumping up to object.”

    This also is not that different from what happens here, at least when a “reconstruction hearing ” is ordered to establish the record for an appeal after the original record had been lost and the court reporter had destroyed all the stenographic notes before becoming unavailable by reason of death or disappearance.

    During the hearing the trial judge initially made clear that he had no recollection independent of the notes he had taken during the trial summarizing all the damning evidence against the defendant. Perhaps not surprisingly the notes contained no reference to defense objections or the rulings thereon. Not surprisingly this jibed with the extent of the trial prosecutor’s recollection.

    When defense counsel broached the likelihood that a certain jury voir dire practice may have occurred which the highest court had recently deemed improper, the court had a remarkable instance of past recollection revived, stating it now had a distinct memory that such practice did not occur in this particular trial.

    Who knows what memories lie dormant within all of us ready to be called up when the need arises.


  2. Alex Bunin says:

    A Bollywood version is coming where all of the courtroom sings and dances.


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