In this series, we revisit films that deserve another look with fresh eyes
What’s the film about
A car splashes muddy water onto a devious politician at the neck of a narrow bridge, urging him to co-opt with fellow politicians to first pull the bridge down and then rebuild it, even when it works perfectly fine.
Director KG George had delivered consecutive successes with murder mysteries Yavanika (1982) and Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback (1983), and the feminist drama Adaminte Vaariyellu (1984), when he decided take a detour (his only towards comedy) to make one of Malayalam cinema’s earliest political satires. Reported to have been George’s most expensive film, the director is said to have insisted on constructing a bridge just for the film.
But the Malayali’s gradual obsession with this genre (and this film), wasn’t love at first sight. The film was declared a major flop. But why? Was it the lack of a conventional star, even though the film boasts of an envious ensemble of some of our finest actors? Was it the lack of an anchor character, a sane, grounded voice the audience could relate to? Or was it just the inability to understand a new kind of cinema that people were not used to seeing? Whatever be the reason(s), the film has now become the dictionary definition of ‘ahead-of-its-time’, with its prophetic qualities keeping it relevant even four decades after its release.
It used wit, irony, sarcasm, observations and satire to make us laugh using the highest forms of humour. For irony, what better than the scene where the structural integrity of the bridge is being studied by an engineer who is so drunk and wobbly that he can barely walk straight
Why it works
Based on writer Veloor Krishnankutty’s Palam Apakadathil, KG George co-wrote Panchavadi Palam with cartoonist Yesudasan for the screen. Now that we have the film in front of us, the effort it must have taken to convert this source text to a cinematic form might not appear too difficult. But how really do you create a universe populated with names like Dussasana Kuruppu, Mandodiri, Panchali, Sikhandi Pilla, Anarkali, Jehangir, Barabas and even Judas, without it appearing too far-fetched, too absurd? Because these aren’t really characters as much as they are caricatures, yet they’re all people we’ve either seen somewhere or still keep seeing. The cartoon-like film is far from any form of realism, but it’s still strikingly close to reality (cough, Palarivattom).
It used wit, irony, sarcasm, observations and satire to make us laugh using the highest forms of humour. For irony, what better than the scene where the structural integrity of the bridge is being studied by an engineer who is so drunk and wobbly that he can barely walk straight.
The actors are just as phenomenal. How does one get such a large number of actors to align to the perfect pitch of what must have been an ‘undefinable’ kind of film then?
And when the local tea seller asks the policeman guarding the bridge if he disturbed the latter’s sleep, he says, “saaram illa. Baaki naala urangikkolam.” He’s not saying ‘I will sleep it off later’ or ‘I will sleep properly tomorrow’. What he’s essentially saying is ‘I’ll make up for it tomorrow’, as though he has already quantified the sleep. All that difference by just adding that ‘baaki’ to the dialogue. What about that line where a woman demands that the government start taking care of her because she gets impregnated by a government employee? If this isn’t wit then what is?
It’s not just the situations or the dialogues…even shots fit in perfectly to add to the ‘structural integrity’ of this film. Like the one where the panchayat president comes home to the sight of his driver’s feet sticking out of the car window, or the shot where a minister’s envoy tramples over chickens as it races past or how the engineer remains hidden behind mountains of paperwork when we first see him. We even get a fascinating zoom-out (Shaji N Karun is the film’s cinematographer) which slowly reveals how the verbose minister is speechifying to just one person in the audience.
It’s not just the situations or the dialogues…even shots fit in perfectly to add to the ‘structural integrity’ of this film.
The actors are just as phenomenal. How does one get such a large number of actors to align to the perfect pitch of what must have been an ‘undefinable’ kind of film then? I would go on to rate Bharath Gopi’s performance here (just listen to the way he shouts ‘ayyo, ayyo’) as one of his best but that would be stating the obvious. What’s just as impressive are the performances of actors like Srividya, Venu Nagavalli and KP Ummer who we rarely got to see in such roles.
When you watch Panchavadi Palam today, it becomes obvious how it would go on to create the rulebook for satires and political comedies in the future. Ok, so that’s just art imitating art. But if one were to make the case for life imitating art, then this film would be impossible to omit in the debate. See the way the panchayat of Airavatakuzhi becomes the microcosm of our country as a whole. The panchayat office and the fights that happen there can be a stand-in for any assembly. What about the horse-trading that happens in the film where opposing parties use money, alcohol and even women to buy support? Or the unCAAny way the political parties in the film use religion to rattle up support in their desperation?
In which case, one wonders if it’s still fair to call this film a satire. I mean, documentaries would struggle to get us as close to reality as this film does. As a cinephile, it feels great to write about a prophetic film that will always remain ‘ahead-of-its-time’. But if nothing seems to have changed in the past 34 years, with the film’s relevance increasing even today, how ‘behind-of-its-time’ is our world? How long will we remain like the crippled Kathorayan (Sreenivasan) in this film?