If a movie made about a housing scam in 1963 feels fresh even today, should we be elated or saddened? How should we respond to the fact that celebrated Italian filmmaker Francesco Rosi’s Hands over the City doesn’t only address a housing scam in Naples but also speaks to any city in the world that has witnessed similar instances of corruption? The film has barely aged – a testament to Rosi’s skills as well as to a never-changing narrative of the private pillage of public resources.
A sparkling example of social realism cinema from the 1960s, Rosi’s Hands Over the City follows the difficult progress of an inquiry into a building collapse. The investigation unearths a depressingly familiar ring of corruption that starts with the political party of a real estate developer (played by Rod Steiger), continues to the government that is controlled by the developer’s party, and finishes with the urban development department that does the government’s – ergo the developer’s – bidding. It could be India ___: pick your favorite scam and fill in the year.
Kundan Shah responded to a similar nexus between government officials and builders by guffawing in despair. Shah’s landmark comedy Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983) took an absurdist approach to the seemingly intractable issue of graft. The filmmaker’s “If you can’t beat them, laugh at them” stand is more tragic than comic in retrospect, especially in Mumbai, where the movie is set. The movie will be re-released for a week by at PVR cinemas by the producer National Film Development Corporation and the multiplex chain’s programming slot Director’s Rare on 26 October – go see for yourself if things have gotten any better since.
Corruption is public as well as personal in Chinatown (1974), a career-best movie for director Roman Polanski, actors Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway and writer Robert Towne.The nature of the real estate scam in Chinatown that is investigated by a detective (Nicholson) is as murky as the relationship between the developer behind the scam (John Huston) and his daughter (Dunaway). What is more depraved – robbing the public or snatching away a young woman’s innocence? Despite its detective thriller format, Chinatown offers no easy answers or a satisfactory ending.
Graft guts yet another family, this time in corporate Japan in Akira Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well (1960), which stars Toshiro Mifune as a vengeful corporate secretary (we’d like to see more of those). Mifune did one of mostly did two kinds of roles for Kurosawa: he played a samurai or a suit. The warrior roles in films like The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo are as free-spirited and flamboyant as the businessman parts in The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low are formal and reserved. Mifune is his buttoned-down best in The Bad Sleep Well(1960), in which his character Nishi takes down the bosses of a scam-tainted corporation.
Nishi prefers the deep cuts of vengeance to the slaps and nicks of justice.His fight is personal – his father is driven to suicide by the corporation’s head honchos – but he is also taking down a company that has looted public resources for private gain. The film is a classic vengeance drama at one level and a Hamlet-inflected character study on another. Nishi is slowly transformed before our eyes from a cold-blooded bastard who has burrowed himself into the top boss’s good books by marrying his crippled daughter to a tormented son in search of closure.The moral of this story: greed is bad.
(This weekly series, which will appear on Fridays, looks at how the cinema of the past helps us make sense of the present.)