With the release of Kaala, here’s a quick tour of political cinema from around the world
The release of Pa Ranjith’s Kaala, starring Rajinikanth, has brought politics back into filmmaking.
The release of Pa Ranjith’s Kaala, starring Rajinikanth, has brought politics back into filmmaking. The film isn’t entirely successful, but its most incendiary passages made me wonder if there is another instance, anywhere in the world, of a famous star being used to convey the director’s ideology. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men? A political film, yes, but it’s not the director’s politics – it was based on a book. Syriana? Perhaps. But then, George Clooney wasn’t exactly the central figure. Charlie Wilson’s War, with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts? Close, but no cigar. The Great Dictator, with Charlie Chaplin, may come closest in the sense of a huge star combined with ripped-from-the-headlines urgency, but satire – even stunning satire, like the legendary globe scene in the clip below – has a way of softening the sting.
So yes, Kaala may be unique – but let’s take a look at other political works, like Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. A flier announcing the documentary-style film, before a 2004 screening at the Pentagon, said: “Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar?” Despite this cheeky reference to the modern day, The Battle of Algiers is a classical David vs. Goliath story, about the Algerian uprising against French colonists. But current-day resonances are undeniably present, especially in the following clip, set during a press conference that shows a colonel justifying “methods” used during the war. “What form of questioning must we adopt? Civil law procedures, which take months for a mere misdemeanour?” A journalist says, dryly, “Legality can be inconvenient,” but the colonel has no time for sarcasm. He asks, “Is it legal to set off bombs in public places?” The film came over five decades ago – there’s still no answer.
Then there are the Russian films, of course. Sergei Eisenstein’s Battle Potemkin is very well-known, at least in cinephiles circles – like The Battle of Algiers, this, too, is about an uprising, though on a more compact scale. The crew of a battleship revolts against officers, protesting the maggot-infested meat they are expected to survive on. This is classic propaganda cinema, which Eisenstein honed into a fine art by the time he made (with co-director, Grigori Aleksandrov) October: Ten Days That Shook the World, a dramatisation of the October Revolution of 1917. See the clip below, which shows the storming of the Winter Palace. The rousing music is the equivalent of the St Crispin’s Day Speech (“For he today that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother”) in Shakespeare’s Henry V. It makes you want to enlist.
And we come to the Shakespearean adaptations that qualify as political films, like Richard III. (For the explosive opening stretch of the version with Ian McKellan as the titular tyrant, see the clip below.) Theatre director Lindsay Posner picked Richard III as one of his six best political plays, and said, “It’s also a dissection of realpolitik: you can stage it in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, in the White House, in Whitehall.” You could say that of Macbeth as well, which Akira Kurosawa transposed from medieval Scotland to feudal Japan in Throne of Blood. But the Ian McKellen version of Richard III – which drags the play from the fifteen century to the twentieth, to England of the 1930s, between the two wars – speaks directly to our age because it seems so contemporary. It drew parallels between Richard III and Hitler, right down to a coronation that looks like a colourised clip from Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will (1935).
Perhaps the most emotional political films are the ones that tell the story of a person or a family against the backdrop of turmoil, allowing us to get a sense of the macro picture by zooming into the micro – say, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun, set during the rise of post-war Germany, or Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, which depicts one Jewish man’s struggle during the Holocaust. Where Polanski uses the format of drama, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret is a musical set, roughly, in the same period. One of the many stunning songs, If You Could See Her through My Eyes (see clip below), shows the emcee with a giant ape (which stands in for a non-‘Aryan’, in Hitler’s Germany). The lyrics go: When we’re in public together / I hear society groan / But if they could see her through my eyes / Maybe they’d leave us alone.
Like the political musical, there’s also political sci-fi (say, Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, about the importance of pacifism), the political superhero saga (Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which Slate called a bleak post-9/11 allegory about how terror breaks down reassuring moral categories), and the political thriller. A great example of the latter is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others, whose plot revolves around the Big Brotherly eye officers of the Stasi kept on East Germans. A moving scene (see clip below) shows the protagonist, a playwright, asking a Stasi chief why he wasn’t bugged. He learns he was. (“Take a look behind your light switches.”) And yet, he believes in communism – only that the way it was being practised in the GDR was wrong. Donnersmarck said, “I think that what they don’t understand is that the only way you can make communism happen is by paying too high a price.” The director’s politics comes through even without a star, and it underlines that in these films, the writer-director is the star.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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Thavasi, who was reportedly being treated at a Madurai hospital, was battling oesophageal cancer.
Several reports suggest that his Varuthapadatha Valibar Sangam co-actor Sivakarthikeyan has offered financial support to Thavasi.