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Sandhesam (“The Message”/dir. Sathyan Anthikad, 1991)

This post first appeared on Totally Filmi on October 17, 2019.

Raghavan Nair (Thilakan) has been a station master for the Indian Railways in Tamil Nadu for 30 years, and bids an emotional farewell to the community he’s become a part of  — but, as he tells the people he’s leaving behind, life is like a train that keeps moving, and his train is just starting.  Raghavan’s destination? Returning to his home in Kerala.  Raghavan anticipates a joyful reunion with his family – his wife, Bhanumathi (Kaviyoor Ponnamma), his daughters,  and his sons.  But what he doesn’t count on is the constant political wrangling between his sons, Prabhakaran (Sreenivasan) and Prakasan –also known as KRP (Jayaram).

At first, Raghavan is delighted to be home – Bhanumathi makes sure to include lots of garlic and coriander in dishes (because he loves them), and Raghavan sets off to bathe in water that, unlike in his Tamil Nadu posting, is not full of chlorine.  He’s bought some land, and paid it off with his pension money, intending to use it as a source of income.  He does wonder, though, how he’s going to ease into his retirement, missing the sounds of trains that have formed his life for the past thirty years.  Raghavan’s retirement begins with him being nostalgic and somewhat wistful about his Tamil Nadu home – he shows pictures of the people he knew to his wife, and requests Tamil dishes for dinner, and occasionally slips into Tamil when speaking with his family.

When Bhanu tells her husband of her concerns about their sons Prabhakaran and Prakasan, and their involvement in the political sphere, Raghavan dismisses her concerns as just her being old fashioned.  Raghavan sees politics as an honourable profession, citing many of the people involved in the Indian independence movement as good examples – Mahatma Gandhi, Subhas Chandra Bose, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Vallabhbhai Patel.  Raghavan also suggests his wife is overreacting when she tells him their two sons hate each other, and just wants her to stop fussing over so many things so he can get on with his plans to enjoy his retirement peacefully.

KRP arrives back from the swearing in ceremony for the Chief Minister, excited that the party he works for, the Indian National Secular Party (INSP), has won the recently elections – as opposed to the party of his brother, the Revolutionary Democratic Party (RDP), which, of course, has lost.

In one of the film’s iconic scenes, Prabhakaran and KRP get into an argument at the dinner table, and as they trade barbs back and forth, the escalating discussion turns to international politics, with Prabhakaran finally admonishing his brother: “Don’t speak of Poland!” — a cult dialogue that has become shorthand for not bringing irrelevant arguments into a discussion. It’s also fascinating to watch Raghavan in this scene, the camera squarely focussed on him as his head turns back and forth to follow their arguments, as if watching a tennis ball being batted back and forth.  But while Bhanu is irritated by her sons and their antics, Raghavan is of a different mindset:  he believes that his sons are destined for great things, based on their political fervour.

Raghavan gets, essentially, civics lessons from both directions.  Prabhakaran schools him on the proletariat and other Marxist doctrines; PRK brings home his local party leader K.G. Pothuval (Mamukkoya), who is horrified when Raghavan doesn’t know the name of their national party leader, and suggests he needs to learn about politics.  Raghavan wonders why the party members call Prakasan (which, he thinks, is a perfectly good name) KRP – Prakasan’s response is that all good politicians need to be known by a three-letter acronym.

Raghavan and Bhanu want their two sons to get jobs, and to get married – when Prabhakaran speaks to his leader about marriage, he discourages it, telling Prabhakaran that a family would only be an obstacle to his bright political future.  Leftist political theory suggests we need to let go of all bonds and burdens, and just learn to love our fellow man and work for the betterment of everyone.  Of course, the leader is married, despite the fact that the party frowns on it, but he manages to sidestep the issue when Prabhakaran raises it.  It’s a deft discussion that instantly highlights the hypocrisy of the party’s leaders:  on the one hand, a married party leader who regularly goes to the temple encourages the party’s line of rejection of social constructs like religion and marriage when talking with his party juniors.

In the end, the party leader agrees to let Prabhakaran get married as long as he doesn’t mention the temple to anyone else, and Prabhakaran goes for a traditional bride seeing.  But instead of what might be the usual questions asked in such a case, Prabhakaran has questions tailored to his own situation, such as, “Are you ready to work for the freedom of the working class?”  When the prospective bride looks confused, he changes tack, and decides to test her “social awareness”, asking her what her favourite book is, ending up bewildered when she tells him that she enjoyed Hawa Beach, a serialized novel published in Manorama Weekly.  Prabhakaran’s confusion is evident:  he has no idea what she’s talking about, and her father, seeking to help, adds that she likes Kottayam Pushpanath (a writer well known for his detective novels) and Mathew Mattam (a popular novelist whose works were, like Hawa Beach, serialized in Malayalam publications).

Prabhakaran also informs the family that he has certain conditions – the marriage will be conducted without frills or celebrations, in the party office, where the bride and groom will exchange red garlands and the party will recite its motto.  He also tells them he’ll likely have to go underground, in exile, like writer Thoppil Bhasi, branded a subversive.  “A revolutionary’s wife has to be ready to face anything,” he informs the nervous young woman.

Meanwhile, Raghavan brings in Udayabhanu (Siddique), an enthusiastic young man from the agricultural department, to assess his land.  Udayabhanu arrives with pesticides to spray on the leaves (for powdery mildew) and promises to do a detailed soil analysis.  Udayabhanu throws himself enthusiastically into making over Raghavan’s property into a proper agricultural paradise, and also manages to catch the eye of Raghavan’s youngest daughter, Lathika (Maathu).

Raghavan’s disenchantment with his sons and their politics begins when a brawl breaks out between the two parties, during which a man ends up dead.  Each party wants to claim him as a party member, a martyr for the cause that will help them in the next elections.  The RDP members lose the body to the INSP, and their glum faces have more to do with the fact that they have no power to do anything, being out of government, than with the death of the man.

When Prabhakaran hides someone involved in the brawl in their house, Raghavan is arrested for helping to harbour a criminal, and ends up spending a night in jail, humiliated both because of his not knowing what was going on, and having to strip out of his clothing because of the jail rules.  He’s finally released when a post-mortem reveals that the man died of a heart attack, and was not killed by someone during the brawl.  But Raghavan is discouraged by his sons and their behaviour — neither of them turn up at the police station , leaving only Raghavan’s good friend Achuthan Nair (Oduvil Unnikrishnan) and Udayabhanu to help.  KRP claims that, as part of the ruling party, he couldn’t be seen trying to use influence to help his father (but that he’d been working behind the scenes to get his father out, claiming responsibility for his release), and Prabhakaran had decided that as the father of a revolutionary, Raghavan had to do the time in jail in order to support his son’s cause.

One of the joys of Sandhesam, of course, is Sreenivasan’s writing – frequently using humour to comment on social and political issues in films like Nadodikkattu and Varavelpu, he pours this into the writing of Sandhesam, painting a picture of party politics in Kerala.  His humour is deft and razor sharp, and eerily on point even thirty years later, and he even cannot resist taking a few digs at states outside of Kerala, known for its high levels of literacy.  When the RDP loses the election, Prabhakaran laments that it’s because the population is literate, therefore smart enough to see through their empty promises.  He is wistful about how good it is for politicians in other Indian states where people aren’t quite so literate:  they’ll vote for anyone, he suggests – even film stars.  When the ruling INSP decides to raise funds for an All India March led by their Campaign Joint Secretary, Yashwant Sahai (Innocent), they threaten people with transfers and suspensions, their usual way of dealing with people who don’t do their bidding – even KRP’s brother-in-law, a policeman, has been affected by this, undergoing a series of transfers (and finally a suspension) at the INSP’s behest, along with his wife (K.P.A.C Lalitha) and family.

As well as adding to Raghavan’s growing disenchantment with his sons, Yashwant Sahai’s visit to Kerala provides another moment of social commentary when Sahai becomes infuriated when no one can explain to him what’s going on in Hindi– highlighting that the whole debate over Hindi as a national language goes way back.  Sahai insults everyone by saying that if people don’t know Hindi, they won’t be given government jobs, and they’ll be treated badly if they go to Mumbai.  He adds insult to injury by scoffing at Kerala having the highest literacy rate in India, calling them a bunch of idiots.

As events begin to escalate, Raghavan’s family discovers that the INSP party members took all the coconuts they’ve been working hard to cultivate (because Sahai insisted on having tender coconut water to drink), and they’ve been stuck with the bill for the meal.  Bhanumati wryly suggests that it’s okay, because their famous son did it, a dig at Raghavan who previously told her their sons would go far.

Raghavan’s discouragement grows even deeper when Prabhakaran decides that to retaliate for the INSP event at the family home that has his party members accusing him of being part of the bourgeoisie (something out of Sreenivasan’s own experience, as he has spoken about how his own father, a Communist party member, was labelled a capitalist after buying a bus, an event that formed the germ for the film Varavelpu, also directed by Sathyan Anthikad), he will make their home the party headquarters for the RDP, raising the party flag in front of their house.  A fight between the two brothers occurs when KRP, furious, breaks down the flagpole, and Raghavan is injured (hitting his head and requiring four stitches) when he falls as he tries to separate the sparring brothers. 

Raghavan’s growing disillusionment with his sons is mitigated slightly by his happiness that Udayabhanu wants to marry his daughter, a marriage that sees top friend Achu acting as the intermediary because Udayabhanu is an orphan.  Raghavan is delighted, telling Udayabhanu that he considers the prospect of this marriage his daughter’s good fortune.  Not everyone is pleased, though:  KRP is furious to discover his sister’s marriage has been fixed with Udayabhanu, who refused to allow the INSP to collect money for the All India March in his office.  And when an astrologer is consulted, Udayabhanu is told that there’s a transfer in his chart – true to form, the INSP takes revenge by having Udayabhanu transferred 300 kilometres away, and Raghavan, now completely discouraged by his children, insists that Lathika and Udayabhanu get married at the registry office as quickly as possible in order to prevent the others from ruining things for them.

Raghavan’s retirement ends up deep in a downward spiral as his eldest daughter returns home with her much-transferred policeman husband and wants her father to transfer his land to her.  Things get worse when the plot of land is confiscated after Bhanu is revealed to have signed over the land (which was in her name) so that Prabhakaran can use the money for something for the party.  Raghavan begins to feel betrayed by everyone in his family.  His dejection runs deep particularly because in all the years he was a station master, away from home, he didn’t bring his family with him so that they could have a good education.  He skimped on his own needs (even refusing to buy himself a cup of tea from time to time), so that he could send as much money as possible home to his family.  The final straw for Raghavan is when Bhanu, distraught at how her daughter’s wedding has turned out, ends up in the hospital, and her sons don’t even come to see how she is because they are too busy with their party work.

When Raghavan brings his wife home, it’s to the sight of his sons and their respective party members getting ready to face off again, and his daughter and son-in-law with their lawyer trying to get a piece of his (now confiscated) property.  The long-suffering Raghavan finally reaches his breaking point, telling them that he’s cutting all ties with them. 

Raghavan and Bhanu end up despondent and alone, and Achu – good friend that he is (quite seriously, this is one of the best written friends I’ve seen in a film) – suggests to Raghavan that although it was good that he finally stood up to his children, that perhaps abandoning them and forcing them to leave was, perhaps, not for the best – that it could be seen as an admission that Raghavan was powerless to encourage them to change for the better.  Raghavan is skeptical, but Achu believes that the two sons are ready to change.  Fortunately for everyone involved, the two sons do, indeed, decide to mend their ways, leaving the parties and getting jobs in order to help support their parents.  Sreenivasan saves a final twist for the end – Raghavan’s youngest son Prasanthan (shown througout the film as a bit of a slacker), having finally been kicked out of school, decides to make flags and organize a protest.  The two older brothers give him a dressing down and break his flag – thus firmly ending the era of party politics in the family.

Sandhesam is one of those films on my list of “must see” Malayalam movies that I never thought I would actually find with subtitles.  I often worry about whether the films on this list will live up to my expecations and anticipation.  Add to this that it’s a film (as are many of the films on my viewing wish list) that has come highly recommended by Malayalee friends for whom the film is a cult classic, representative of their (justifiable) pride in films from what’s often considered the Golden Age of Malayalam cinema.  Occasionally, my reaction to a film doesn’t match what I know is the general perception of a film – In Harihar Nagar, for example, is a film whose popularity and status as a cult classic eludes me (and I will be writing about that at some point – though I do wonder if it is, in some ways, a film like Andaz Apna Apna, which I enjoyed more on repeated viewings than I did initially, but which also has attained a similar type of cult status amongst Hindi film fans.  Perhaps, too, this is truly one of those cases where my outsider status really does make it challenging for me to appreciate the material).

But Sandhesam justifiably lives up to its reputation.  As I mentioned, Sreenivasan’s writing is sharp and incisive and remains relevant almost thirty years after the film’s release.  Actor Thilakan (a Casa Totally Filmi favourite) delivers a performance that is understated but powerful as we watch his Raghavan change from a man delighted to be back home after his retirement and encouraged by what he initially perceives as his sons noble devotion to public life, to someone utterly despondent at how easily everything he believes in and has worked for slips through his fingers.  Everything in Sreenivasan’s script has a place, everything in the writing has a purpose (even if that purpose initially escapes us), and on top of it all, it has two supporting characters that I really loved:  Udayabhanu and his utter love for his work is a joy to watch, as is Achu as the devoted friend who truly wants the best for Raghavan and his family.  Sreenivasan’s writing and Sathyan Anthikad’s direction are an unbeatable tandem, and for me, Sandhesam is probably the best of the films they created together, delivering its message in a way that remains relevant and timeless.  Their take on politics reveals that politicians on both ends of the spectrum (left and right) are equally complicit when it comes to taking hypocritical positions, engaging in double standards, in hiding behind often empty intellectual arguments to justify their actions (which often smack of patriarchy and classism). 

Politics can be, as Raghavan initially believes, a great form of public service, but all too often individuals enter into this service, at best, with good intentions that are undermined by the need to toe the party line; at worst, they use politics as an easy way to power and money, hiding behind ideology and argumentative discourse that has little bearing on everyday life.  Raghavan comes to realize that, as he says, it is impossible to serve the nation if one can’t even take care of one’s parents.  Furthermore, he tells his sons that the correct order of things is that one should first change oneself, then one’s family, and only after those things are taken care of should one try to change society.  The message of Sandhesam is that one needs to solve issues at home before one decides to tackle national or global issues.  What good is arguing about the International Monetary Fund, about politics in Hungary, in Vietnam, in North Korea, when there are more pressing issues at home to deal with?  Which is why we should always remember to never, ever speak of Poland.

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