Two nights ago Iwas participating in an online live chat with Aamir Khan (well, along with some 13000 others from around the world) who along with wife Kiran Rao, served as producers for Peepli Live, and as a parting remarked, had urged his fans to encourage their friends, especially those who have never watched an Indian film before, to give this a go, because this is not quite like the stereotypical films Indian cinema churns out with larger than life heroes romancing heroines in fantasy dream worlds.
And it's true, not that Indian cinema has always stuck with that unmistakable notion of how it presents itself, as over the years I've seen independent efforts that churn out hard-hitting stories that are minus the celebrities, but almost always have a message it wants to tell. Peepli Live departs from the usual 3 hours with interval, song and dance routines, to touch on a stark social issue in India – that of poverty and the lives of the rural folk, how inept the government is in lifting its people out of such a plight, and the role of the media that can sometimes get out of hand with less than responsible reporting. Which more mainstream films like Rann and Raajneeti would have also touched upon, but minus the heartfelt comedy that this satire brought along.
Written and directed by Anusha Rizvi in her feature film debut, one cannot escape from the fact that her journalistic background may have paved the way at the harsh yet comical criticism of the media in general, where reporters scramble to scoop and spin their own tales of rural life, and are relentless in their interviews with just about anyone who has an opinion on the issue at hand, that of the voluntary death of one of their own. They poke their noses everywhere, and when things turn dull, even resort to fabrication or plain making a mountain out of a molehill. I cannot deny that part of the fun here is watching how television crew and reporters eagerly camp out, in media circus like fashion, in a fictional state and village of Peepli. Just to get a chance at exclusivity with Naatha (Omkar Das Manikpuri) and brother Budhia (Raghubir Yadav) who seemed the smarter of the two.
These brotherly farmers open the film as we follow them to the city to seek a deferment in their bank loan, failing which the bank has decided to auction off their asset – their land. So an ominous note has rung out, since farmers without land means an automatic death sentence, especially when the land they live on not only provide sustenance, but that of a roof over their heads and that of the aged mother who's at odds with Naatha's wife, and children. They soon learn of an inexplicable government scheme whereby farmers who commit suicide get financial compensation, and soon decide that Naatha take up that offer. Overheard by a local newsman, this soon gets escalated, and the media descends onto the village to wait out and capture Naatha's death live.
Little do the brothers know, being so caught up in their plight of poverty, that their actions have repercussions on a bigger stage, one known as elections, and with politicians scrambling like mad to find an answer to this issue, because if anyone doesn't spin this properly, it'll translate to votes lost. And here Rizvi's subplot shines through again in her very pointed criticism of the way her government, and just about any other government, work, through the usual pointing of fingers between State and Federal lawmakers, and the half-baked schemes that they cook up that generally doesn't benefit anyone (other than looking good themselves), whether consciously knowing that it's a scam, or incompetently just aren't aware. Bootlickers and yes-men bureaucrats get shrewdly dealt with in the story as well.
In fact the slight comedy in the film worked wonders to sugar coat the hard hitting messages that Rizvi had intended to tackle, and frankly this may have dulled those messages a little, and ultimately leave one wondering if there's any genuine change that can be brought to tackle the problems at hand. Surely one cannot expect one film to change entire mindsets overnight, and at best, Peepli Live will leave one thinking about the issues, but unfortunately I suppose that's about where it'll stop at.
I'm not sure whether the usual audiences weaned on Bollywood fare may take to a film that's a social commentary on some of the biggest problems facing the country, since the enduring way of how cinema is presented provides pure escapism from common everyday problems, but Peepli Live should find its legs in the more patient, appreciative film festival circuit. Don't expect Aamir Khan to pop up at all in the film, but if you know how he works, then you'd know that his hand is probably in every aspect of this production.