Squawk at the movies: “Court” by Chaitanya Tamhane

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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 a feature film called “Court.” It’s about a 65-year old poet and protest singer in Mumbai, arrested while performing in a public square. He’s funny and unsparing of everyone. We later tried to google-search his DVD’s until we remembered he’s a fictional character.

The charge against him is that he allegedly sang 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 film centers around the court proceedings, which drag on for months.

Court poet Court defense and prosecutor

Indian court - judge

The poet is denied bail and his health deteriorates. 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.”

We concur with the international acclaim accorded to the film, although we’d have liked to see more about the poet and less about the lawyers’ out-of-court lives. The young defense attorney drives a car, has a laptop and shops in a Western-style deli. The prosecutor rides a shabby commuter train, serves dinner to her husband and consults a battered old law book. We get the message – the system is antiquated. There’s also a theme of ethnic hatred, the moral being that censorship merely fans the flames.

We write separately, however, because anyone who thinks it’s only about the court system in India should take a trip to the Bronx Hall of Justice. Or to just about any urban American court. It isn’t all that different: smelly courtrooms 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, even years.

Nor is the Indian prosecutor basically different from her American counterpart. She brings up the defendant’s brushes with the law from 30 years ago as evidence of his present guilt. She argues a ridiculous interpretation of a statute (which the defense lawyer does nothing to rebut). She asserts facts that she knows or should know are untrue. She’s good to her family and friends but thinks nothing of demanding a 20-year sentence for this frail poet for singing satirical songs. Substitute a black suit for her white sari and she’d fit perfectly into any DA’s Office.

The judge is also a familiar figure. He thinks he’s fair, but his sense of fairness has been hopelessly corroded by the habitual wielding of unquestioned authority. When the defense attorney finally demolishes the prosecution case (we won’t give away how), the remedy isn’t dismissal but only granting exorbitant bail.

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.

But even that may not be so different from our system where “the facts” always come down  to a judge’s interpretation. We’re just less direct about it.

One of the last scenes shows the judge authoritatively assuring the father of a mute boy that he can easily be cured by changing his name and wearing a ring with a certain kind of stone. Lest anyone think it’s only in India that judges are superstitious, look at the beliefs underlying our system: that a jury can tell from “demeanor” whether the witness is telling the truth. That an “excited utterance” is reliable. That cops have a special ability to remember faces. That “sex offenders” inevitably repeat their offenses. It’s not all that different from believing in magic rings.

 

About Appellate Squawk

A satirical blog for criminal defense lawyers and their friends who won't give up without a squawk.
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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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