Aamir Khan has, over the years, developed an imitable reputation of being a name associated with quality films. Thus, expectations were high for the August release of Peepli Live, which was written and directed by debutant Anusha Rizvi, and starred a spew of small-time and theater actors- led by Omkar Das Manikpuri.
Make no mistake; Peepli Live definitely is not your typical commercial fare, or even a typical Bollywood fare. The film doesn’t have songs, nor does it follow a hero-heroine formula. The film explores the glaring issue of farmer suicides in India, where the government’s initiative of providing lucrative compensation packages to the families of farmers who throw themselves onto a dagger were exploited by the poverty-stricken farmers.
First of all, the story:
Natha Das Manikpuri and Budhia Das Manikpuri are good-for-nothing sibling farmers in a small dry village in the Peepli region of Mukhya Pradesh. The film begins with the bank announcing that their unproductive land will be up to auction as they have failed to repay loan debts. Driven out of the house my Natha’s fiery, disgruntled wife Dhaniya and having to constantly listen to the rants of their bedridden, foul-mouthed mother who keeps calling Dhaniya a ‘witch’ and a ‘slut’, the brothers start to entertain the hearsay that the government will provide Rs. 1 lakh of compensation if a farmer commits suicide.
Budhia, being the manipulative one, tacitly plays to the gallery by offering his life, only for the younger, often blurred Natha, to offer his own in retaliation. The brothers agree that Natha should give up his life, the reason being Natha is married and has three children, which means that the family would directly benefit from his suicide.
Rakesh, a local reporter from a small-time newspaper called Jan Morcha, happens to be in Peepli when he hears the brothers talking about the suicide scheme and runs a story of Natha’s suicide declaration. He unwittingly sets off the media circus, with major news channels making a beeline with their media trucks to the previously forgotten land of Peepli, and Natha becoming the topic of the day.
What follows is a comedic and often disturbing sequence of events that tells you the story of the real India beneath the cloaks of development, and the true failure of a democratic system that only feeds the rich.
To begin with, you won’t find better performances anywhere else than you would in Peepli. Aided by the fact that most of the characters were played by less popular actors, most of theater backgrounds, the actors pretty much live and breathe their characters throughout and do not look like actors at all.
Omkar Das Manikpuri delivers a somewhat staggering performance in the lead role, more so because he hardly speaks a word and looks his dumfounded, useless self for much of the movie and yet he creates great impact and conveys the kind of ridicule you would feel to get so much media attention over a matter so trivial.
Raghubir Yadav as Budhia and Malaika Shenoy as the TV reporter Nandita Malik back the film with great performances respectively. Not that others did any less of a job.
Peepli leaves you with a somewhat unfulfilling feel, and delivers a damning verdict of today’s India and the severe lack of intelligence that gets hold of the people when they chase for personal glories.
The film is best described through the final scenes when hoards of journalists abandon a Chief Minister’s press conference and run to a nearby barn, that too in a pitch dark situation- one man asks another man ‘where are you running?’ and they couldn’t answer.
Everyone were running around the barn without a proper direction, chaotic and without purpose, with the only aim being to get a story and boost their professional credentials. That’s what the film is all about. It is a social commentary about individuals who run around aimlessly in pursuit of what they think secures their survival in an unforgiving world.
The best part of the film is the tiny character of Hori Mahato, who amidst all the fanfare of Natha’s death, is seen digging his land fervently day till night so that he can sell the sand in order to save his land from being auctioned. The character doesn’t speak, and when it is found dead in the own pit he has been digging all the while, it paints a picture of how the important ones get ignored.
Take the scene of the chief minister announcing that he would provide Natha with a Rs.1 lakh compensation so that Natha would not commit suicide (after great political contemplation), only to retract after he gets bashed for anarchy. How often have we come across politicians who make ‘smart’ and ‘savory’ statements that obviously had very low intelligence in them?
There is also a scene where a reporter manipulates a couple of women and asks them to dance fervently as if they have been possessed by the lord, and reports about the Goddess delivering prediction through them that Natha will die. Worse still, that bit of news is flashed as breaking news. You find that dumb, but that is what happens. Even news gets dragged out like prolonged serial drama in Indian news.
Why, the police event escorts Natha whenever he attempts to answer nature’s call, fearing that he may commit suicide at any such time.
Anusha Rizvi handles the film like a veteran and proves herself to be a master storyteller when it comes to sattires, and its all the more amazing that in the ages of Farah Khan, we see the rise of a female film-maker who doesn’t get carried away with commercial elements, but rather proves to be a quality story-teller. It’s all the more amazing that Anusha did it in Bollywood- which is an industry where good, well-bred satire seems to be a bygone genre.
Peepli is an important social film, and has more impact on the issue than a documentary could have. But if you are looking for messages, then you are looking at the wrong place. You will end of with your mouth open in wonder and uncertainty if you had hoped the film would end in a way that Taare Zameen Par or 3 Idiots ended, no matter how much of quality films those two were.
Peepli doesn’t even generate empathy or sympathy with the lead character. You don’t cry for Natha, and the scene is cut short and doesn’t allow you to cry for Hori and Rakesh either. The film is not about crying or feeling pity for characters. It is a mere observation of a system’s failure to deliver, and also an observation of the individuals in relation to the system’s failure.
Peepli is categorized as a satire, and whilst you may laugh at certain scenes, it will never make you roll on your floor and laugh. There is a difference by slapstick acts of comedians getting them kicked for their stupidity, and the mass stupidity of many people that we witness in our everyday lives.
Just read the news and watch the TV. Or read our country’s Harian Metro. What makes news? It’s the kind of stupidity and feet-of-clay attitude that affects us all, that stirs laughter, but beneath that, stirs a pint of anger and dissatisfaction.
What have we become? – We ask that question with a sigh so many times.
Peepli Live is Anusha Rizvi’s way of showing us what we have become.
Anusha Rizvi is only 32 and she was a former journalist. And she had done through a film something many news channels have failed to do with their ‘news’ pieces. She told the truth, she told things as they are- Kudos to her.