Discussing politics is a favourite activity with Malayalis. From tea shops to educational institutions, office spaces and the drawing room, political debate is a way of life in the state. And with Assembly elections just weeks away in Kerala, now is as good a time as any to revisit Sandesham, Sathyan Anthikad's 1991 comedy about a home that's split over politics, way before family WhatsApp groups entered the scene and accomplished it.
The film is centered on Raghavan Nair (Thilakan) and his five children — three boys and two girls. While the two sisters (KPAC Lalitha and Maathu), the youngest brother Prashanthan (Rahul Laxman) and mother Bhanu (Kaviyoor Ponnamma) add to the plot, the story is mostly about the neverending quarrel between the two older brothers — Prabhakaran (Sreenivasan, who also wrote the script) and Prakashan (Jayaram).
Prabhakaran belongs to the RDP, and Prakashan's affiliation is to the INSP. The parties are clearly modelled on the Left (LDF) and the Congress (UDF), the two major rivals in the state, respectively. Both brothers were actively engaged in student politics and are now graduates but have not sought employment.
The film begins with Raghavan Nair retiring as a station master in Tamil Nadu and looking forward to leading a peaceful life in his home state. At first, he is mighty impressed with Prabhakaran and Prakashan, believing their tall tales about the stature they enjoy in their respective political parties. Raghavan himself is fond of exaggerating stories where he comes out looking the hero and his sons are no different. But it takes him a while to figure this out.
When he arrives at the railway station from Tamil Nadu, nobody from the family is there to receive him. His neighbour, the ever-helpful Achu (Oduvil Unnikrishnan), is meant to go but is delayed. The two older sons are nowhere in the picture, busy as they are with their political games. The scenario repeats all through the film, with the brothers being absent whenever the family is in need of them. The fundamental question that Anthikad raises is — can a man who cannot take care of his own family be trusted to take care of the country?
While the three women, the mother and two sisters, have relatively smaller roles to play, they're quicker to see through the hypocrisy of the young men. Raghavan Nair had been away for the most part of the children's upbringing and it was Bhanu who took care of them. She frequently tells her husband that their sons are out of line but he, like a typical patriarch, is dismissive of her observations and says it's because she's not an "intellectual" like them.
The older sister Latha is married to a policeman (Mala Aravindan) who assaulted a member of the current ruling party (Mammukoya) at the behest of the then ruling party, and is dealing with the fall-out. Latha is only interested in the brothers' political affairs as far as it will benefit her marital home. She doesn't take either of the brothers seriously otherwise. Lathika, the younger one, has failed her Pre Degree examination and is at home helping her mother. However, despite her lack of "intellect", she's able to puncture her brothers' egoes effortlessly.
We also see the two brothers dumping their chores on the women of the house constantly, from expecting them to cook for their partymen to ironing their shirts. This, even as they indulge in high-minded debates about equality, progress and international politics ("Polandiney kurichu onnum parayaradhu" is evergreen).
In April 1991, the LDF lost power to the UDF in Kerala. Sandesham, which came later that year, is set in the same political scenario. Prakashan cannot stop rubbing it in and Prabhakaran keeps flying off the handle every time his younger brother brings up the RDP's defeat. Their leaders (Shankaradi and Mammukoya) are no better, indulging in petty squabbles and protecting their own interests even as they keep talking about lofty ideals.
There are many hilarious satirical situations that Anthikad showcases to highlight the hollowness of the two brothers, including a fight over a dead body ("Njangalude dead body njangalkku vittu tharuga!") and a north Indian politician Sahaiji's (a brilliant Innocent) visit to their home (the"nariyal ka pani" line is comedy gold in the south where Hindi is hardly mainstream).Their sloganeering and public posturing become more and more absurd, resulting in bigger and worse consequences for the family, including Raghavan's arrest at one point.
As a counterfoil to the two brothers, Anthikad also gives us another young man — Udhayabanu (Siddique), an honest officer in the Agricultural Department. He's an orphan who worked his way up, and while the brothers are absent, he steps in whenever the family is in crisis. He marries the younger sister, Lathika, despite Prakashan's best efforts to stop it (since he'd refused to donate money to the INSP). He's also a believer in astrology and has some knowledge of the field that impresses Raghavan.
Udhayabanu is 'apolitical' and is positioned as a better person than either Prabhakaran or Prakashan. The ending of the film, too, suggests that while good people should be in politics, student activism isn't desirable and it's better to have a job than get involved in political affairs. The youngest brother, Prashantan, who is always pretending to study with a tape recorder playing his lessons, is projected as a budding version of his two older brothers; deceitful, unwilling to work hard and quick to raise a flag over nothing. But his 'reformed' older brothers break the flag and 'correct' him before he goes 'astray'.
Considering student politics is one of the ways in which young people without a political background can enter the field, Anthikad and writer Sreenivasan's messaging, in retrospect (and after you've laughed hard all through the film), is puzzling. In 2019, scriptwriter Syam Pushkaran had criticised Sandesham for the same reason, noting that he did not agree with the film's ending that discourages student politics.
The film also paints all political parties with the same brush, making a mockery of ideologies. While it's certainly true that there might be party workers in real life who spout ideology without understanding it, there is no political figure at all in the script who stands up to scrutiny. It is necessary for a political party to have an ideological mooring, and noble intentions alone are not enough to float an organisation that can impact legislation. All this rather makes it look like a career in politics is only about protecting self-interests and no good can come of it.
If anything, recent history has shown us that being 'apolitical' is not an option. Beyond deciding who will govern us, it also decides what our future will be like and where we're headed as a nation; something that will affect us all. Who but the young should be all the more concerned about this?
While the ending may not be ideal — it was not 30 years ago and even less so now — Sandesham is still a classic that has aged well, serving as a textbook for political aspirants on what not to do, and as a mirror for those who already are in the field. Watch it with that uncle in your WhatsApp family who always gets on your nerves with his opinions on politics.
Watch: Sandesham on YouTube