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.
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/