Most genres are easy enough to define. If the main conflict revolves around action it's an action movie, if it revolves around an adventure it's an adventure movie, and if it revolves around the emotion of fear it's a horror film. But what makes a movie political? The characters in Lucifer, for example, are almost exclusively politicians and political power brokers. Yet the most it has to say about politics is that all sides are equally wrong and an international crime boss might swoop in and save the day from the relatively smaller national crime boss. It functions much like a mass movie, albeit a well produced one.
Political movies, to me, are less about the type of plot and more about the kind of themes they deal with. The movie could be a gangster film like Malik, or a science fiction film like District 9. Even a post apocalyptic action film like Mad Max: Fury Road has more to say about the relationship between gender, power, and ownership of resources than most movies featuring politicians and ministers as lead characters.
With that said, here are three of my favourite political movies that explore the ways in which money, politics and political apathy mix in dangerous ways.
One of the finest examples of political satire in Indian cinema, this 1984 film directed by K.G.George, is set in a town that lies somewhere between the front-page headlines of your daily newspaper and the cartoons at its back. Its larger than life characters are less exaggerated versions of our political class and more their logical conclusions. They are what happens when political and bureaucratic power is appropriated by the few to enrich themselves at the expense of the many.
Shikhandi (no, not that one) comes up with a scheme to siphon money by convincing the village government led by his brother-in-law Dussasana (no, not that one either) to declare the perfectly functioning existing bridge unsafe and build a new one in its place. There's something for everyone — money to be made on the bridge, the road to the bridge, the building materials, and so on and so forth. Ishak, the opposition leader, meanwhile, wants to usurp the village leadership, but would be open to settling for some cash on the backend.
Between the excellent sequences of political leaders manipulating religious sentiments solely for the sake of lining their pockets and a minister giving a speech to a field of empty chairs, it becomes clear that the movie's satirical knives are sharpened to a point. How sharp? Beneath the depiction of garden variety corruption in infrastructure projects which takes up the bulk of the plot, the film also finds time to touch on themes of nepotism, the weaponization of religious belief, the dangers of an apathetic population, the misogynistic lens applied to women in power, the neglect shown towards the disabled, and the unchecked power of the police.
That the climactic resolution to the inter-party conflict is resolved in the house of the local business man to whom both parties show deference is just the icing on the cake.
And I haven't even mentioned the cast. It's a who's who of Malayalam Cinema's finest character actors, and torchbearers of the original New Wave: Bharat Gopi, Sreevidya, Nedumudi Venu, Sukumari, Thilakan, Jagathy Sreekumar in addition to K. P. Ummer. Each of their characters might well have jumped out of one of R. K. Laxman's cartoons.
As for the filmmaking, check out the single take all-party dinner scene where the camera follows a drunk Thilakan, the increasingly drunk Innocent, and all the other assorted characters, or the collapse of the titular bridge, or the pythonesque government office where the clerk is hidden behind a small maze of files to get an idea of the kind of director that was K. G. George.
Movies about freedom struggles rarely grapple with what it means to be free. If you overthrow your foreign overlords, only to replace them with domestic tyrants, are you really free? This question is at the heart of Ken Loach's Palme d'Or winning film about the Irish War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War. Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty chose, wisely, to portray their take on the forging of a nation through the eyes of two fictional brothers— Damien (a wounding Cillian Murphy) and Teddy (Pádraic Delaney) O'Donovan. It allows for the complex personalities and actions people take during any war to be explored without getting into the messy issues we often see when telling stories of real historical people. But the heart of the film and its historical setting is as accurate as it can get.
"It was wrong, but I need the man's money to buy weapons," says Teddy O'Donovan in one of the most pivotal scenes in the film. The people's court of the IRA decides against a wealthy landowner in a case. Justice for the poor would alienate the rich landowners. Alienating the landowners means they can't finance the war against the British. The two brothers fall on either side of the issue — one arguing for winning the war first, and the other arguing for fighting the war the right way, foreshadowing the eventual split in the Irish Republican Army during the civil war.
It is also significant in that it captures the essence of what the director was going for. In his own words: "Every time a colony wants independence, the questions on the agenda are: a) how do you get the imperialists out, and b) what kind of society do you build? There are usually the bourgeois nationalists who say, 'Let's just change the flag and keep everything as it was.' Then there are the revolutionaries who say, 'Let's change the property laws.' It's always a critical moment."
The mirrored scenes showing, first, the British, then the Irish Free State forces carrying out similar raids on the same property just drives the point further.
The Wind that Shakes the Barley does more to show the complex political pressures and compromises that take place during the founding of nations than most other movies about freedom struggles.
This 1976 Cesar Award winning French film by Joseph Losey is, on its surface, a slow-burn thriller about mistaken identities. But when your identity is mistaken for Jewish in Nazi-occupied France, it becomes political. Alain Delon is Robert Klein, an art dealer who's found a lucrative business in making money off French Jews who are looking to leave the country by selling their artworks. He moves through his life oblivious to the increasing Nazi uniforms on the streets and in restaurants. He does business with Jewish customers desperate to raise money to get out before the hammer drops. He trusts in the system even when the system itself is circling him like a vulture over a dying animal.
He is the embodiment of the post-war poem "First they came.."
Robert Klein's life begins to unravel when he finds a copy of a Jewish newspaper at his doorstep. He does everything right. He tells the paper that they made a mistake and he informs the police like a good citizen. As it turns out there's a second Klein who actually is Jewish. Should be easy enough to clear things up, one would think. But now he's brought the attention of the authorities on himself. What follows is a Kafkaesque chase through Paris and its surrounding countryside for this mysterious other Mr. Klein who seems to live a more interesting and mysterious life than our protagonist. He might even be a member of La Résistance.
The apathy towards the politics around you that Panchavadi Palam plays for comedic satire is here played for an increasing sense of dread as the authorities close in on our protagonist even as the other Mr. Klein remains tantalizingly out of reach. At the same time if dependence on money is a necessary evil for the heroes of The Wind That Shakes The Barley, then for our Mr. Klein its allure blinds him to the noose that was slowly tightening around his neck. As the inevitable 1942 roundup of Parisian Jews comes around our protagonist finds himself on a train with those of his Jewish clients who couldn't get out.
And the other Mr. Klein? Well that would be a spoiler and I've given away too much already.