Cheriyachante Kroora Krithyangal / The Evil Deeds of Cherian (Dir. John Abraham, 1979, India [Malayalam]

Cheriyachan (Adoor Bhasi), a benign yet God fearing landlord in Kuttand, Kerala is unable to comprehend the systemic political changes taking place around him. The peasant workers and farmers have had enough of a feudal power structure that exploits them while enabling landlords like Cheriyachan to rule with impunity, a historical practice that has gone unchallenged for hundreds of years. An orthodox social, economic, political, historical and cultural order is disintegrating before the very eyes of Cheriyachan and he simply does not know how to react to such changes other than retreat into a kind of anxious stupor that gradually consumes him.

Director John Abraham’s political satire, teeming with lyricism, is one of his most underseen works (briefly released in 1981) and reminds us of the significance of satire as a mode of address that was popular with many Parallel Cinema filmmakers, a rich sub-genre that led to some of the most corrosive deconstructions of hegemonic power structures such as caste, colonialism and patriarchy. This sub-genre includes films like Bhuvan Shome (1969), Bhavni Bhavai (1980), Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), Hun Hunshi Hunshilal (1992) to name a few. Abraham’s third feature feature is part of a loose trilogy of political fables, beginning in 1977 with Agratharathil Kazhuthai and culminating in his masterpiece Amma Ariyan in 1987.

Essentially a study of guilt that hinges on Bhasi’s droll and virtually silent performance as Cheriyachan, Abraham’s satire dispenses with narrative inclinations and is shaped as an elliptical stream of consciousness. Cheriyachan’s increasingly anxious view of the world is visualised through a series of dream sequences that relates a nightmarish guilt ridden fear of the peasant worker rising up in a perpetual and relentless chorus of insurrection. The alignment between the petit bourgeoise and the capitalists is just one aspect of resistance to political revolution Abraham deals with, suggesting how the ruling elite like Cheriyachan legitimise this union in their inability to sympathise with the plight of the oppressed workers.

Choosing to deal with peasant insurgency through the eyes of a landlord complicates the revolutionary politics at stake since the unexpected humanization creates a tension in the viewer. Moreover, reducing Cheriyachan to a child gives the work an absurdist, even nonsensical quality. As Cheriyachan’s wife becomes increasingly concerned by her husband’s erratic behaviour, his brief departure to get medical treatment is short lived and suggests that any kind of intervention including religion cannot overcome and stop the forces of historical change. In this respect, Abraham’s approach to feudalism is a novel one since converging on the psychological rather than the political makes for a work that is cerebral, allegorical and burlesque at times. The psychological disintegration of Cheriyachan with the roving hand-held camerawork pushing up against faces, distorting the frame and resorting to nightmarish inserts evokes the work of Polanski 1960’s work expressly Repulsion.

The politics of Naxalism is ever present throughout, reminding us of Naxalism’s widespread impact outside of West Bengal. Montages detail the peasant farmers mobilizing to tear down feudalism while the atrocities of workers who are killed during the harvest and their bodies thrown into the sea come back to haunt Cheriyachan, resurrected in his dreams. In one explicit reference to Naxalism, Cheriyachan listens to workers read out a news story that tells of a landlord who was killed by peasant farmers in act of insurrection, with direct mention of the act being instigated by Naxalites. It only seems logical that Abraham resorts to yet more satire in the Cheriyachan’s literal fall from grace when he ascends a coconut tree and refuses to come down as the village looks on in astonishment, completing a totalizing public humiliation of the figure of the landlord, a constant motif and archetype in Indian cinema who comes to symbolise the fulcrum of a colonial feudal system that was continually under attack in the critical vestiges of Parallel Cinema.

PATTY HEARST (Dir. PAUL SCHRADER, 1988)

The much publicised kidnapping and coercion of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army is the focus of Schrader’s 1988 film, a critical look back at the protracted complex political choices that underpinned the counter culture of the 1970s. It is an unusual film to have emerged from 1980s Hollywood cinema and is also one of Schrader’s most political works. Reconnecting with the proletarianism of Blue Collar, Schrader examines how the will to adopt and maintain a political posture is riddled with a gamut of intersectional insincerities that are class and race related. Schrader treats the first part like an exercise in Brechtian tableau, imbuing the SLA with an ideological sincerity while sympathetically framing militancy as wholly reasonable given the wider inequalities.

At the core is Natasha Richardson’s gruelling performance as Hearst who conveys the right degrees of ambivalence to make one uncertain of her motivations and ideological beliefs. Much of the film deals with the assimilation of Hearst, brainwashed to join the group, suggesting the decorative nature of counter culture was simply a momentary allure to middle class white people wanting to interminably escape the system while indulging in faux acts of sexual and political liberation. However, the government’s brutal annihilation of the SLA, carried out with impunity by the police, critiques the gradual erasure of counter culture militancy as something unambiguously ideological; a benign cultural struggle for political discourse, mainstream lifestyles and conformity.

BRUBAKER (Dir. Stuart Rosenberg, 1980)

Along with Cool Hand Luke, Brubaker is one of director Stuart Rosenberg’s most popular films in a career which is criminally undervalued. Rosenberg seemed to have a knack of using genre to craft genuinely gutsy political cinema. However, a lot of his loosely structured films which are fuelled by a particular ambience, would easily see him being labelled as a hack, which of course is far from the truth. In the case of Brubaker, Rosenberg revisits the territory of prison and reform, and unlike Cool Hand Luke, as much a vehicle for Newman’s beaming charisma, this sentimental polemic not only aligns itself with the liberal politics of Redford but adopts a totalizing leftist stance that scorns the concept of political compromise, a concept that is situated as abhorrent and counter-productive to the development of a fair and civilised society. Rod Lurie’s 2001 The Last Castle, also starring Redford on auto-pilot, pays reverence to Rosenberg’s film, at times even parodying the anti-authoritarianism of Brubaker.

Rosenberg is arguably one of the few American filmmakers to have succeeded in detailing the morbid intricacies of prison life, often adopting a sort of quasi neo-realist approach in which action is supplemented by revealing political conversations, an undeniable star quality of W. D. Richter’s Oscar nominated screenplay. Perhaps even more terrifying is the ways in which the powers that be which Brubaker comes into conflict with, namely the prison board, and essentially a manifestation of capitalist corporate machinations, align themselves against his attempts to reform a system of perpetual dehumanization. The final catharsis of Redford’s sordid tears as the prisoners clap in unity is unreal, delirious and prodigiously orchestrated by Rosenberg’s characteristically intimate close ups.

A RIFLE AND A BAG (Dir. NoCut Film Collective, 2020, India/Romania/Italy/Qatar)

What is the price for those who join a political revolution? And what happens once you surrender and attempt to reconcile with a political past? The Naxalite Movement, perhaps one of the most sustained political folk/tribal movements in the global south, is the focus of this brilliantly observed documentary by the NoCut Film Collective of three international filmmakers; Cristina Hanes (Romania), Isabella Rinaldi (Italy) and Arya Rothe (India). A young Indian couple, Somi Sukhram and Pravin Pranay, who have surrendered to the police now live in a settlement supported by former Naxal comrades. Somi and Pravin have two children and we see how much of a struggle it is to send their older child to school, battling the state bureaucracy of obtaining a caste certificate to verify their tribal status. The documentary juxtaposes the daily rituals of life at home with a series of intimate and revealing conversations in which Somi recollects the memories of her Naxal past, much of which is relayed to her family and children.

Since many Naxal films are often situated in a specific historical past, looking back with trepidation, this documentary shifts to a contemporary context, reminding us the Maoist insurgency is still part of daily life for many in India. The oppositional radical empowerment of Naxalite ideology is inescapable, infectious and Somi is prone to passing on her tales of resistance to her children. However, as we learn, Naxals who have surrendered, are not only shunned by wider society but also the movement itself. In the case of Somi and Pravin, their status as outsiders is doubly magnified since they also belong to a lower tribal caste. The lack of historical and political context regarding the Naxalite movement may at first appear like an oversight but drawing away from a lengthy lesson in radical histories and strategizing to amplify agency makes for a documentary in which Naxals are never sanitised or censured for the sacrifices they made to join an interminable communist movement which continues to wage a legitimate political struggle and which the filmmakers compassionately bring to life in all its entanglements.