Genre – Drama/Legal drama
Run Time – 1h 56m
The legal Marathi drama Court revolves around the idea of how the State uses law and the legal system as a weapon to the prejudice of anyone who raises dissent against it. The Kafkaesque trial of Narayan Kamble for abetting a manhole worker to commit suicide through his Marathi Dalit poetry raises concerns about how society treats the ‘humans’ existing at the bottom of the hierarchical structure, which owes its creation the caste system in India.
In reference to the parable called ‘Before the Law‘, in Franz Kafka’s “The Trial”, one can infer that although the law is supposed to be accessible to everyone, its gates are guarded by the gatekeepers of legislators who use it for their contemporary political needs. Narayan Kamble is depicted as a protest singer who belongs to the Dalit community in India.
However, his Dalit identity seems to have been non-existent for all the other characters as well as the legal system in the film. His anti-caste activism is ignored largely by the State and he is labelled an enemy of the state, polluting the very integrity of the nation.
This narrative is a replica of the real Indian society. By erasing one’s caste identity, the privileged class, which the law caters to, ignores the very existence of the caste system. As such, caste-based occupations like manual scavenging are given the name of ‘spirituality’ to conceal their dehumanizing nature.
The death of the manhole worker, Vasudeva Pawar is individualized rather than institutionalized in this narrative. His caste is never brought into the picture as well. The incomprehension of the human cost of Vasudeva’s labour puts the definition of ‘human’ and the Dalit’s precarious positioning in the category at stake.
The labouring body of Vasudeva Pawar and his bodily specificity is overlooked in this entire film. The term labouring body implies that the human body is not just a unit of production but is marked by its sociality. When one looks at the labouring body, one doesn’t identify it as yet another human or citizen out there. It is to be considered as a body marked by factors like one’s caste, gender, class and community.
In this narrative, the manhole worker, Vasudeva Pawar’s very identity is erased. Both the advocates in the film, the female prosecutor and the male defending lawyer, attribute Vasudeva’s death to the lack of protective gears provided by the State. However, both of them refuse to look at the body and the lived experiences of Vasudeva which are marked by the specific identity of caste. Though there is a relationship between Vasudeva’s Dalit identity and the labour of manual scavenging, this relationship is erased when the case is taken to court.
Drishadwati Bhagi, in her article, talks about the conflation of lawyers with interpreters. If there is a mistranslation, it can lead to suffering. Both the advocates mistranslate the circumstances of Vasudeva’s death. It is important to look at the body of the labour and understand its lived experiences rather than relegating it to the rhythm of justice citizen.
Vasudeva Pawar is portrayed as a labouring body which doesn’t have the means to check the circumstances viable for him to even breathe inside the manhole. Thus, he would check for cockroaches and bugs and determine the level of oxygen inside.
The fact that he had to get intoxicated before entering the manhole in order to bear the stench reduces the value of his human body. His right to live is taken away by the State. In one instance, the public prosecutor says that he lost one of his eyes in an ‘accident.’ However, it was because of the ‘suffering’ he endured because of his caste-based occupation of manual scavenging.
The aspect of Cheap Dalit labour is also highlighted in the narrative. The Dalits are looked at as dispensable body by the government such that the Dalit figure doesn’t matter to them. Achille Mbembe’s idea of Necropolitics can be used to understand this aspect. It essentially talks about how certain sections of the society are considered to be bare lives by the State. They are not of any use or economic need to the State and thus it doesn’t matter if they live or die. As a result, the Dalit is bereft of all privileges.
Vasudeva’s character is forced to have the labour of manual scavenging as he doesn’t have another choice. He is made to believe that it is a custom to be taken up as he belonged to the Dalit caste. It is important to focus on the problem of manual scavenging as a form of caste occupation based on social exclusion. The State decides who lives and who dies and it failed to protect a Dalit like Vasudeva.
The envisioned Idea of India as a Hindu nation puts the Dalits on a dehumanizing pedestal and it treats them as minorities and leads to their exclusion in the community at large. This can be better understood using Foucault’s idea of Governmentality.
It is a political strategy to govern an entire population as a mass entity. Soon after the independence of India, there were negotiations between Gandhi and Ambedkar. Ambedkar wanted to reform the caste system and eradicate manual scavenging. However, Gandhi wanted it to be in place. Thus the way India was envisioned was more of a Hindu nation. This kind of negation is seen till date where minorities are subjected to structural violence.
The privileged caste and class assume that there is no caste discrimination by simply not referring to the institution of caste. This idea of governance is seen in the courtroom when there is no mention of Dalit other than the reference to a Dalit political party. This is the reason that the public prosecutor never refers to the anti-caste activism of Narayan Kamble. It represents a kind of governance where there is a denial of the caste system on which the entire nation is actually built and conceived.
The violence incited by the legal system on minority communities takes way their right to live a life with dignity as human beings. Walter Benjamin talks about the idea of ‘critical violence’ whereby certain violence is already sanctioned by law. Law maintains its order and authority by inflicting violence on some ‘humans.’ In the narrative, the law is being used against Narayan Kamble. He is charged with abetment of suicide and even though it is not proved whether he is the reason for Vasudeva’s death, he has to go through multiple levels of trial.
“Law is Law,” says the public prosecutor. A kind of violence is inflicted on him when multiple fundamental and human rights are being violated even when he goes through the process of law. The violence is institutionalized by refusing to discuss the caste and manual scavenging relationship. The defending lawyer frequently reminds the judge that Narayan Kamble is an aged person and should be given bail as he needs medical assistance.
The judge denies the bail and his absolute apathy to Kamble’s body again brings in the idea of looking at humans as a mass entity where Dalits do not fit the particular criteria and thus not seen as humans. At the end of the film when Narayan Kamble is in jail for the second time, his health deteriorates massively but the judge is shown to be on vacation.
This again reflects the inhuman treatment of the Dalits whereby the legal system instigates violence on the people from lower classes. Vira Sathidar, who plays the character of Narayan Kamble, has also been subjected to such legal violence by the State where he has been charged due to his anti-caste activism. This ‘illegal’ use of the UAPA furthers the human right violations in the Dalit community.
The justification of Vasudeva Pawar’s death as due to lack of protective equipment goes to show the exclusionary practices used to regulate Dalits. This systemic oppression is concealed as a matter of technology and equipment. This is similar to Foucault’s idea of Biopolitics, whereby the biopolitical regime depends on the narrative of security and technology.
The caste element of the manhole workers death is discarded. Vasudeva’s accident of death is misrecognized as suicide. Even when we look at the urbanization and urban planning of the city of Mumbai, it completely overlooks the need for a new manual scavenging system. It is not just a matter of technology. We need to look at the city of Mumbai as a progressive space which still withholds the caste system. This can be seen as Dalits are employed to engage in the dehumanizing labour of manual scavenging.
To conclude, the film is largely a narrative on Indian society and the various binaries present in it. These binaries are multifaceted and can be given multiple readings. The minority sections of society are subjected to exclusionary practices and their caste identity is assumed to be invisible by the privileged. The Dalits are ‘othered’. They theoretically fit into the universal term of ‘human’. However, when it comes to governance and labour they are deemed to not fit the criteria for being a human being. The universality of ‘human’ is lost when it comes to the treatment of Dalits and other minorities in India.