The political climate in India is something that has changed considerably over the past 20 years. While there were conversations around nepotism against the ruling party of the early 2000s, the state is now driven by religious agendas and demands. But one thing that has remained unchanged is the bureaucratic nature of the bodies. From panchayat offices to assemblies, the cause and whims of the constituent people with political and social power have found ways to be served, often with the needs of the common man being forgotten in the mix. But the corruption and penchant for self-serving causes among politicians is nothing new. It is a tale as old as time. This is perhaps best captured in a 1984 Malayalam movie, that is still critically considered one of the best black comedies in Indian Cinema.
'Panchavadi Paalam' is a political satire directed by the iconic Malayalam director K.G. George. Based on a story by the Malayali satirist Veloor Krishnankutty, this movie featured some of the most acclaimed actors in the industry. The dialogue for the movie was written by the cartoonist Yesudasan. The premise of the movie surrounds the titular bridge in the imaginary panchayat of Airavathikuzhi in Kerala. While the movie features an ensemble cast, the lead character is Dusshasana Kurup — the selfish panchayat president, who stands for everything his name means, played by the inimitable Bharath Gopi. While his name in Sanskrit means ‘hard to rule’, he is ruled by his wife’s cunning mind and his plight for power. Much like the character that his name is derived from, he is a schemer, whose downfall came from his jealousy and herd mentality.
Dusshasana Kurup’s suggestible nature is what sets the movie on its path. He is influenced by his power-hungry wife Mandodari and is egged on by Sikhandi Pillai, who has a groundless and personal dislike for the existing . There is also the opposition leader Ishak Tharakan who sees the potential of this plan to fail and supports it to claim the position that Dusshasana Kurup holds. There is a slew of other characters who all weigh into the construction of Panchavadi Paalam, each a familiar caricature of stereotypes that we’ve all witnessed in real life.
What follows this is essentially a series of ill attempts to make this bridge a reality — from deciding to build it at a farther distance (to construct a road as well), bringing onboard seemingly passionate officials and contractors who have their corrupt agendas, to even attempting to rouse popularity among the public through ‘thundering’ speeches and more. But as those with selfish agendas and influence lead Dusshasana Kurup down a complicated road, the petty motives and sycophancy of the people hit an all-time high and the state of the worsens.
While the movie was released 39 years ago, it speaks to familiar, and universal tropes — of people’s selfish motives and the way it plays out in political scenarios. It shows the plight of the common man, whose needs get overlooked in the attempt of the select few trying to attain their wants. It even depicts how a feeble-minded in power, led by a horde of selfish people can spell doom for a community at large. Even to this day, when one looks at the best political satire to come out of the prolific Malayalam movie industry, Panchavadi Paalam is considered a classic.
If you’d like to watch this movie, it is free to stream But fair warning, if you don’t speak the language, you might need a Malayali friend to help you watch this one, as subtitles are not available. But it will be worth the hassle.
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