”Peepli Live” has been the toast and tea of town for the better part of this past year. A Sundance selection and Berlinale screening, it has been picking up favor and five star reviews across the Prime Meridian, becoming the focus of India’s annual interest in evaluating its culture through the Western eye. Unlike the last time though, when the bland “Slumdog Millionaire” rubbed most of the country wrong, “Peepli Live” is an intelligent look at an India desperate to put together its own sense of self and struggling with its most absurd internal contradictions on a daily basis. There is the specter of overestimation about the film, directed by debutant Anusha Rizvi, and the hype surrounding it has more to do with its political overtones and how well it has been received everywhere else. To be fair, that last bit is criticism one can level at anything even remotely decent these days. But it has its flaws and let’s not forget them in the excitement of a top film festival’s felicitation.
The premise of the film is straightforward: a farmer decides to commit suicide so that the government will compensate his family, thus enabling them to retain their ancestral land which is in danger of being auctioned off to pay a debt. One of the most igneous issues in India in the past 20 years has been that of farmer suicides, a phenomenon wherein thousands of desperate farmers have been pushed to kill themselves under pressure to return money they’ve borrowed at ridiculous interest rates from unscrupulous moneylenders or barely-any-better banks. Crops fail, fertilizers, pesticides and myriad other chemicals are necessary, irrigation is a bitch, foreign corporations are raping them all while the State twiddles her thumbs. Bottomline: in a country where more than 65 percent of the economy depends on agriculture, most of its workforce is driven to off itself because it seems like the legitimately best option. This movie seeks to headline its satire of India’s most troubling issues with this basic plot, which is a good idea because two decades worth of problems can be summed up in the foreground of this suicidal wave wreaking havoc across the nation.
As the farmer’s decision breaks in the news, the titillated media descends onto his small, nondescript village to get a piece of the action. And that’s the chief conflict that clasps the film’s many stories. The way the powerful urban, educated middle-class encounters the impotent rural heartland, declining to learn its language. The bravado of the free market, bombast of the federal government and the spiels of the media are constituted by a lexicon controlled by, and created for, the bourgeois elite who have nothing in common with their basement-dwelling agricultural compatriots, invisible and ignored like servants in an aristocratic household, their identity subsumed by the food they put on the national dinner table.
All the players in this ongoing drama are lampooned and lambasted in “Peepli Live” — the suits, the politicos, the ministries, the hacks — and there is a good description of the complicated tensions that the story is built around. There are subtle nods to all the attendant issues of socioeconomic power games and the mutual discomfort that city and village, State and citizen, producer and consumer and object of information and its subject all have with each other. As an intellectual project, “Peepli Live” has many merits and its deadpan delivery of the truth, done up in just the right shades of humor, is the sort of political film that needs to be made for mainstream audiences and certainly provides fodder for watercoolers and college campuses. These are all admirable corollaries to making a smart, smirking and honest account of a real problem. It’s as level-headed and entertaining a cinematic comment on such a huge crisis as one is likely to get, and certainly warrants at least a watch.
The trouble is that most of the time, the film feels like a documentary. The development of character, narrative and emotional texture is mostly absent, cheating the viewer of the experience he or she signed up for when expecting a feature film. The lack of these elements does not so detract from involvement with the events on screen that one loses complete interest, but the film does feel longer than it is because the pace is mismanaged by the tent-pins of storytelling. It feels more like a brainteaser than a heart-warmer. I’m not saying that’s necessarily an awful thing, but as a viewer, I was anticipating a different film from the one I got, and I suspect a different film from the one the filmmaker intended to produce. There is an aesthetic mismatch that leaves the viewer interested in the issue but unmoved by the story. I want to read up on farmer’s suicides but I struggled to invest myself in this particular farmer’s comic tale of woe; I laughed hard at the parts that tickled the cerebral points of my funny bone, even as the poignant hilarity of such a miserable situation never touched my heart.
At times, the satire seems to tire in its assault and the climax seems rushed and forced, if realistic at all. There is a sincerity to crusade that is compromised by the need to entertain and this ultimately makes “Peepli Live” a stiff if sporadically amusing yarn. Even some of the sequences are a little too handheld-video for comfort and while this grounds the film in the real world, it also takes away from the fictive vehicle used to explore this real world that must be as evocative as the bigger picture is provocative. The moral indignation which impelled the directors to take on this topic persists too strongly throughout and sometimes veers into a slightly condescending shoulder-shaking territory, lessening the impact of the tale.
The acting is very good all round and Raghubir Yadav heads a solid cast of virtual unknowns, except for Naseeruddin Shah. Omkar Das’s protagonist is appropriately browbeaten and slow, egged on by his resourceful older brother (Yadav) and henpecked by his foulmouthed wife and mother. The euphonious ensemble does a great job as a unit but without any single stand-out performance. The cinematographic palette is imbued with the bright, vivid colors of Indian public life, drawn from painted trucks and village women’s sunny costumes, and offset by the more monochromatic spaces of newsrooms and government offices, which is a thoughtful contrast to have sustained throughout the movie. As with all Indian films, the soundtrack is a character in its own right and Indian Ocean’s rustic ragas are pleasant companions on the journey, especially the loving lament of “Desh Mera.”
An earnest change of scene from usual Bollywood fare with a very healthy sense of satire but dimmed by a vague sense of overbred righteousness, I nevertheless urge people to watch the film. It is a rare Hindi movie that takes stands and breaks down the status quo. This one does. “Peepli Live” may not be big on heart, what it does have is in exactly the right place.