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It's election week, and political comedies matter more than ever

While we get our voting fingers ready as a nation, this is a fine time to look at political comedy, and the lessons it holds for democracy

A still from 'Yes, Minister'

By Raja Sen

LAST PUBLISHED 19.04.2024  |  06:05 PM IST

The general election kicks off this week. While we get our voting fingers ready as a nation, this is a fine time to look at political comedy, and the lessons it holds for democracy—and countries claiming to be democracies. “Surely the citizens of a democracy have a right to know," says one civil servant to his superior in the first episode of the BBC series Yes Minister. He’s corrected immediately for this rookie error. “No," rebukes Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by the ever-wary Nigel Hawthorne. “They have a right to be ignorant. Knowledge only means complicity in guilt. Ignorance has a certain dignity."

That classic comedy—a masterwork by Anthony Lynn and Tony Jay—about political doublespeak and bureaucratic manipulation has remained tragically relevant, and can be streamed in India via the BBC Player on Amazon Prime. By the time of the show’s sequel Yes, Prime Minister, that junior civil servant Bernard Woolley has gotten wiser. “Bernard, this doesn’t say anything," remarks the hapless Prime Minister Jim Hacker. “Oh thank you, Prime Minister," chirps Bernard. “It’s completely lacking impact," Hacker emphasises. Bernard smiles. “You’re too kind, Prime Minister."

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The truly savage BBC series about political spin, The Thick Of It, is unfortunately not streaming in India, but creator Armando Iannucci did also make a memorable and endlessly quotable series about a self-serving Vice-President, and all seasons of Veep—starring the indefatigable Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer—can be found on JioCinema. While most of Selina’s greatest, and most barbaric, quotes would have to be censored with asterisks for print, I am particularly fond of something she told her staffers when trying to cover up a disastrous statement she made: “I need you to make me not have said that."

The line between parody and politician has never vanished as incredibly as with Servant Of The People (streaming on Netflix), about a man accidentally elected as President of Ukraine. The series features Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy who went on to become the President of Ukraine— yep, it is exactly as if Anil Kapoor from Nayak went on to become a chief minister. In the show, Zelenskyy plays a high-school history teacher who becomes famous for a righteous anti-government rant filmed by one of his students.

Servant Of The People is nuanced enough to explore the challenges facing modern democracies, tackling issues of corruption, bureaucracy, and the clash between idealism and pragmatism. Witty and insightful, the show offers a mirror to society, prompting viewers to reflect on the state of governance in their own countries.

Watching Servant Of The People now, after knowing about Zelenskyy and his astonishing rise and the way he has fiercely stood his ground against the Russian armies, feels decidedly surreal. Zelenskyy’s performance is both hilarious and poignant, giving the character a disarming sincerity and an endearing klutziness. He is a fool, certainly, but he is remarkably relatable at every extent, making the viewers root for him—he’s our fool. And that’s worth voting for.

The Indian political series that leaves a mark is Maharani (SonyLiv), featuring Huma Qureshi as the stand-in chief minister of Bihar. Coming to power abruptly and unexpectedly after her husband, the CM, is shot at, Qureshi’s Rani Bharti assumes the position of power and gradually—instinctively— grows into it. Qureshi serves up an arresting and immediately memorable performance, delivering both sass and vulnerability as she goes from strength to strength—all while various male rivals desperately try to horn in on her throne and plant flags in her turf. Qureshi’s eyes shine with defiance, and it would be unwise to bet against her. Game on.

Back, now, to comedy. It is ridiculous how Kundan Shah’s 1983 masterwork Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro—streaming currently on MUBI— remains all too relevant more than four decades later. The cast was a murderer’s row of talent—Naseeruddin Shah, Ravi Baswani, Pankaj Kapur, Om Puri, Satish Shah and Neena Gupta—and it isn’t surprising that the laughs stay timeless, but when I watched it yet again months ago, its insinuations hit me harder than I expected.

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Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro talks about a buyable media, a corrupt municipality, a world dominated by two rival industrialists— with the rhyming names Tarneja and Ahuja—who have been blacklisted for various offences but literally get away with murder. Before that, however, they stand on a grand stage and make a mockery of mythology itself, appropriating epic characters for their own short-term needs. Shah’s film may not have been looking into a crystal ball, but it has never seemed more appropriate.

Meanwhile, the new HBO series The Regime (JioCinema) tells the story of an authoritarian leader stumbling in the dark as her empire falls to pieces. Kate Winslet plays “Chancellor" Elena Vernham, the whimsical hypochondriac heading a fictional central European nation, and while the great actress delivers some powerful—and strikingly vulnerable—moments, the satire itself is far less satisfying than the one it is obviously and overtly trying to imitate, The Death Of Stalin.

Available on Amazon Prime, Iannucci’s The Death Of Stalin is a magnificent film about the Russian dictator and his inglorious, unspectacular death, and the skirmish for power that follows. After Stalin has been found keeled over, there is panic in the ranks as they scurry for medical help. “All the best doctors are either in the gulag, or dead," says one of his ministers. “If he recovers," explains Nikita Khruschev, played by Steve Buscemi, “then we got a good doctor. If he doesn’t recover, then we didn’t. But he won’t know."

It is a hilarious film about the dangers of being governed by fear. There should, after all, be a difference between a general election and electing a general.

Streaming Tip Of The Week:

Voters young and old would do well to watch the videos of Dhruv Rathee, explaining the Electoral Bonds scam and the dangers to our democracy. Unmuzzled by news channel agendas, Rathee delivers clear, annotated, John Oliver-style explainers. Watch them on his YouTube channel. Vote wisely.