Panchavadipalam: A Lashing Footnote to Our Political Absurdity

Janaky Sreedharan

Now that the heat and dust of the election campaign has settled and we begin the countdown to the next government, our funny bone waits to be tickled at the expense of our politicians who are the kings and queens for the next five years. Our lives are literally at their feet, and all we the people can do is subject them to merciless lethal humor. And we don't miss a single chance to do so.

Taking a dig at power is a legacy we've cherished through the likes of Kunchan Nambiar, Sanjayan and our traditions of cartooning. Now we've our own kitty of films which does its rounds again and again during these days. For so many years, Sandesham (1991) has almost always been on top of the charts during the election season with other political potboilers like Lal Salaam (1990), Advaitham (1992) etc. popping up here and there. Sandesham has become an iconic film spewing political cynicism and disillusionment of the middleclass Malayalee groping for a desperate change. To the extent that the film's dialogues have merged into the world of popular folklore. Even after 25 years, 'polandine patti nee oraksharam mindaruthu' is as hard-hitting as ever!



But much before Sandesham, there was Panchavadipalam by K.G.George in 1984. Made in the form of a political comedy, throwing up some of the most memorable caricatured characters in our film history, the movie doesn't rouse the kind of applause Sandesham triggers off. Sometimes I wonder why. George's film doesn't sizzle with crackling, pungent one liners like Sandesham, but is in its own understated way, a sincere, wistful take on the ethical doldrums in Kerala politics. The camera gently pans around on a place and an era unimaginable today: no television, no mobile phone, and no mad furor of paparazzi. But you can see the beasts of greed and power tinkering with the small lives of that little hamlet, Airaavathakkuzhi panchayat, in its own sinister way. You can't miss out on Shaji N. Karun's cinematography, as the camera moves around the bridge and its neighborhood so softly and imperceptibly as if it doesn't want to intrude into such fragile lives. And a very young Kalpana brings alive that nubile innocence in all its delicate frailty!

Inspired by a story by Veloor Krishnankutty, the film with its brilliant cast may seem small scale in its locale, people, motives and ambitions. But the names are literally epic in their resonances, raising hilarity in their own right. Bharath Gopi is Dusshasana Kurup, his wife is Mandodari (Srividya) and their daughter is unbelievably a Panchali!!! Nedumudi Venu dons the name of Shikhandi Pillai with characteristic ease and smoothness. Sukumari as Rahel proves yet again how Malayalam cinema has underutilized her. Sreenivasan as the omnipresent cripple is a powerless witness and a scathing comment on the rotten games of power and money. Like us, perceptive but crippled.

Raja is not spared nor is the praja. We get the leaders we deserve. Take Poothana for instance, who decides to strike a bargain with the state for every amorous overture that comes her way, make every scar on her body pay rather than wail about it. A foretaste of things to come! Gopi as the clownish president of the Panchayat lays forth a rich repast of his talent. Hard to believe this is the very same chilling villain of Yavanika. The entire plot is woven around the plans of the ruling crooks to break a sturdy bridge, Panchavadipalam, so as to create instability, upset the village rhythms, initiate building deals , taste the kickoffs from new contracts and breed a fresh round of corruption and crime. There is the veteran actor K.P. Ummer who is ready to take on any nasty job so long as his palm is greased. And Kalpana as the naive Anarkali eloping with her Shajahan the local cop gives a whiff of her future fragrance.



No, you won't remember this film for its punch lines or sidesplitting scenes, but you shall remember some moments of priceless performance in the buffoonery of Gopi, in the shuffling gait of Venu, in the fearless gusto of Shubha, delightful streaks of humor in Sreevidya, formidable presence in Sukumari, in the antiques of Thilakan's drunken revelry and the quiet stupor of a Kerala village untouched by malls and gadgetry. It's a microcosm of the larger decadence.

It's a light film, but not a feel good one. You've all the formulaic ingredients of a political satire here. Produced by Gandhimathi Balan, the film's background music draws us into its spell of mischief only to slowly whimper into a mournful, lonely note toward the end. Boorish idiotic ministers, avaricious panchayat members, shameful horse trading, lascivious godmen, womanizing cops, coquettish women, scoundrels and rogues. For once, you don't have a hero or a heroine. Not a single redeeming element. not a sign of goodness in sight. You laugh at them and at yourself mirthlessly, in pain and shame. The film climaxes with the collapse of the new bridge, creating anti-climactic flourish. The death of the cripple who fails to make his escape is the silent comment this film makes on the life around, and it will endure for a long time to come. The image of the orphaned wheeled tray of the cripple floating away in the river after the collapse is what you take back, although the closing shot is that of the elusive bridge once again. If the bridge is a sign of hope, connectivity and change, it still remains a bridge too far. And so many years into the 21st century, the game has only got deadlier.

Panchavadipalam is in a land bereft of saviors. There is the underlying shade of darkness, a deep cynicism and disgrace marring the merriment. It is not a joyful ride making gentle jibes at the follies of our leaders. It's a lashing footnote to the stench of corruption that has seeped into the lowest levels in our society.

This is the fourth article in a series that aims to remind readers about some important Malayalam films that are worth revisiting.

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