Trials and Error

The first scene of Chaitanya Tamhane’s debut film, Court, opens with a distant view of a makeshift stage in a Bombay slum. Workers have gathered to watch a charismatic Dalit singer, who, backed by vocalists and drummers, belts out jeremiads against the false gods of the age: the greed found in glitzy new shopping malls and the “dense” thickets of racism, nationalism, and caste-ism into which people have fallen.

Court and the Indian state

Court. Press photo, Zeitgeist Films.

Chaitanya Tamhane (director). Court. 2014.

The first scene of Chaitanya Tamhane’s debut film, Court, opens with a distant view of a makeshift stage in a Bombay slum. Workers have gathered to watch a charismatic Dalit singer, who, backed by vocalists and drummers, belts out jeremiads against the false gods of the age: the greed found in glitzy new shopping malls and the “dense” thickets of racism, nationalism, and caste-ism into which people have fallen. Backed by an image of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the anti-caste activist and author of the Indian constitution, the singer’s message is insistent: people no longer recognize their oppressors.  “This era of blindness / has gouged out our eyes,” he calls out. “A gent appears a crook / an owl looks like a peacock.” “The good ones are forgotten / the good-for-nothings, praised,” the backing singers respond.  “The enemy is all destructive / yet we sing his praise,” the singer continues. “Time to know your enemy.”

But who is the enemy? This has been a longstanding quarrel within the Indian left: many take the caste system to be the primary enemy of national progress. Indian Marxists, though, have largely argued that the real enemy is class, that India’s caste system is really nothing but a class system in disguise. Tamhane’s film, which follows the state trial of Narayan Kamble, a fictional Dalit poet and singer (played in the film by Vira Satidhar) who is arrested shortly after the opening scene’s performance, skillfully reveals the sterility of the class or caste debate. The most destructive forces operating in contemporary India, Tamhane shows us, are melded together: caste concerns, class tensions, and labor issues often overlap. Though this fact should be obvious enough, the fragmented nature of the Indian polity has meant that it is difficult to recognize in practice. Narayan Kamble is energetic, and his own concerns both prior to and during the trial return our attention to struggles in the Indian social system that were at risk of seeming not only frustrating but uninteresting. Through Kamble, Tamhane brings attention to the problems of the contemporary Indian state, which, while appealing to its status as “the world’s largest democracy,” has used a number of antidemocratic maneuvers to stifle dissenters, targeting speech and performance that threaten to unite the frayed strands of the Left.

Court—which premiered in the US at MoMA’s New Directors/New Films festival after making its rounds on the festival circuit and collecting accolades at the Venice, Singapore, and Mumbai film festivals—is the story of the Indian state targeting a 65-year-old Dalit lokshahir through the legal system. Important figures in Maharashtrian folk tradition, lokshahirs are poet–composers who stage theatrical skits and songs; Dalit, meaning “oppressed” in Marathi, is the political name adopted by those of the lowest castes. The scale of the Indian mass culture industry has recently diminished lokshahirs’ popularity, leading many to capitalize on growing Hindutva zeal in order to maintain their audience. Kamble is interested in stirring reactions of a different kind. He tours working-class communities around Bombay with a troupe of fellow singers and musicians, composing music with revolutionary content and unsettling public apathy. “Pandemonium is here / time to rise and revolt,” he sings.

Fifteen minutes into the film the singer urges his audience to rise up against classism and casteism, among other social injustices. His performance is interrupted by police officers, who escort him off-stage. Accused of inciting the suicide of a local sanitation worker with his incendiary anthems, the lokshahir is brought before the court. The court cites a lyric attributed to Kamble—“Manhole workers, all of us should commit suicide by suffocating inside the gutters”—that supposedly led the slum dweller to kill himself (a lyric which in any case Kamble denies having written). His case drags, well past the point where it becomes clear that the allegations against him are baseless.

The state’s “evidence” that the deceased sanitation worker intended to commit suicide is that he crawled into a manhole without any special safety equipment. We learn in the courtroom, however, that the worker regularly drank himself senseless in order to handle the noxious descent into manholes and that he was never provided with protective gear. We come to know that the sewage worker had never met Kamble, and it becomes doubtful that he had heard the lokshahir’s anthems at all.

The worker’s widow testifies in restrained monosyllables about her Dalit husband’s bleak working conditions. She recounts what she calls her husband’s “cockroach test”: to determine whether the air in the manhole was too toxic to inhale, he would look for signs of life. If a cockroach made its way out of a pipe, it was safe enough for the Dalit worker to go underground.  Her description of the utter depravity of the manhole worker’s labor conditions is realistic; barred from higher paying or at least less dangerous occupations, Dalits have traditionally been relegated to undertake “unclean” labor other castes would find beneath them.

The state prosecutor, Nutan, creates a case against Kamble, admitting that her motivations include a distaste for agitators. She uses dirty methods to motivate the case. Of the two people slated to testify against Kamble, one fails to turn up at all, and the other is a stock witness who has been used in several similar trials. Nutan appeals to Kamble’s violation of the Dramatic Performances Act, a Victorian law from 1876 intended to prevent productions critical of British rule. She reminds the court that it doesn’t matter that India is no longer under British rule. “It is a law,” she says. “It is there.”

The prosecutor is, nonetheless, difficult to demonize, as she’s not uniquely responsible for the ills of the corrupt social system. Tamhane makes the point by straying from the courtroom to show the everyday existence of the players. We see Vinay, Kamble’s upper-class and high-caste lawyer, deliberating his high-end cheese selection at a gourmet grocer and spending evenings lingering over cocktails while listening to bossa nova. It’s the luxury afforded by this class-caste status that enables people like Vinay to occupy their time battling for the rights of Dalits and others who rank lower on the class-caste continuum. Meanwhile the lower-middle-class Nutan struggles to care for a diabetic husband, does mundane chores, and laments the high price of olive oil to fellow passengers on a commuter train. There is an incentive structure in place that pushes bureaucrats to make dissenters go away, and Nutan is merely responding to it; Nutan’s social position leaves her uninsulated from the repercussions of losing favor with the elites in power. In order to keep her own life running smoothly, she quells dissent.

Court shows that, yes, class and caste overlap in meaningful ways, but more importantly, people from a variety of classes and castes—Kamble, his lawyer, and the prosecutor among them—are objects of state and social oppression. Vinay, while wealthy and upper-caste, is Gujarati; this makes him a would-be target of people who think that Maharastra is for ethnic and linguistic Marathis. It’s these kinds of attitudes we see being rallied at an anti-immigrant folk play Nutan and her family attend—a kind of nationalist analogue to Kamble’s radical performances.

Kamble and his trial are fictional but have factual precedents: many of the actors in the film are amateurs whose real-life tribulations in contemporary India lend their performances veracity. The manhole worker’s wife, whose brief testimony is the most memorable performance of the film, turns out to have testified before a jury in complex legal proceedings following the death of her real-life husband, a driver, in a workplace accident. Further blurring the line between fact and fiction are the lyrics of the revolutionary anthems that are highlights of the film, which were composed by a real life lokshahir, Sambhaji Bhagat, a Dalit activist and committed Marxist.

In its musical and documentary-like aspects, Court recalls another recent film, Anand Patwardhan’s acclaimed 2011 documentary Jai Bhim Comrade, a 14-year-long project on Dalit revolutionary music and poetry. The film is a musical-historical journey: it begins with the rousing voice of Vilas Ghogre, a Dalit Marxist who committed suicide in protest of the Bombay police’s opening fire and killing ten in a city slum in 1997. Like Court, Jai Bhim Comrade explores the role of Dalits and Marxists in India. The film’s title alludes both to the Marxist emphasis on class struggle (“comrade”) and to the ambiguous legacy of “Bhim” (Bhimrao Ambedkar). Ghogre was a Dalit who became a Marxist but reasserted his Dalit identity moments before his death by tying a blue scarf around his neck—blue scarves are often worn by Dalit activists—before he hanged himself. Patwardhan explores the seeming clash of identities in contemporary India, primarily through song—from a tune celebrating the Dalit who became a barrister, to lullabies based on teachings of the Buddha, to anthems that talk about migrant laborers and the problems they face.

Tamhane and Patwardhan, while focusing on seemingly contradictory identities that span class and caste lines, also draw attention to what may be a more pressing problem: the state’s attempts to squash anyone critical of the new national myth of India and its smug neoliberalism.

The Modi government has tightened restrictions on civil society organizations, closing approximately nine thousand charities while stymieing others, including Greenpeace, by halting overseas financial contributions. The less than tolerant response to organizations that question the government’s development and infrastructure projects, too, has had a cooling effect on criticism of national policies. But this tendency is not attributable exclusively to the Modi government; it is at this point, almost a tradition.

Jai Bhim Comrade prominently features a radical protest group, Kabir Kala Manch, whose members often perform plays and songs critical of the state. The group is seen as antinational for its bold lyrics urging audiences to oppose government moves toward the privatization of state-owned industries. The Anti-Terrorism Squad, a special Indian police unit known for its human rights violations, has branded the members of KKM part of the Naxalites (that is, Maoists), India’s longest running insurgency. Since the initial release of Jai Bhim Comrade in 2011, the members of Kabir Kala Manch have been imprisoned on trumped-up charges of political extremism under the 1967 Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. For over two years, its members were held in prison without trial, and the Bombay High court refused the performers bail.

It’s under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, too, that Court’s Kamble faces charges. The casualness and banality with which the Act is applied to Kamble’s case is almost laughable.  The law defines a terrorist act as one committed “by using bombs, dynamite or other explosive substances or inflammable substances or firearms or other lethal weapons or poisonous or noxious gases or other chemical or by any other substances (whether biological radioactive, nuclear or otherwise) of a hazardous nature or by any other means of whatever nature.” When Kamble’s lawyer asks for evidence of Kamble’s use of weapons, Nutan reminds the court of the law’s final phrase: “by any other means of whatever nature.” The phrase’s open-endedness ensures that the state can respond to any perceived threats—be they actual or invented—with appropriate punishment.

While some reviewers and human rights activists—most notably Samanth Subramaniam for the New Yorker—have seen in Court an opportunity to discuss the problem with indeterminacy in the law, these discussions miss the real issues. The solution to state oppression isn’t to add further specifics to lists of what counts as terrorism, obscenity, or sedition. The problem arises when room for discretion, which is inherent and even necessary for the health of a legal system, is exploited to stifle dissent. And that is just what happens both in Tamhane’s Court and in contemporary India. Novelist and human rights activist Arundhati Roy faced threats of arrest under the banner of sedition after she made comments critical of India’s Kashmir policy. Anticorruption campaigner Aseem Trivedi was arrested in 2012 for producing cartoons that satirize Indian national symbols. When doctrines are elaborated in order to give more guidance, the situation becomes even grimmer. The Bombay High Court last month stayed a Maharastran government circular on sedition, which says that sedition charges can be levelled against anyone who “by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representation, is critical of ‘politicians, elected representatives’ belonging to the government.” It’s hard to imagine a more explicit attempt at silencing dissenters.

Tamhane’s film, along with Patwardhan’s documentary provides hopeful glimpses of domestic activists challenging the prevailing national myths about India after independence but also remind us of the challenges that await opposition forces. We are spectators, not only to Kamble’s case but also to the difficulties in organizing; in both cases, the trials promise to be lengthy.

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