In “Court,” a powerful and richly praised new Indian film that is showing in San Francisco this week, the camera has a restful, unblinking gaze. It behaves as if it is filming a documentary, even though the film is a work of fiction. It does not continuously scurry to show faces in close-up or cut away for effect, as one might expect in a courtroom drama. It loves attrition as much as tension. In long, steady shots, it absorbs the unglamorous details of judicial procedure in a single case that unfolds at glutinous pace. The camera’s patience mirrors that of the court, where time appears to be of no consequence at all; a hundred years hence or a thousand, this case may well be trudging along, awaiting a witness or rummaging through its trove of antiquated laws. The film’s stillness and the court’s lack of urgency nearly fool us into forgetting that a man’s freedom is at stake.
That man is Narayan Kamble, a white-bearded folk singer who has been arrested during a matinee performance amid a clutch of tenements in Mumbai. Kamble is ordinarily taciturn, but onstage, after he has been introduced as a “people’s poet,” he is electric with fury. He sings, in Marathi, about the oppressions of class and caste, and bemoans greed and corruption: “Pandemonium is here / Time to rise and revolt / Time to know your enemy.” Kamble is arrested on the charge of abetting the suicide of a sewer cleaner whose body has been pulled out of a manhole. A couple of days earlier, it is alleged, Kamble had performed in the neighborhood and incited sanitation workers to kill themselves in protest of their inhuman working conditions.
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