To accept the premise of Court is to submit oneself to the rules of a Kafkaesque society and the cynicism that comes along with it. That you will never reach the conclusion of the bizarre court case that is ongoing here, is a given from the first scene. A Big Brother-like entity descending upon the accused — performing in front of his audience — takes us by the collar and lands us in the extremely painful environment of the court proceedings. The charges are absurd in nature and the proceedings of the court fortify the thought that this labyrinthine tale will never reach its conclusion.
What we are in our public personas, sitting in chairs that signify secular authority, is juxtaposed with the private lives of the three most important individuals who become part of these proceedings after the accusations are levelled against the accused. The humble background of the public prosecutor, the affluence of the defense lawyer and the summer holidays of the sessions court judge clearly seem to point at the malaise that exists in the society. It is difficult to say who the protagonist of this story is. Or probably, it is the story of three individuals criss-crossing each others’ lives for the same court case.
Since childhood we have heard the phrase, “Police aur court-kachehri ke chakkar mein kaun padega?” (who wants to get trapped in the unending loop of the police and a court case?) and it is this chakkar that you get to witness in this film. Not at any point does the film focus on the trials of an individual, nor does it get into the detailed history of the alleged crime committed. The true perpetrator of the crime is probably behind the camera: an all pervasive entity that swoops down every time it decides to play havoc with somebody’s life. The middle class has risen and has become one of the most important growth kernels in India’s history. But the movie dissects and analyses this rise of economic power vis-a-vis a broadening of world views. The judge who ideally should be a truly rational man is given to the temptations of the superstitious kind in his private life. His rationality in private life is dependent on data points of convenience and the authority that belongs to his professional life is subsumed in his private life. He rattles off data about the absurd salaries of MBA professionals with a sense of declaration that if they expect us judges to be more efficient in our professional lives then may be they need to pay us more. That these salaries are not just exorbitant but definitely fictitious, is irrelevant to the judge. He is passing a judgement on the society as a whole without basing it in facts. And he drives his judgement in the direction of his choosing and convenience based on these conjured-up facts.
The two other forces facing off each other are the extremely contrasting personal and professional lives of the public prosecutor and the defense attorney. One coming from the lower rungs of the middle class, traveling in crowded public transport and going home to cook for her family in a small one-room-kitchen — possibly government-allotted house — and the other living in a fancy apartment, traveling to courthouses in his luxury sedan. The distance between the public prosecutor and the accused is lesser than that of the defense lawyer and the defendant. But this lack of distance leads not to empathy but disgust. She wants to desperately move away from the webs of her not-so-luxurious life and the accused represents those rungs she might have navigated herself. She has no sympathy or even empathy for the accused representing the scum of life she has left behind. She would rather that all these people (accused and the like) be put behind the bars and be done with it.
On the other hand, the distance between the defense lawyer and the defendant could not be more. But he comes to his aid in charity. He cries alone in the night when he is attacked and his face is blackened for he is grappling with his choices of defending the poor and defenseless and how he could have taken the easier route of making money in a system that is favourable to those who wish to make millions. His choice of not having married and living alone in his house, drinking himself to sleep are tied to his inability to find people who understand him and could share his mind-space. He goes to pubs with his friends, possibly only joined at the hip for their common denominator of money. He enjoys himself in these situations but longs for a just world that provides for all. In his empathy he stands alone, much like the director, I suspect. In his battle for finding neverland the director understands the fabric of this society so well that he feels hopeless. He is sure of one thing only. That there is no hope.
During the scene when the lights go off in the empty courtroom one by one, we see his hopelessness painted across the canvas of our minds. The sighing camera slowly disappears into the darkness and stays there, making it the uncomfortable truth of the nature of being us. It lets us grapple in the dark of the lack of solution to this system which while created to serve and protect us does not allow us to express our thoughts without repercussions. The world exists beyond the walls of this courtroom, the one where the the principle characters exist. You do not get into the life of the accused/defendant, you only understand the people enmeshed in the web of the justice system. Justice will never be done because judgments are pronounced by human beings, individuals who can not shed their personalities and bring the balance of the constitution into the courtroom they serve. It is probably the courtroom they serve and not the voiceless humans who are brought in to the room repeatedly to be abused and censured. After the accused is exonerated of the crimes he is brought back in for defending against a different set of charges, just as absurd and arbitrary in nature as the first one and the cycle (court-kachehri ka chakkar) of justice persists.
The eight days between October 18-25 were for me the perfect mixture of pleasure and pain. I was thrilled about the 14th Mumbai Film Festival, which had the most exciting line up of about 200 films from the world over. I was also supposed to be working on almost all of those days. Let’s just say, the 18-hour long days left me more satiated than sore.
Apart from the regular nods to French and Italian classics, this year’s MFF also saw a very healthy mix of indie cinema from the US as well as relatively-unknown-on-the-cinema-world’s-map Kazakhstan and Afghanistan, which made their presence felt very strongly.
As much as I would have loved to sit through most films, (so does every festival-hogger), I obviously couldn’t. But I was very pleased with the ones I did watch. Honestly, and I know this is quite hard to believe, but out of the 20-odd films I did watch, I found not one even remotely “bad”. There were some really good and talked-about films like Rust and Bone, Kauwboy, Ship of Theseus, Le Tableau and others that I ended up missing, but I hope to catch them soon, somewhere or the other.
These are a few of my favourites among the movies I could relish at the Mumbai Film Festival this year. I hope to try and dedicate a separate write up for most of these, but I couldn’t resist putting down my immediate thoughts about them right away. Here they are, in no particular order…
(Click on the name of the film to watch he trailer)
1. Mystery (China) – Lou Ye‘s suspense-thriller had already been well received at Cannes this year. This new-age noir about a polygamous-adulterous husband and his jealous, scheming wives is well done. I particularly enjoyed the way the suspense keeps the audience changing their minds about the killer till the point it is actually revealed. Good camerawork and a Western approach to the whole screenplay separates Mystery from the more widely-known Chinese cinema that usually deals with their history, mythology and the martial arts. Only if the ending were slightly better.
2. Cosmopolis (US) – David Cronenberg‘s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s book of the same name is not really a favourite — not yet, at least. Honsetly, I haven’t been able to make up my mind about it and possibly that is exactly why it has left me so intrigued. As Eric Packer, the young multimillionaire crosses Manhattan to get a haircut from his preferred barber on a day the roads find themselves choc a bloc with traffic, his interactions with others in his stretch limo drop references to the power of the emerging economies, the rise of the yuan against the dollar and the fall of capitalism. From the images you see in the frames you sense that the dystopian world you had read about or watched earlier is probably already here. The dialogue delivery, sterile, except in the case of the barber, has a certain philosophical touch to it — quite like Fight Club, but still not quite there. The introduction of a new character in the last 20 minutes of the film makes it an engaging verbal tennis match. It all adds up to the kind of film you need to watch a few times before you can decide how you feel about it.
3. Augustine (French) – Set in France in the late 19th century, the story explores the journey of 19-year old Augustine from being an awkwardly pubescent maid in a high-class Parisian household to a seductress aware of the power her new sexuality holds over those in positions of authority. Against the backdrop of a dark and stony psychiatric hospital, doctor-patient relationships and the exhibitions of “disease” that are necessary for grant for research and treatment of the enigmatic patient, the cinematography has ominous undertones that make it an engrossing watch. Alice Winocour‘s debut feature is definitely good.
4. Smashed (US) – A Special Jury Prize winner at the last Sundance, James Ponsoldt‘s Smashed is an interesting take on the other side of alcoholism. When one out of an alcoholic couple decides to go sober, things don’t go the intended way. With a very honest performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and an equally competent supporting cast, the film has some warm and funny moments to look forward to. Most importantly, it brings into question the bases of compatibility in couples, which our generation may need to look at seriously.
5. Amour (France) – There is nothing new that I can say about this Palme d’Or winner that has been written about by every cineaste who has seen it. All I will say is, I watched this film in a theatre with a seating capacity of 1,110, every seat was occupied, and there was pin-drop silence for the 126 minutes that it ran. You have no choice but to give in to Michael Haneke‘s love story about an affluent urban couple who have to come to terms with the challenges that old age throws in front of them. And there is a reason we love Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva – it isn’t easy to be funny, weak, poignant, strong and loving at the same time. They make it seem effortless.
6. Two For The Road (UK) – I will be eternally glad for having had the opportunity of watching Audrey Hepburn on the big screen at least once. When I saw that this film by Stanley Donen starred her, I knew there was no way I was watching another film in the same time slot. The screenplay moves back and forth across various points in a married couple’s life – and every time they are on a road trip, either by themselves, or with friends. The references and their conversations point to their stability as a couple, their love for each other and what they have grown to resent in the other in each of these stages. In the end, the montage chronicles these incidents beautifully using the cars that they have travelled in during the different phases of their life.
7. No (Chile) The amazing Gael Garcia Bernal plays an advertising executive who plans a 15-minute campaign to be played over 27 days to try and bring democracy back to Chile after years of dictatorship. He chooses positive themes over depressing ones and has to constantly prove himself to his boss (who is working on the exact opposite campaign) and colleagues and fight personal and institutional odds. No by Pablo Larrain is the last in a trilogy. The message of hope and optimism as conveyed by this film is overwhelming.
8. Electrick Children (US) – Director-writer Rebecca Thomas is said to have drawn incidents from her own life to create this film. And I cannot help but be amazed that this form of naive but absolutely reverent faith can still exist in children in the “developed world” today. A Mormon girl whose family has renounced all forms of technology chances upon a rock and roll tape. Soon after, she becomes pregnant and goes out into the world to look for the father of the child who she believes is the singer on the tape. Funny and innocent, Electrick Children addresses everyone’s need to define their own identity and seek the purpose of their life.
9. Beyond The Hills (Romania) – This is what you call a powerful film. Again, a star at Cannes for screenplay and acting, Cristian Mungiu‘s movie questions the authority of institutions of religion, law, medicine and every body that holds power by virtue of its superiority in any field of knowledge. When an outsider steps into an orthodox church to take her childhood friend from her orphanage days back with her, she disturbs the order there. The contradictions then play out. The deeply devout nuns do not fail to turn to science and medicine when they need it, but the moment any of them is understood to doubt the power of their Almighty, they are frowned upon. Beyond The Hills is a stark, unadorned and compelling look at how convenience guides belief.
10. Celeste & Jesse Forever (US) – Another story of a relationship, this one by Lee Toland Krieger has made a smart romcom out of the amicable divorce of a couple. Written by lead actress Rashida Jones, this movie packs a funny punch with its quirkiness, cool dialogue and really cheesy yet funny jokes that couples share. Professionally successful Celeste asks underachiever Jesse for a divorce because she wants her husband to be able to drive their kids around in a fancy car that he owns. But she cannot take it in her stride when he moves on with another woman before she can find a man for herself. Their unusual reconciliation forms the major chunk of this story.