flashback

Film flashback: A Kannada comedy from 1978 about a power-mad actor makes complete sense today

In MS Sathyu’s allegory, Gajasimha finds that politics is no different from acting.

What a week it has been for Karnataka politics. The drama that has been unfolding since the results of the Assembly election were declared on Tuesday has resulted in a nail-biting race for the chief minister’s chair. The three major parties in the state that made a bid for the position – Bharatiya Janata Party, Indian National Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) – have been justifying their actions by saying that they are following the will of their voters and have the welfare of the state’s residents at heart.

A classic Kannada movie from 1978 features a similar bid for power being made in the name of the people. MS Sathyu’s brilliant allegory Chitegu Chinte (A restless corpse), set on the imaginary island of Gajadweepa, is a hilarious and hard-hitting tale about one man’s relationship with power. Gajasimha (CR Simha) is an actor, who, despite his lack of talent, is widely loved by audiences. He reports to a man who is forever lying on a hospital bed. Although we never see this man’s face, Gajasimha refers to him as “Boss”.

One day, Boss instructs Gajasimha to contest in the upcoming elections. Overnight, the actor transforms into a politician, and effortlessly too. Politics, in fact, offers Gajasimha greater scope to fulfill his narcissistic interests.

“As an actor until today, my services were restricted to my art alone,” Gajasimha says at a rally. “That my services were needed even in the political sphere was clear to me thanks to the love of the people and their insistence. Unlike an actor, a politician has to perform throughout his career. An actor and a politician are two sides of the same coin.”

He may be a newly minted politician, but Gajasimha does not shy away from giving his followers advice on how to vote. “In an election, more than the candidate, the party he is from is important,” he argues. “Therefore, as voters, please don’t fret about trivial things such as a candidate’s eligibility, his credentials or his reputation. Just vote for the party – in this case the Akhila Vishranti Paksha [All India Party for Relaxation].”

Sathyu ensures the self-serving anti-hero is as exaggerated as he can be. The movie takes its tone from the comic books that Gajasimha is fond of reading. The screenplay, by Sathyu and Javed Siddiqui, suggests that people get what they deserve, and that Gajasimha is but a reflection of the wider population. The song Naavella Kurudaru (We are all blind), sung by a blind choir in the film, bluntly delivers the point of the film.

One of the best scenes is the one in which Gajasimha is sworn in as chief minister. As the governor begins to read out the oath so that Gajasimha can repeat after him, Gajasimha interrupts him, takes over and declares his real intentions: “I, Gajasimha, with God, my conscience and the Constitution as witness, will never distance myself from possessing this authority. At all costs, I’ll protect my self-serving intentions and relationships. Until I die, I’ll ensure that my relationship with the seat of power is protected under all circumstances. With Gajadweepa and this chief minister’s chair as witness, I, on my own, will protect this democracy.”

Gajasimha is power hungry and venal, but at least he is honest.

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Chitegu Chinte (1978).
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