An anonymous phone call warns a chief minister of a plot to topple his government. He mops the sweat off his brow, gets a health check-up, and then makes his moves. Farmers are dying because of a drought, smugglers are running rampant and workers are getting restive, all of which come in handy for the leader to checkmate his rivals. Welcome to Maharashtra in 1980 – or 2012 or any other year. Sinhasan, written by Vijay Tendulkar and directed by Jabbar Patel, is one of those depressingly timeless movies that make as much sense today as they did when they were released. If Sinhasan’s exploration of the corruption and cynicism in Maharashtrian politics remains relevant, blame it on Tendulkar’s perspicacious script, which was based on journalist Arun Sadhu’s writings, and the irrepressible nature of our lawmakers. Whatever the decade or the scam, they never fail to play to type.

Sinhasan is one of three movie collaborations between Tendulkar and Patel – it came after Samna (1975) and before Umbartha (1982). The partnership between the liberal and socially conscious duo resulted in memorable theatre (notably Ghasiram Kotwal) and movies. Sinhasan took stylistic cues from European conspiracy thrillers in putting local scandals and scams on the big screen. Its black-and-white, documentary-style camerawork and dynamic close-ups are straight out of a movie by Francesco Rosi or Gillo Pontecorvo, but there is no mistaking the provenance of its power-hungry men, including Arun Sarnaik’s wily chief minister (allegedly inspired by Vasantrao Naik), Shriram Lagoo’s ambitious finance minister, Nilu Phule’s worldly wise journalist and Satish Dubhashi’s pragmatic union leader D’Costa (reportedly based on George Fernandes). Tendulkar’s crisp and caustic language has the power to compensate for poor visuals, but Sinhasan is that rare movie in which text and image go together.

Samna, Patel’s debut feature made in 1975, isn’t as cinematically vivid or expansive as Sinhasan, but it makes an interesting companion piece. In a reversal of roles, Lagoo plays a drunken school master while Phule is a corrupt regional satrap who wouldn’t be out of place in the cabinet of rogues shown in Sinhasan. Phule’s Hindurao Dhonde Patil takes in Lagoo’s alcoholic wanderer, but gets more than what he bargained for when the man known only as “Master" starts asking uncomfortable questions about the murder of an Army soldier. Master might believes in daroovadi (alcoholism) and not Gandhivadi (Gandhian thought), but he is Patil’s conscience keeper and the only man who is allowed to question his conduct and actions. He is a delightful character and played beautifully by Lagoo, one of the most talented actors to emerge out of Marathi theatre. Phule, another acting giant, provides the perfect foil to Master’s shenanigans. Despite the darkness of its theme, Samna remains optimistic that change is possible and corrupt individuals can be prosecuted for their crimes. By the time of Sinhasan, Patel and Tendulkar seem to have lost all hope and resigned themselves to the inevitability of a state being led by people who want power and wealth at any cost. Were they soothsayers apart from being filmmakers?

(This weekly series, which appears on Fridays, looks at how the cinema of the past helps us make sense of the present.)