Shivani Radhakrishnan at n+1:
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.