A review of Shantata! Court chalu aahe! Marathi movie, 1971

This article talks about Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe!, a Marathi movie released in 1971, which was a ground-breaking movie of its time. The movie and its relation to the question of our perception of women are talked about. An analysis of the plot as well as a review of the technical aspects of the movie shall form components of our discussion.

Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe! (literal meaning: Silence! The court is in session!) is a hard-hitting movie about the desires of women and how society often expects women to live without those desires. The movie which was released in 1971 had the talented Vijay Tendulkar as its story and screenplay writer and Satyadev Dubey as its director. The play is based on one of Tendulkar's own plays (also by the same name). Although some sources mention the story to be inspired by a European novel, the story has elements which are completely in sync with the Indian society of that era (and to some extent even the present Indian society).

Vijay Tendulkar was one of those rare persons in the movie and theatre arena who was never afraid to challenge the dominant forces of society. His movies were always quite ahead of their time. Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe! (hereby referred to as Shantata) is also one such movie. It challenges the way we used to perceive (and probably still perceive) women.

The plot

The movie is centered around a drama group who are going to stage a play containing elements of the courtroom. The 'drama group' is made up of a variety of people including a school teacher (Ms. Leela Benare, played by Sulabha Deshpande) and a clerk (Gopal Ponkshe, played by debutant Amol Palekar) as well as miscellaneous people like Mr. Sukhatme (played by Arvind Deshpande) and Mr. Kashikar. The play is going to be held in a faraway village. As one of the cast members (Professor Damle) failed to turn up, one of the villagers (Samant) is recruited as a substitute. To make the villager understand the plot of the play, the drama group members stage a mock 'rehearsal'. In the 'rehearsal', Ms. Benare plays the role of the accused, Sukhatme plays the role of the Prosecution lawyer as well as the lawyer for the Defendant (as we shall see, this adds up to the drama later on), Kashikar plays the role of the Judge while Ponkshe, Samant as well as other members like Karnik and Rokde play the roles of various witnesses. The rehearsal of the courtroom initially moves along on a light-hearted note as a charge of foeticide is brought up against Ms. Benare (as part of the play) but as the trial progresses we see the life of Ms. Benare being dug up. Her so-called illicit relationships are investigated by the court. Soon it is no longer an innocent joke among friends or even the rehearsal of a play but only the actions of the moral majority trying to act against the 'social culprit'.

Analysis of the plot

The movie contains three distinct 'parts' which although unified as one movie, stand out from each other. All of these so-called parts are about thirty minutes each. In the first part, Benare is playful and there is a sense of camaraderie among the various cast members. Although even in the first thirty minutes, Benare is somewhat on edge, to the viewer, the first thirty minutes are substantially less tense than the remaining part of the movie. There is even a slight tinge of humor when the witness Ponkshe begins to take his oath on an English dictionary.

In the next thirty minutes, the trial progresses. Initially, the trial is completely non-serious. The witnesses merely make joking remarks to carry the trial forward. A shift comes along when Ponkshe remarks that Benare once tried to marry him and even now makes fun of him, saying it was all a joke. There is visible tension on Benare's face which was noticed by Sukhatme, the Prosecution lawyer. Although Benare tries to laugh it away, the shift has already occurred. After this, the focus of the trial shifts almost wholly to the moral character of Benare. The Prosecution lawyer tries to prove that Benare had illicit relations with Professor Damle, the missing crew member. He tries to prove that Benare was pregnant and to get rid of the baby, Benare attempted foeticide. The witnesses Ponkshe, Karnik, Rokde and even Samant make statements which are construed by Sukhatme to prove that Benare was indeed a woman without moral character. Benare gets so upset by the volley of charges on her personal life that she tries to leave the hall where the mock trial is organized but is unable to do so because of the door being stuck. Thus at the end of the second part, tension pervades the entire atmosphere.

The third part contains a strong undercurrent of violence which is almost a signature of a Vijay Tendulkar movie. Tendulkar presents this violence as natural to the powerful members of the society (people like Sukhatme, Kashikar, Ponkshe, and Karnik) who intimidate and even torture the less powerful members of the society (like Benare). All kinds of incidents are dug up about Benare – how she tried to commit suicide at the age of fourteen years after having an illicit relation with her maternal uncle, how she tried to marry Ponkshe and even Rokde so that she could raise her illegitimate child (which she had with Professor Damle) in safety and how she even had to lose her job as a teacher after news of her illegitimate relation came to the fore. The camaraderie that was shown in the first part is shown to be completely untrue. Sukhatme, Kashikar, Ponkshe, and Karnik are not friendly colleagues of Benare; they play the role of the moral majority punishing what they saw as something 'injurious to the society'. It is probably the most effective form of torture where the perpetrators later wash it off as a 'game' or as a joke and instead blame Benare for overreacting.

The court as a symbol

The courtroom has been used countless times in numerous movies as a symbol of the wider society where there is a conflict between the powerful and the powerless. In Shantata, the court is invariably biased against the powerless Benare. She was not even allowed to defend herself properly, perhaps showing how in the society's eyes, 'crimes' like what she has done are completely indefensible. Questions about her age are asked. She is asked why she hasn't married even at her age. The society's perceptions about how women in the public arena are expected to behave are perhaps brought out by the statement that Mrs. Kashikar, the wife of the 'judge' gave –

"There should be some limit on freedom allowed. Even if he [males with whom a woman interacts in the normal course of social life] is a friend, she shouldn't behave with him as she pleases."

Perhaps most importantly the movie brings out our perceptions towards women involved in sexual relationships outside wedlock. The situation has improved dramatically since then, but it is not impossible to find certain people still expressing ideas similar to what the male characters in Shantata expressed. In the relation between Benare and Professor Damle, no one thought about blaming Damle for it. A similar thing happened in Benare's teenage when her maternal uncle pushed her to the brink and she was the one blamed for it. The fact that 'illegitimate' children are looked upon as a scourge, a mistake, and even a sin is another subcomponent of this movie.

The technical aspects

The direction of the movie has been done quite well (considering the fact that this was a regional movie in the early '70s). The transition between the three 'parts' was done quite well. However, there is one scene that somehow sticks out. I am talking about the scene where dogs enter the 'courtroom' and create havoc. The scene was probably intended to temporarily dispel the heavy atmosphere but the transition into and out of this scene could have been smoother.

Sulabha Deshpande as Leela Benare was quite amazing. The feelings of despair and defeat that she shows appear absolutely real. The scene near the end where she writhes in pain yet no one tries to hear her out was especially well made. However, her playful gestures at the start of the movie can also be judged as 'over-acting' (or it might even be a lot of nitpicking on my part, noticing the tiniest faults). Arvind Deshpande as Sukhatme was also quite amazing with his acting. The notable part was that even the minor actors and newcomers were quite realistic with their acting, perhaps to the credit of the director himself.

The cinematography of the movie was done by another debutant, Govind Nihalani (who later became a director and directed masterpieces like Aakrosh and Ardh Satya). As a cinematographer, he was quite adept in modifying the lighter and darker tones on the set. As the trial progresses, the set becomes darker and still darker, thus fitting in with the mood. The black-and-white was obviously not as much a matter of choice as a matter of lack of choices, but still, it actually ended up enhancing the effect.

Courtroom stories are not new in Indian cinema. But most courtroom movies end with the protagonist (usually a male lawyer) making a stunning speech and then winning the case. Shantata does a great job in not conforming to this archetype. In that aspect, it is probably right up there with movies like Aakrosh. The way in which the story progresses and the way in which the central ideas are presented, not in a preachy sort of way, but in a way that is sure to keep you involved till the end, makes it a movie to watch.


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