Chaitanya Tamhane’s explosive courtroom tragedy about a folk singer wrongly accused of causing a suicide comes to the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA on Thursday, March 26 and Saturday, March 28 for the 44th annual New Directors/New Films, which continues through March 29.

Chaitanya Tamhane, India, 2014, 116m

Description: Winner of top prizes at the Venice and Mumbai film festivals, Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court is a quietly devastating, absurdist portrait of injustice, caste prejudice, and venal politics in contemporary India. An elderly folk singer and grassroots organizer, dubbed the “people’s poet,” is arrested on a trumped-up charge of inciting a sewage worker to commit suicide. His trial is a ridiculous and harrowing display of institutional incompetence, with endless procedural delays, coached witnesses for the prosecution, and obsessive privileging of arcane colonial law over reason and mercy. What truly distinguishes Court, however, is Tamhane’s brilliant ensemble cast of professional and nonprofessional actors; his affecting mixture of comedy and tragedy; and his naturalist approach to his characters and to Indian society as a whole, rich with complexity and contradiction. A Zeitgeist Films release.

Responses from Chaitanya Tamhane:

On finding directing and world cinema:

I grew up wanting to be an actor. As a child, it was the most accessible form of expression and telling stories. I have always been a voracious viewer of plays and films, but it was in my late teens that I realized that writing and directing was what I really wanted to do. This was also the time when I discovered world cinema. Until then, my exposure had been limited to Indian films. This discovery of a new world really opened my mind up.

On a new kind of courtroom drama and folk music:

The story of Court came together after quite a lot of research and explorations. I was fascinated by the inner workings of a lower court in Mumbai. It was nothing like what I had seen in conventional courtroom dramas. I also happened to discover the world of protest singers, who used folk music as a form of dissent. These two distinct worlds, and my own experiences of growing up in Mumbai, all kind of coalesced into the script.

On creating the perfect atmosphere for great performances:

Right from the pre-production stage, we knew that the performances in the film were our top priority to successfully [uphold] the script. The entire production was geared toward creating an atmosphere in which the actors felt comfortable and could deliver. The big challenge was that 90 percent of the cast was comprised of nonprofessional actors, who had never faced the camera before. These were people from different walks of life who we had shortlisted after eight months of auditioning over 1,800 candidates.

Because the film is comprised mainly of long takes with no cuts, and no improvisations, we decided to shoot just one scene a day. On average we would do 30 to 40 takes, and even went up to 60 takes for certain scenes. I decided not to interfere too much, and let the actors find their own rhythm for each scene.

On surviving a crazy venture:

Being a first-time director, with a first-time producer, it was a bit of a challenge to inspire confidence in people that this project would actually be executed. Shooting on real locations in an expensive, chaotic city like Mumbai, with nonprofessional actors, doing synch sound, with long takes; it seemed like a crazy venture to begin with. One of the other big challenges for the team was handling the thousands of background artists who feature in the film.

On future projects (sitcoms are involved):

I am developing a new feature, but it's in a very nascent stage right now. Hopefully, by the end of the year, I will have something substantial to work with. I am also developing a sitcom for the Web.