Vira Sathidar's role in Chaitanya Tamhane's Court mirrored the actor's BR Ambedkar-like figure and anti-caste politics

Pradeep Menon
·5-min read

The first visual of Chaitanya Tamhane's 2014 film Court after the opening credits is of an aged man teaching textbook curriculum to a bunch of kids in a cramped room. The teacher's style is direct and unvarnished. If something is correct, move on. If something is wrong, point out the mistake, move on. This homegrown school is located in a chawl in Mumbai, we discover, as the man wraps up the DIY classroom and commutes by bus to a vibrant local event. Here, he transforms into a different kind of teacher.

He's a 'lokshahir', you see. A people's poet. His name is Narayan Kamble, we learn, when he takes the stage to perform at the vibrant gathering. And perform he does. With a giant portrait of Dr BR Ambedkar in the backdrop, in a roughly three-minute long song, he uses graphic metaphors and searing allegory to awaken the listener €" his audience at the venue (and us, the viewer).

Ambedkar's purpose with our Constitution and the point of Kamble's song are much the same; only the styles of delivering the message differ.

His words, alternatively stoic and fiery, turn the attention of the people to their own plight, and to the enemy that has brought them to it. Make no mistake, he is not singing for everyone, but only for and about the most downtrodden in society. It becomes relatable across our unfortunate social system only because everyone ostensibly has somebody more powerful treading upon them. Mid-performance, he is arrested by the police and taken away. We later learn that the reason for this arrest is that he is accused of abetting the suicide of a manual scavenger €" Kamble's fierce songs allegedly reminded the departed soul of the wretchedness of his own existence.

Vira Sathidar's Narayan Kamble is not one of the characters we follow in Court. No, there is the rich, privileged Gujarati lawyer who is committed to fighting his case; there is the no-nonsense public prosecutor who treats this as just another job, her middle-class family life shining in its monotonous-but-sincere glory; there is even the affable, pedantic judge who may or may not react violently if rudely awoken from a nap. We get a glimpse into the personal and private lives of all of these characters.

In comparison, even though Kamble is the one on trial in Court, we do not get to see his personal life €" what he is like when he is alone or in a safe space. Why? Perhaps it is because for men like Kamble, there are no safe spaces. Tamhane's crafting of Kamble (on paper and in visual craft), and Vira Sathidar's portrayal of this man make him one of the most significant and relevant characters to feature in recent Indian cinema.

For Sathidar's Kamble represents the kind of enlightened, aware citizen that governments fear; the kind that find themselves in jail for years with no end in sight, for the books they read or the words they speak.

Sathidar's performance is the most convincing one in a film loaded with great performances, because he looks every inch the part of the Dalit and human rights activist he plays. There is a world-weariness and patience to him when he is in that courtroom. Lodging a protest against what he sees as unfair is now almost muscle memory for him, as is explaining his activities and defending them in court. When he is out on bail, he is back to doing exactly what he was before. Singing to the people about their own miseries, writing, and locally publishing books about the history of oppression, the ("anti-national") works.

In many ways, Sathidar plays himself in the film. A popular figure in the anti-caste movement, much of what Kamble does in the film was probably done by Sathidar in real life as well. Obviously, the value of that lived experience in that cinematic setting is priceless. Tamhane's film takes as close to a dispassionate look at this entire system as it can. If Sathidar's eye-opening poetry among his Dalit peers is one end of the spectrum, on the other end is the middle-class Marathi family enjoying a play that lampoons North Indian migrants and glorifies Marathi asmita (pride). There is little-to-none visible judgement in either of these extremes, which is what makes Kamble's character stand out that much more.

Make no mistake, Kamble is by no means a prescient character. Laws like the National Security Act (NSA) and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) have always been used to silence voices that speak up against the government. If there are more people being jailed for their activism today €" the 'undeclared emergency' as some call it €" it is only because this particular administration has a historical mandate, giving them more powers than most of their predecessors.

For most people, names like Varavara Rao, Anand Teltumbde, Sudha Bharadwaj, and Sudhir Dhawale appear and disappear in news stories that do not have the luxury of hijacking the news cycle. Sathidar moved in the same circles, espousing similar causes. As is the norm, Sathidar's unfortunate demise because of coronavirus-caused complications has brought some attention to him and his life. While there is nothing that can fully capture the essence of the life's work of such a man, if you want just a glimpse of what it must be like, Sathidar's performance in Court is the closest us normies on Netflix can get to it.

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