The film has once again resurfaced in recent days with its 36th anniversary coinciding with the reconstruction of the Palarivattom bridge in Ernakulam.

Gopi with his bald head and specs and big moustache smilesPhoto courtesy - Asianet
Flix Flix Flashback Saturday, October 10, 2020 - 13:35

The panchayat president on top of a bench, finding his way out of a scuffle at the office meeting can perhaps be the poster moment of Panchavadi Palam, that much-recounted political satire of 1984, from KG George. It can also be the stage to which a minister makes his very belated entry and thanks the audience for waiting so long when the camera zooms out and shows a single man with disability, sitting on his plank with wheels.

Moments as these, seen and heard and recorded on newspapers hundreds of times, form the scenes of Panchavadi Palam, adapted from a novel called Palam Apakadathil by Veloor Krishnankutty. George wrote the screenplay with cartoonist Yesudasan in 1984. More than three and a half decades later, new Google reviews say, "the subject is equally relevant now" or "the film is so futuristic". George and his movies were often called that – futuristic.

The film has once again resurfaced in recent days with its 36th anniversary coinciding with the reconstruction of the Palarivattom bridge in Ernakulam.

That’s the core subject – the destruction and reconstruction of a fictional Panchavadi Palam (bridge) in a fictional Airavata panchayat. Same name as the elephant carrying Lord Indra in Hindu mythology. More names drop out of holy books – the whole family of the panchayat president we met in the first line of this story (the one on the bench) – has names from the puranas. Beginning with the president Dushasana Kurup (Bharat Gopi), his wife Manodari (Srividya) who decides how things are run, their daughter Panchali and the family ‘friend’ and party member Shikandi Pillai (Nedumudi Venu).

On the other side, the Opposition party has names pouring out of old and new testaments of the bible. Izahak Tharakan is the leader of that gang, played by Thilakan, followed closely by Yudas Kunju (Aalummoodan).

There are the in-betweeners who may jump ship any time, such as Barbados (Innocent) and Rahel (Sukumari).

The idea to reconstruct a bridge that was in perfectly good shape comes from Shikandi, whose white khaddar shirt is splashed with muddy water by a passing car on the bridge. Shikandi obviously has a good influence on the president. All he has to do is pepper his words with a bit of flattery. Why not celebrate 10 years of his presidency (‘let’s ignore the extra two years’), and why not have two busts of the president on either side of the new bridge. The president whose moustache covers his mouth is enthralled, we know from his high-pitched squeals of laughter. Mandodari, indifferent to Pillai’s pleas for a coffee till then, also brightens up.

Pillai’s interest in this is to get some cement off for some of his own construction work. He and Rahel plot behind Dushana’s back to settle on the money they could make out of all this. Rahel’s husband Abel runs between the opposition and the ruling parties to spill each other’s secrets. Every single person is corrupt and lavishly flawed. Pillai in fact tells Rahel the reason they should continue sticking with Kurup – the people he will bring for the work will bribe them more than the opposition’s.

There is even a fight for the contractors – Jimutavahana (another purana character) played by Venu Nagavally, for the Kurup’s team and an older Poulose for the Opposition. Both contractors shell out thousands to get the contract.

In a long sequence, you see the desperation of the rival parties to get that one politician’s ‘vote’ that will decide things – Barbbados, a man who loves to drink lots and be with women. A drunk Barbbados gets continuously kidnapped by both parties, serving him liquor and bringing him women. Shubha plays the village sex-worker Poothana, who chases the president for a ‘welfare pension for widows’ and who once says that the government should take the responsibility of her unborn child since she was impregnated by a police official. The same official who also elopes with boatman Jahangir’s (Ummar) daughter Anarkali (Kalpana). More holy book references. More unmissable dialogues.

There are almost no losers, you feel, except for the common villager, represented by the single man who is in the middle of all the commotion – the earlier mentioned person with disability, played by a young Sreenivasan. He drags his plank everywhere, loving to hear speeches of ministers and newspaper announcements read out by a man at the tea shop.

Comedy is a given, but despite the caricatures, the plot seems seriously presented. You can see whole lives of people revolve around these matters – the continuous plotting and planning and conspiracies.  There are some blink and miss scenes like one where you spot the engineer who is to check the strength of the bridge hidden by the pile of files in front of him. Or the policeman guarding the bridge keeping his cap on a stone under which passing lorry drivers can keep their bribe before they go.

It might seem like one stretched out scuffle between political rivals but there is never a dull moment as the drama unfolds up to a point where everything has to ‘fall down’. Some great performances of the ensemble of actors, a lot of entertainment in the form of dialogues and plain slapstick comedy, and even a tit-for-tat song, make Panchavadi Palam, much more than a political satire. Although it is that at the heart of it, and can be watched and related to by every generation.   

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