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Movie Review: Court: A Tale of Law

and Injustice
Now running in theatres, Court, an award-winning multilingual drama, studies
caste and criminalisation of political dissent through the prism of judiciary.

by Manisha Sethi-APRIL 18, 2015

Baap sarkar O lord, our Master


How you wield the sword
That stabs the heart
That smashes all life!
With one shot of your gun
The best of people are downed
Down in the dumps!
Yet you did not muffle me
Showed me the courtesy to try me in court
How you rendered a favour unto me
O how you rendered a favour to me
Baap sarkar O lord, our Master
So sings Narayan Kamble upon being released on bail. This ballad of
gratitude exposes the violence that lies at the heart of law. It places
the machinery of law at par with the swords and guns that smash and
drown people, much as it may pretend to be its exact opposite.
The Court follows the trial of Narayan Kamble, an ageing ex-mill
worker, now part-time tuition teacher and full-time balladeer who
sings at street corners, at Ambedkarite meetings, and among workers.
Kamble is arrested for abetting suicide of a manhole cleaner who is
found dead in the gutters, just days after Kamble has sung his rousing

songs in the slum of the now dead man. The prosecutions case is as
follows: How could a man who had cleaned gutters for five years as a
contract worker with BMC, who was well aware of the hazardous gases
that filled these hellholes, have descended down without proper
protection? The absence of any safety equipment amounted to
deliberate ignorance of safety norms by the deceased. The dead
gutter cleaner had been coaxed and incited by Kambles song to
inhale toxic gases to gain dignity and respect.
While it may appear to be a satire and it almost is, given the
incredulous charges against Kamble, and even flimsier evidence
supplied by the police to support the prosecutions case the
troubling thing about this plot is that it is wholly plausible in todays
India. There are shades of the Kabir Kala Manch trial as well as
Binayak Sens, and countless less reported ones. The evidence
recovery of books either never banned, or banned by the British
almost a century ago; a stock witness who testifies for the prosecution
in several cases; and a letter from a friend in jail urging Kamble to
look after his ill mother presented as a conspiracy in code language
is fairly typical of such cases.
Kamble sings, truth has lost its voice. But the film also shows us how
truth is produced in the courtroom. The messy and unruly claims and
counterclaims enter the records through the dictation of the sessions
judge, cleaned and flattened, in the service of law. In his cross
examination by the public prosecutor, Kamble denies having written
or performed the song Manhole workers, all of us should commit
suicide by suffocating inside the gutters, which may have triggered
the suicide in question.
Ok, have you written such a song?
Not yet.

So you might? You dont mind?


No.
Note, tells the judge to his typist, The accused is claiming that
though he has never written or performed such a song, he doesnt
mind doing it either.
The judge shakes his head, as if to suggest that this admission on
Kambles part of the possibility of writing such a song in future is as
good as an admission of guilt.
Anti-terror laws have raised the pursuit of the slippery and elusive
intention into a weighty legal category. This, combined with the
widest possible meaning of terror acts (as the public prosecutor says,
it could be bombs or chemical, or any other means of whatever
nature, includes anything), has made it legally possible to criminalize
practically every opinion that the government may dislike.
To those of us reared on a diet of Sunny Deol venting his fury
about tareekh, tareekh aur tareekh, The Court offers a very calm,
even resigned, look at the workings of our lower judiciary. It unravels
the socially conservative skeins of the judiciary: the public prosecutor
enjoys an evening out watching anti-immigrant Marathi theatre and
wishes that the judge would sentence the accused to 20 years in
prison and relieve her of boredom; the judge who gently reprimands
the police for not following the police procedure manual during search
and seizure and yet doesnt throw out these tainted seizures; who
refuses to hear a litigant who has appeared before him in a sleeveless
dress, because it violates his sense of dress code in the court.
The Court is the story of the criminal justice system as well as those it
has abandoned: the dead gutter cleaner who drinks himself to
insentience so that he can clamber down the manhole, who throws a

pebble into the filth and waits for a cockroach to appear so that he
knows that there is oxygen down there, who has lost an eye to the
deadly gases. This mans degradation is turned into material evidence
of Kambles guilt. The Court shows us that law may only rarely be
about justice. It is a requiem for gutter cleaners, for the balladeers
who sing the truth, for the ideal of justice and indeed, for all us.
Manisha Sethi is the author of Kafkaland: Prejudice, Law and
Counterterrorism in India (Three Essays Collective, 2014). A slightly
edited version of this review was first published in The Hindu Business
Line.
Posted by Thavam