Interview: Filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane

It is rare that one meets a 27-year-old as self-assured, confident, and clear about what he wants as director Chaitanya Tamhane. Whether during an interview or working on set—as his collaborators will attest—Tamhane is pretty much the same. Many of those who have worked with him on the production of his much-lauded debut film, Court, will tell you with a knowing smile that he is not that easy to work with: he is stubborn, difficult, a great taskmaster. Vivek Gomber, the producer and actor who financed Court with his personal savings, says that Tamhane, who largely employed nonactors in the film, would shoot only one scene a day, each with about fifty to sixty retakes. “It was not that easy to satisfy him,” adds Tamhane’s cinematographer, Mrinal Sen, who came from a documentary background. Kishor Sawant, the film’s line producer, says that he fell out with the director many times because of his stubborn insistence on shooting at specific, real locations, a near-impossible task in a city like Mumbai. However, at the same time all of them say it was perhaps Tamhane’s assertiveness and inflexibility that made Court the success that it is. Now, after eighteen international awards (including Best Film in the Horizons category and the Luigi De Laurentiis Award at Venice) and the Indian government’s top honor for the best film of the year, it’s clear that, indeed, there was a method to all his madness.

Court, showing as part of Museum of the Moving Image’s series India’s New Wave, is now India’s official entry for this year’s best foreign-language film Academy Award. The film follows the case of social activist and folk singer Narayan Kamble who is arrested and charged for inciting a sewage worker’s suicide via his performances. A commentary on caste and class politics, the multilingual film lays bare the eccentric, bizarre, and archaic laws still followed throughout India. Despite its title, Court features many scenes that occur outside the courtroom, taking us into the personal lives of the characters involved in the trial. Stark social truths are revealed in nearly every frame of this intelligent, sometimes humorous film, making Court one of the most accomplished works to come out of India in recent years.

Reverse Shot: You’ve had so many accolades and now you’re the official Indian Oscar entry—all this for your debut feature. How does it feel?

Chaitanya Tamhane: What can I say? It feels good, really good. The Oscar bit came as a bit of surprise really, because we weren’t expecting it. But other than the many practical benefits that such a selection brings to the film and its crew, what made me happy was to see the reactions of audiences. They all felt that my film deserved to be the country’s official entry. That was heartening, encouraging, and reassuring. It also brings with it a level of responsibility. So we have been working on the Oscar campaign for the past few months, strategizing and making sure the film gets seen.

RS: Court is a multilingual film, and there is a complex web of caste politics embedded even in the tiniest details like, for instance, a character’s surname. [In India, a person’s surname mostly reflects the caste he belongs to.] Even for an Indian, it may be a bit difficult to catch such tiny reference points in the narrative. What made you confident that the film would strike a chord with international audiences?

CT: Nothing, to be frank. Like you mentioned, a lot is going on in the film, and so we honestly did not even make the film with festivals in mind. We just wanted to make a good film, and because of the same reasons that you mentioned we thought there was no point in sending the film abroad at all. The Marathi milieu, the subtleties in the narrative . . . I just feel fortunate that the international audience got the essence of the film through subtitles. There is also another side to it. For the many festivals that screened Court and gave it awards, there were many mainstream ones that rejected it. And that is because we have not provided any cultural context in the film. A lot of people have later asked me what Dalit [the political name taken on by the castes formerly known as “untouchable”] meant and were interested to know the intricacies of the caste system of our country.

RS: How did the idea of a courtroom drama come to you and how difficult was it to zero in on the case that would prove central to the film?

CT: I am personally not a fan of genre films so I never thought I would be able to tackle a courtroom drama. But I became curious when I came across a realistic trial in one of Mumbai’s lower courts. As opposed to what I had seen in films, the lawyers weren’t good orators, the arguments were dry, technical and redundant. I did a lot of research, we went to different courts and interviewed legal experts, judges, journalists, and activists. It was from this research that my characters evolved. I had the two lawyers and their personal lives drawn out well in my head. But it took me the longest to arrive at a case that would fit the narrative. I had a set of conditions that this case had to meet. The idea came to mind when I read an article by S Anand in Tehelka [a political magazine in India] about the plight of manhole workers. On the side, there was folk music that had always fascinated me. Around that time, I also came across the case of Jiten Marandi, a protest singer who was wrongly accused and sentenced to death. It was when I could connect all these threads in my head that the film took shape.

RS: What struck many, including me, while watching the film were the naturalistic performances that you have extracted out of the actors. Many of them later told me that there was not even a single improvised line in the film and what we see now was what was in the script from the beginning. How did you manage to achieve this?

CT: This was one of the most challenging parts of the filming process—to make “acting” look real. I had actors who had never faced the camera before. We created a database of nearly 2,000 people and auditioned them and worked with them on acting workshops before taking them on. In a film like Court, which has so many long takes, it is difficult to work with bad acting while editing. We cannot make up for it in any way as I didn’t want many cuts. So if someone made a mistake we just had to start all over again. That was the reason I decided to concentrate on only one scene a day. I am sure it tested everyone’s patience.

RS: For those who have seen Court, the cultural texture that a city like Mumbai brings to the script is crucial. The film is very much a “Bombay” film. Does having spent your formative years in Mumbai add much to the filmmaking process?

CT: Certainly. The diversity in language, culture, class, and caste you see in the film cannot be found as distinctly in any other Indian city. These are unique to Mumbai. We wanted to depict the real people of Mumbai and I, quite selfishly, wanted to get locations that only an insider could truly relate to. We didn’t want the city to look like just another city. We wanted it to look like Mumbai, we wanted it all—the dirt, the noise, the chaos—so that it was as close to reality as possible.

RS: Every film is political, or so I believe. As a filmmaker how difficult is it to be objective and not let your own prejudices form a part of the narrative?

CT: Firstly, I don’t think any film is objective. Even what looks like the most objective film will have some subjectivity infused into it. In Court, my main preoccupation was not about sending out a social message. It was essentially a story about these few characters and their lives. The point of the film is to understand that nothing is objective. And that is where the essence—the humor and the satire—of the film lies. Even law is not objective. It is interpreted. I explore how prejudices and perceptions of people interpreting this law can have an effect on the meaning it takes and the actions that follow. Each one of us is brought up and shaped on our own with our own set of values, biases, and moral conditioning, and I believe this will be reflected in anything we do.

RS: A lot of what happened in Court reflects what is going on in India now. There is an increasing assault on freedom of expression and there is rising intolerance. What is your take on that?

CT: I am not a political commentator. But as an artist, I feel that the authorities must allow dissent. There has to be a space for protest in society. There has to be freedom of expressing our disapproval of the state of things as well. This right cannot be taken away from the people.

RS: Garnering praise of this order for your debut film is like a double-edged sword. Does it make you nervous about starting your next project?

CT: I am not nervous as of yet, and I am taking all of this very positively and as an encouragement. Something or the other keeps happening, and so I am not able to completely disassociate myself from Court. I have a few ideas that I want to work with, but I take time as I don’t like rushing into anything. But as of now I am confident because all this appreciation just goes to show that I have potential audiences who have a taste for films like Court. I know now that my work will be seen by them, so I just want to keep at it and do my best.

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