Chaitanya Tamhane talks to Liz Shackleton about making his debut feature Court, which won two prizes at this year’s Venice Film Festival.
Receiving its world premiere at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court won best film in the Orizzonti section as well as the Lion of the Future ‘Luigi de Laurentiis’ award for a debut film. It then went on to win best film and best director prizes at Mumbai Film Festival, as well as a special jury mention for the ensemble cast and prizes at Antalya, Vienna and three other festivals.
Best known as a playwright, Tamhane previously directed short film Six Strands (2010), which screened at Rotterdam and several other festivals. His debut feature, which is screening in Dubai International Film Festival’s Cinema of the World section, tackles India’s legal system through the case of a folk singer who is accused of driving a sewer worker to suicide with his songs. Vivek Gomber produced the film and also stars as the defence lawyer. Artscope, the arthouse label of Paris-based Memento Films, acquired international rights ahead of its premiere in Venice.
What made you want to tackle a courtroom drama?
I never imagined I would tackle a courtroom drama, as I’m not a big fan of genre films. But when I came across the idea of a realistic trial unfolding in a lower court of Mumbai, it made me curious. It felt like the complete opposite of what I, as an audience, would expect from a courtroom film; the lawyers were not good orators, the documents were misplaced, the arguments were technical and redundant. I was amused by this setting, and decided to probe further.
How did you end up working with your producer Vivek Gomber? And why did you decide to cast him in the film?
I had directed Vivek in a play of mine, Grey Elephants In Denmark, in 2009. We both felt it was a very fruitful collaboration. In 2011, when I was completely broke and depressed, Vivek offered to help me in developing Court. There were no strings attached and I would own all the rights to the script.
A year later, when the script was ready, he decided to produce the film. He was not sure about acting in it but I convinced him to audition. He had done a lot of theatre but not too much TV or films. That worked in his favour, as I was looking for fresh faces to cast. That apart, I truly consider him to be one of the finest actors in the country.
Where did you find your crew and what experience did they have?
The crew members of this film have varied backgrounds and most of them were attempting a film like this for the first time. The cinematographer, the editor and the sound recordist/designer come from a documentary background. The two production designers are an architect and an animator respectively. The casting director is mainly a theatre practitioner and had never cast for films before. We were looking for a crew who would commit to this project with a fresh zeal and we got very lucky that way.
Which elements do you think helped you achieve such a successful debut?
Well, I don’t know if this is a successful debut or not, but it’s true that we have been very lucky with the way it has been received so far. I think a major part of the credit goes to Vivek for allowing me to make a film on my own terms, without compromises and without fear. His faith in me was unflinching throughout the three years it took us to make the film.
And like I said earlier, both Vivek and me feel extremely blessed for getting such an amazing crew. All the head of departments understood the spirit of the endeavour and contributed to the best of their abilities. I couldn’t have asked for a better team for my first film. Having said that, one also can’t discount how much of a role sheer luck plays in the making of a film.
Has Artscope sold the film anywhere since it picked it up?
Yes, the film has been sold in four territories so far: Canada, the Middle East, Greece and Hong Kong. From what I hear, there may be some more sales happening soon.
Are there any plans for an Indian theatrical release?
Yes, we are currently working on an India release. We are in talks with a few good distributors, who have shown interest after the wins at Venice and Mumbai. I am pretty sure the film will be released in the first half of 2015.
What are you working on next?
There is this new film brewing in my head, and it’s started giving me sleepless nights already, but it’s too soon to talk about it. Maybe by next year, I will have something to share.