On political pawns

Print edition : July 31, 1999

MARANA SIMHASANAM (Throne of Death) uses a bizarre, surreal idea to depict the situation in which common folk can find themselves when they end up as pawns in the game of politics. In the process, the film takes some savage swipes at the Trojan horse qu ality of many high-profile aid packages offered by the affluent West to developing countries.

Krishnan (Vishwas Njarakkal) is a landless labourer in a Kerala village, who ekes out a living for himself, his wife Chirutha (Lakshmi Raman) and their young son (Jeevan Mitra), by tending the fields of the local landlord (Paul Mannadan). For sheer survi val, he steals a few coconuts from his master. He is promptly caught and handed over to the police after being given ritual punishment.

The elections are just round the corner and Krishnan is a convenient scapegoat on whom to foist an unsolved murder. The petty thief is thus swiftly transformed into a death row prisoner awaiting early execution. His wife makes the rounds of the local par ty office - and soon enough his plight is exploited by local politicians, complete with dharnas and processions.

Unfortunately, it is then that a piece of American "high technology", generously funded by the World Bank is imported: a new "electronic chair" that promises the occupant a swift and painless death. Soon, States vie for the honour of introducing this shi ning symbol of progress: the same politicians who agitated for Krishnan's release now demand that the honour of "inaugurating" the new killer chair should be his. Indeed, he and his family are convinced that this is a splendid piece of good fortune that has befallen them. And pathetically, they think so too. In a Kafkaesque "last supper", the malnourished Krishnan sits at a laden table and bites gratefully into the leg of a chicken, affectionately spooning some other goodies into his little boy's mouth. "How fate smiles on us!" - he sighs contentedly.

Scene from Marana Simhasanam.-

Marana Simhasanam

The villagers confronted by television crew admit that they are sad to see a good man die, but happy that he is to die so peacefully. The biggest bonanza for them is that their waterbound-village is now on the path to progress: they now have piped water and electricity (presumably to operate the chair).

The Union Minister duly arrives on the big day - and promises a new chair for every district so that anyone who so wishes can die the painless high-tech way. The Minister presses the "remote" - and Krishnan dies, with a beatific smile on his face. He is swiftly made a media martyr and the film ends with a close-up of his bust installed on the spot of his "martyrdom". In a last savage swipe, his poor wife is shown striding past the camera, now well dressed, a fancy handbag swinging from her shoulder, an d a mischievous smile on her face. Krishnan's pathetic death has not been in vain.

Shown on the opening day of the Cannes Festival, Marana Simhasanam attracted the enthusiastic attention of two critics who mattered - and they straddled the world of the high brow and the commercial. The critic of Le Monde, the upmarket Fr ench daily, found it noteworthy among a dozen competitors. And from Hollywood, David Statton of the entertainment trade daily Variety called it "a deceptively simple and profoundly ironic featurette.. a notably fresh and cynical exercise." He also noted the "up-to-the-minute" references in the film to the Kosovo crisis and the sharp viewpoint about "aid" programmes, which would do no harm with the usually radical Cannes juries.

Many of the nuances in the film - the cynical choice of old film and political songs; the bizarre counterpoint of an execution preceded by the traditional Kerala reception complete with thalam and kai kotti kalli (a folk dance) and the bang -on depiction of old world Communism as it still survives in Kerala - will in all probability be missed by those who do not know the Malayali milieu of the film. Audience reactions at the few private showings in Kochi so far suggest that viewers get the central message, which targets the entire political class rather than one or other party.

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