Archive for April 24, 2015

Court : On Celluloid and otherwise

Posted: April 24, 2015 by moifightclub in cinema, Indie
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This post is by Mohamed Thaver, who has covered the Sessions Court proceedings for Hindustan Times for over a year. As he watched Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court, he could not stop himself from making some Court-notes. Blame it on good ol’ journalism.

Thaver is a former journo who still finds it difficult to keep his nose out of crime, movies and book. Over to him now.

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It is easier to hate people if you do not see them in human form. Especially, if, with the help of stock phrases, you just have to reduce them to pre-moulded narratives. After moving to report on the Mumbai Sessions court from crime reporting, the first thing that hit me was the absolutely direct access to the accused. While though initially it gave me a kick, seeing all these accused about whom I had been writing, soon I realized it was a tricky position to be in. To see these ‘demons’ in human forms was a bit inconvenient.

Seeing them in full view of the pathetic condition, their wives-mothers squatting at one end of the courtroom, missing a much needed day’s salary on most occasions; trying to understand first the English and next the legal jargon from the expressions of the judge and the lawyers. One had to be heartless to not feel for them. The irony of women reporters telling a rape accused that he had ink smudged on his face and giving him a tissue to wipe it with was never lost on me.

I almost felt possessive about the domain that debutant director Chaitanya Tamhane’s court deals with. The other day I saw a former colleague covering sessions court say ‘Finally a movie about us’ on a social media platform. Court’s have always aroused curiosity, as it is on most occasions wrongly construed to be a place of high drama. However, the exclusive access to this beat, sometimes encouraged us to keep the myth going, as we would regale our colleagues and friends with stories from the court. I remember during the final stages of the Shakti Mills trail, several colleagues of mine reporting on other beats, had come to the court to ‘just see’.

Had I seen Court, as against other bollywood movies before I started covering the Mumbai sessions court, I would have been more at ease making the transition into the world of the black coats. Like the act of the Judge, repeating the just concluded arguments of the two lawyers for the stenographer to put in on record bizzarely worked as comic relief when it was screened at the MAMI film festival, so was it a bit amusing in my head when I first entered a courtroom in 2013. As days passed by, I realized how different the actual courts were as compared to their sexed up versions dished out in movies after movies. The heart at the most courtroom movies: drama, is reserved for handful of days in the court; mostly on the days the verdict is pronounced.  On most days, the court is like it is in Tamhane’s movie, slow, dreary, confused, boisterous and more than anything a distant soporific hum that continues with robotic monotony.

Such is the monotony, that in the nearly yearlong period that I was reporting on sessions court, I found a familiar cycle in most cases. Most cases began with the accused and family members initially trying to understand every word that their lawyers and judges were saying. However, with the innumerable repetitions of sometimes the same set of facts looked at differently from both sides, slowly but steadily their helplessness induced determination is hacked down by the sheer lifelessness of the trial till they go on auto pilot. They ultimately emerge during the crescendo of final arguments and wait for bated breath for the day of judgement.

To explain how taxing the process is in words itself,  the initial stage of the trial, framing of charges, is when the police produces a chargesheet in the court that carries the sections under which a person is to be tried in addition to a detailed account of the crime and the evidence against the accused. This is the point in court, when Vinay Vore (Vivek Gomber) argues before the judge that section 306 (abetment to suicide) of the Indian Penal Code  slapped against his client, the folk singer Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar) should not be applicable as there was no intention on his part to provoke people to commit suicide. Kamble is arrested after a sewerage worker’s body is found in a manhole. The police allege that Kamble’s ‘inflammatory’ poem ‘exhorting’ sewage workers to commit suicide outside the sewerage worker’s residence, led him to commit suicide two days later.

And since abetment to suicide it is the only charge his client is booked under, Vora asks for his client to be discharged from the case. Like in most court cases, the judge decides to go ahead with the trial and leaving the decision of whether the charge is applicable for a later starge after going through the evidence. What I found is that this stage would tend to get technical as lawyers quibble primarily on technical law points.

Then we come to that part of a trial, which, in movies, is normally seen as the be-all and end-all of all courtroom dramas. The public prosecutor (who represents the state) calls forth witness and then examines them, trying to extract information that can be used as evidence against the accused. Once the prosecutor finishes with his examination, the defence lawyer starts a cross examination or cross- as called in legal lingo – of the witness. Of the few technical glitches that I could spot in the movie as far as court room procedures were concerned, was the one in which the first police witness was not cross examined by Vora.

After the prosecution witness are examined and cross-examined, the trial them moves to 313 – in court lingo – which refers to the recording of the statement of the accused as ordained by section 313 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. While, it seems like an interesting phase, what it is, is, just a rough question – answer format document that the judge reads out before the accused, to which he has to reply in a yes or a no. This stage, in my humble opinion, which has not been shown in the movie, could have been exploited to get us a sneak peek into the mind of Kamble, who gives the impression of a person who has so much to say but has decided to turn his back to the world.

After the final arguments of the two lawyers are over, the judge will then allot a date for pronouncing of judgement. Like any god fearing person I thought that the ‘day of judgement’ was final. But the wheels of judiciary run a tad slower than organized religion. Because while on the day of judgement, the court may pronounce the guilty- not-guilty judgement, the quantum of sentence is still remaining. After the judgement, both sides argue about the quantum of sentence – which in the Shakti Mills gangrape case – stretched for  days on end – before the judge on most cases sets another date for the quantum of sentence.

On this date finally, when the judge pronounces the quantum of sentence, you approach the family of the accused – now either a convict or a free man– and one of them will tell you that they will approach the High court and failing which the Supreme court. The cogs of the machinery keep rolling. During the last few scenes of the movie, Vora pays Rs 1,00,000 as bail amount for Kamble. When Kamble – who earns a living by giving tuitions – questions Vora in the hospital about why he paid such a big amount, Vora’s who is also representing him in another case slapped against him by the police, replies, “Now you have just got bail. You case will go on for years. You can repay me the money by then.”

– Mohamed Thaver

 

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SPOILER  ALERT

If you are into cocktails, you know Margarita is hardly ever served with a straw, but who is to say you can’t have it with a straw? Who sets these standards of normality? What is normality? When life throws a lemon out at you, make lemonade? That might be the “normal adage” but don’t doubt that you might as well slice wedges of that lemon to spunk up your cocktail – have it with a straw, if you may. The magic, after all, is in the concoction – not the goblet, glass or straw.

I don’t think the highlight of “Margarita With A Straw” is that it is the story of a patient of cerebral palsy. Neither is it her unusual journey of discovering her sexuality.. I think the biggest achievement is how “normal” the story is.

Sex and handicap have so far both been terribly misunderstood and/or misrepresented in our movies (and perhaps our society). Let’s recall what Bollywood has us believe mostly:

  • Handicap in bollywood – a good human being, who is tragically handicapped and the big bad word is mean to this person for no fault of his/her. Poor he/she lives a life of suffering and sympathy is the least you can give him/her.
  • Sexuality in bollywood – (usually means homosexuality) and is the butt of all jokes (pun intended). So a gay angle in mainstream Bollywood is usually intended to provide comic relief (?) and almost always is physical comedy – to evoke laughter over dressing or mannerism. At best, it titillates homophobia (remember kantaben!).

“Margarita with a straw” is a slap-on-your-face impolite departure from both these stereotypes. It is in the end a story of a girl with her unique flaws (and I don’t mean her physical flaws), and how she handles her life on her terms. Yes, her disability is a factor, but who in this world is perfect. And then again, who is perfectly happy. Aren’t we all but a group of mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive list of flaws?

But then who are we to call anything a flaw. Perhaps there are no flaws, simply facts – which we all accept and get on with life. So what would a mother do, if she found her child was challenged physically? Brood? Perhaps momentarily. But, Brood forever? Nope. She will take it in her stride and do what she must to make sure the child does not feel the pinch.

So welcome to Laila’s (essayed remarkably by Kalki) life – different, but raised normal –  A girl whose dreams do not show any signs of the struggle that her mortar skills do. A musician, composer and writer, in her late teens, who Skypes and messengers with her boycrush, even writes him a song in his languages, only to get her heart broken. But she is a today’s educated girl – who can dabble between software, men and even porn, at her will and has no shame asking a desi dukaandar for a vibrator.

With crushes and sexcapades behind her, her story takes a defining turn when she is accepted in New York University. A lot changes for her and for her Aai (the ravishing, refreshing, rare, Revathi) in the Big Apple. For starters, Aai no longer needs to carry a manual ramp in her non-cosy van, for the developed country is equipped to give her daughter the wings she never imagined. But old habits die hard – in her brief stay in New York she still shadows her daughter without her knowledge only to make sure she is fine. As a confident, yet worried mother returns to India, the brave, yet newly independent daughter stays on to pursue her dreams and live her life.

While academic flight is underplayed, it is the unfurling of Laila’s inner self, that forms the crux of MWAS. When she meets Khanum from Pakistan (Sayani Gupta) in New York, you can sense sparks flying. Make way for Hindi cinema’s most unconventional coupling  – one a patient of cerebral palsy and other with no eyesight. Both women. Chemistry crackles and couple starts to live together. But is Laila sure of herself? Is she as committed as her partner?

In the last leg of the story, the couple of New York arrive in Delhi to make a few announcements. Attempts are made, and Aai, misunderstands bi for baai – and can only empathise that all women are but baais at home – dealing with chores day in and day out. A determined Laila makes it but obvious in the next attempt but has little chance to converse. For beneath the fighter exterior, Aai is losing her battle against cancer.

The protagonists real battles are finally not about her physicality or her sexuality, they are about her family, her infidelity, her personal choices. Does she tell her partner the truth? Does she choose convenience over companionship? Career over family?

Margarita with a straw is more than a film, it is a perspective. Sexuality is not a situation, it is a fact. If you accept that your child has cerebral palsy, why not accept a child who discovers he/she is gay/bisexual? Cerebral palsy can not be cured, but as a parent (and society) you can try and make the environment more conducive to help the person lead a normal life. Is it a lot to expect the same for a person with uncommon sexuality? For everything that is uncommon is not unnatural.

To say so much about this film is to mean without saying that it excels in all departments, and superlatively so in performances. Revathi’s portrayal of Aai is as real as it can get – angry, loving, caring,  sometimes doting and nosey, she is the typical Indian mother, an epitome of affection. Both Sayani Gupta and Kuljeet Singh (as Laila’s father) deliver memorable characters for what they bring to the screen.

But the movie belongs to Kalki Kochlin – who makes Laila very three dimensional, very believable. She works effectively to nail the body language and voice without ever making Laila a caricature. You can see her inner struggle flash on her face and can feel for her everytime she struggles to move or to communicate or make a decision. This is definitely a performance of an international standard.

Kudos to director & writer Shonali Bose, who not only breaks stereotypes but sets a new benchmark of sorts. She has more than pushed the envelope in Bollywood. MWAS is a bold, daring, refreshing and very important film. It breaks conventions and asks you accept what you mustn’t question, and love without conditions.

Do not have fixations of what is right, what is acceptable or what is normal. And the next time you have a Margarita, (or even a filter coffee for that matter), remember you can also have it with a straw 😉

Kartik K J

(Based in Pune, a marketing professional in daytime and a movie buff during night, Kartik K J is currently working on something which he hopes will be a novel someday)

This post is by Salik Shah, whose twitter bio says his location is Milky Way, and he is addicted to speculative fiction. Once in a while, when he remembers us or finds a film worth talking about, he sends us his cinema notes. Over to him.

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The story about struggle behind the making of a film shouldn’t be criteria for judging a film. The act of borrowings, bold decisions and compromises made can’t be more important than the film.  When a film reaches the theater, or the screen, it stands on its own feet. There is no director to defend it. No producer to sell it. No critic to lead. The decision is tough—whether we like it or not. Our choices reveal more about us than the film.

Let’s take two very different films for comparison, The Drop (Dir. Michaël R. Roskam, 2014) and Court (Dir. Chaintanya Tamhane, 2015)—both set around a fixed point—to see the differences between the choices made by a master screenwriter and a promising debutant.

The bar in The Drop and the court in Court have one thing in common: they don’t move. Written by an American, Dennis Lehane, and adapted to the screen by a European director, The Drop is a striking film set in an American neighborhood. Nothing happens in The Drop—nothing extraordinary—until the beginning of the end, or an end. The Drop ends at one point, and then starts again. Same with Court, like MFC said. Tamhane pushes the violence off the screen. Lehane embraces it. Tamhane denies a verdict. Lehane delivers justice.

Storytellers have to make tough choices—and those choices make or break them. Tamhane’s earlier effort, Six Strands (2011), is mesmerizing minus the political comment. Forerunner (Dir. Sahej Rahal, 2013) is clever and intriguing, also equally political and confident. But it is Pati (Dir. Sohrab Hura, 2011) which emerges as the winner among the three with its stark realism. Pati reminds one of Satyajit Ray’s early films—though it isn’t supposed to be a film.

Court is made with paper, but the script is not the film. Pati’s strength comes from the camera, which isn’t afraid to move when the need arises. Kamble embodies anger, movement and restlessness, but the still camera doesn’t quite capture his free spirit. Court doesn’t let Nutan’s kitchen speak for itself. It chooses noise over silence during the train journey, which could have been a memorable and powerful scene. Pati sings, Court stings.

Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar (Dir. Jabbar Patel, 1999) is a Bollywood film—but manages to offer nuanced characters and scenes. Though I struggled to get past my bias against the style of the film in the beginning, I was really interested in the subject. When the style became unimportant, the story took over my senses. Towards the end of Ambedkar, the struggle is lost but the spirit remains.

Court doesn’t offer such comfort. It refuses to be subjective. It is a balanced work, and therein lies its flaw. It is fair to everyone, but unfair to itself. Jai Bhim Comrade (Dir. Anand Patwardhan, 2011) from where Court borrows its strength isn’t such a sleek and sanitized film. Patwardhan isn’t easy to watch not just because of the controversial subjects of his documentaries, but also for his low-production value, unplanned, haphazard shots and unprofessional cutting by our ‘high’ standard.

Anand Patwardhan tells the truth, and he shows that it can be really ugly, quite literally. He has a signature that doesn’t need introduction in the history of Indian filmmaking. And he isn’t afraid to go the court to fight censorship and secure release of his films. We can label Patwardhan as an activist filmmaker, but Anurag Kashyap (Gulaal), Vishal Bhardwaj (Haider) and Imitiaz Ali (Highway) are also activists in their own fashion and target audience.

Subjectivity comes with the position of power—internal and external—and Court was wise to recognize that it didn’t have such power early on. Court tempered the anger, harshness and spirit of Jai Bhim Comrade to reach out to a wider audience (who might actually commit suicide if made to watch a Patwardhan). Its strategy worked, but our cinema lost. Again.

“In the last few years, [I] have discovered that there is nothing bigger than a filmmaker’s ego. And [I] would surely worship that ego the day I get to know that a film is cure for AIDS or some serious disease like that. Till then, it’s just a film, a fucking film…

Does it deliver anything new? A new cinematic language? A new/hidden India that we weren’t aware of? A new art? A new craft? The answer is no. It’s a new voice that’s assured, makes brave choices but is still following the diktats set by the Top 5-fest-selection-committee.  It felt like what an European art-house director would do if he is asked to direct the film. Even when the lights are switched off one by one in the Court, you knew at that moment that the film won’t be over there. He would go back to the mundane life of one of the characters. And he exactly did that – its predictable in that way, you know whom the film is trying to please.”

MFC  

The above criticism is harsh, but necessary. It is true that a film can’t be a cure to physical diseases, but it can be a balm to spiritual calamities.  It can save marriages and prevent suicides. It can give hope to those who need it desperately. It can also make life bearable and worthwhile. It can help people to grow beautiful from within. It can also lead one astray, sow guilt, and kill. It could be a world event promoting science, or a political tool to ensue genocide. It can be extraordinarily mundane, or remain just a film, a fucking film. Should it be pathbreaking or formulaic? The choice is ours and ours alone to make.

Dear Bollywoodwallas, the good news is: the most famous scene from the court of Indian cinema is yet to be convicted. The bad news is: the world has changed. Chaintanya Tamhane is a confident voice of our changing times, and Court is better than most of our paper mache. Vivek Gomber, you’re the quiet hero we need. (Though I must confess that 12 Angry Men (Dir. Sidney Lumet, 1957) is still my favorite court film.)

In memory of Bollywood, and to good times ahead:

Salik Shah

(Pic Courtesy – Court’s FB page)