In November, 2020, the order to have the streaming platforms in India under the ambit of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry was passed. And two weeks back, we saw its first casualty: Ali Abbas Zafar’s Tandav came under attack from right wing organisations, following which Amazon Prime decided to edit out certain scenes (that were alleged to have hurt Hindu sentiments).
With that, the brief period of creative freedom that Indian filmmakers had enjoyed on OTT platforms — after their ugly, unpleasant experiences with the Censor Board for Film Certification for theatrical releases — seem to be over, with storytellers and platforms commissioning content reorienting themselves for the road ahead.
While there is nothing more precious than freedom of expression when it comes to art, all hope isn’t lost. Time and again, filmmakers over the world found ways to produce work that speaks truth to power while operating from within oppressive regimes. Maybe our filmmakers can take a cue from Orson Welles’ character in The Third Man, who wryly observes that the best art was produced by an Italy under siege, not the peaceful Swiss, whose greatest contribution to mankind was the Swiss clock.
Here’s a list of 10 such films, films that invent fictional truths and allegories, use satire and farce, to dodge censorship, and say something political.
1. Duck Soup (1933)
The always anarchic, farcical Marx Brothers riff on the idea of Freedonia — an imaginary construct that clubs together autocratic countries — in this story about a tinpot dictator who comes to power and quickly antagonises a rival nation and declares war. Come for the gags, stay for the revolution.
2. The Great Dictator (1940)
Charlie Chaplin invented an allegory for every real life fascist force ruling the world at that time — Adenoid Hynkel for Hitler, Tomania for Germany, Napaloni for Mussolini (Hitler’s co-conspirator) — in his most successful film, where a Jewish barber wakes up twenty years later to find himself in a dictatorial land. Chaplin plays, both, the protagonist and antagonist. (Streaming on Mubi)
3. Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969)/Hirak Rajar Deshe (1980)
Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyn Bagha Byn is an anti-war film in the garb of a fantasy about music, food and adventure, but its sequel, released 11 years later — encompassing the turbulent 70s — is politically darker, featuring burning of books, brain-washing machines and a despotic king. The denizens of the land of Hirak Raja speak in rhyme, signifying conformity, and it’s up to the duo to use their hypnotic musical skills to bring down a totalitarian regime. (Hirak Rajar Deshe is streaming on Amazon Prime)
4. Kissa Kursi Ka (1978)
As though inspired by political cartoons that lampooned the p goings-on in the country, Amrit Nahata’s Kissa Kursi Ka was a satire on the crisis facing the Indian democracy at the time — namely the Emergency. While rats are declared as an enemy of the nation, Shabana Azmi’s mute and malleable woman is a personification of the public, who the Government systemically takes for a ride. (Available on YouTube)
5. Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
Zhang Yimou’s visually stunning, masterfully crafted period drama is the story of a young woman (played by the beauteous Gong Li), who becomes the fourth wife of a feudal patriarch, whose face we never see. His lavish home is actually a luxurious prison in which women are pitted against each other and live according to the whims of the master. The film can be read in many ways — it was seen as an allegory for an oppressive regime, an attack on the treatment of women in China and also as a sumptuous looking melodrama. Its many layers make the Oscar-nominated film fascinating viewing.
6. Hun Hunshi Hunshilal (1992)
The Gujarati language film — whose English title is Love in the Time of Malaria — transports the viewer to the Kingdom of Khojpuri, where the ruler declares war against the mosquitoes (a stand-in for the middle and lower-middle class). Sanjiv Shah’s film has found a second life after a restored version surfaced on YouTube last year. (Available on YouTube)
7. The Matrix (1999)
Who hasn’t heard of The Matrix? The film, which grossed just shy of half-a-billion back in 1999, revolutionised the action genre and spawned off endless imitations and homages. Although it was known for its high concept sci-fi, iconic characters, and virtuoso action sequences, in 2020, one of the directors, Lilly Wachowski, who came out along with her sister and co-director Lana Wachowski years after the film, talked about the film as an allegory for the transgender identity. Watch it (again) and notice when Neo demands the villain, Agent Smith, to not call him by what is essentially his ‘deadname’– one of the Wachowskis’ many references, which they had to smuggle in, about the titular ‘Matrix’ being a metaphor for being trapped in the wrong gender identity. (Streaming on Netflix).
8. Offside (2006)
All of Jafar Panahi’s filmography — or Iranian cinema after the Revolution, for that matter — are lessons in how to make films circumventing strict censorship, and Offside is a good example. Panahi’s docu-fiction hybrid follows a teenage girl as she tries to sneak her way into a football match disguised as a guy — since women are not allowed to enter stadiums in Iran. A celebration of the game as a national unifying force even as it’s as a damning indictment of the unfairness of such a rule. (Streaming on Disney + Hotstar)
9. Under The Skin (2013)
Jonathan Glazer goes the lo-fi route in this hypnotic sci-fi art film about an alien, in the shape of a Scarlett Johansson we’ve never seen before, who wanders around in Scotland having surreal, predatory encounters with men, and just to be clear: they’re the prey. However, this film is less “femme fatale slasher”, and more “existential horror”. The film, though apparently not intended to be, has been identified as a visceral, feminist argument, particularly due its’ long set-pieces which involve unscripted, hidden interactions with non-actors, who were asked for permission to use the footage after the fact. It can be read as both an allegory for the journey to discover human nature, a question at the very philosophical foundations of politics, and as a part-satire, via sheer grim irony, about the privilege men have in public spaces at night.
10. And Then We Danced (2019)
This is an example of a film that was covertly political in its production, not in its content. This Georgian queer dance film is visually and emotionally gutting, with its scenes of countryside, longing, and the frenetic Georgian folk dance. It follows Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), a passionate dancer who is auditioning for a spot in the main troupe. His affairs and afflictions form the film. In post-Soviet Georgia they hold onto these art forms to solidify identity, and within these dance forms are embedded cultural codes of masculinity and femininity. In 2013, an alt right group violently disrupted a Pride Walk, with one man almost lynched.
The Swedish-Georgian director Levan Akin was met with hostile indifference by The Sukhishvili Georgian National Ballet, the country’s principal dance ensemble. Akin was also unable to get the rights to old folk-songs, and so re-recorded it with new artists, many of whom did not even want to be credited, like the choreographer. Death threats and body guards were common during the shoot. Akin had created an alternative plotline to explain his film to those who would ask, so they wouldn’t take offence. He would describe the film as the journey of French tourist who comes to Georgia and falls in love with its culture. But the reputation of the film preceded it and they would lose locations a day before the shoot. Akin shot the film in 4 weeks. Violent protests ensued outside Georgian theatres that were housefull.