This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Peepli Live: Review

One scene of “Peepli (Live)” sticks out from many others for its sheer heartbreaking absurdity: in order to show he’s “doing something”, a local politician donates a “Lal Bahadur” (a hand-operated pump for a tube well) to a villager who wants to commit suicide. However, he makes no attempt to provide funds to have the actual well dug. So the pump ends up inside the villager’s hut, as a decoration.

Welcome to the real India, behind all the lies of miraculous economic growth and superpower-to-be. Welcome to the real India, where farmers in their thousands kill themselves yearly because farming no longer brings in enough income to pay off their debts, and yet the government does nothing to improve their lot. Welcome to the real India, where the media are interested in what grabs attention for the moment, and nothing more, and corrupt bureaucrats do their best to obstruct the course of administration and justice.

Brothers Budhia and Natha are farmers, living in the (fictional) village of Peepli in the (equally fictional) state of Mukhya Pradesh, somewhere generically in Central India. Because they can’t pay off their debts to a local bank, they are about to lose their farmland. So they go off to a thuggish local politician to ask for help. While the politician jeers at them, one of the thug’s cronies suggests that they commit suicide, because the government pays a compensation package of a hundred thousand rupees to the next of kin of a farmer who is driven by bad debts to kill himself.

Budhia, the elder brother (played by one of India’s most underrated actors, Raghuvir Yadav) rather easily manipulates the younger, Natha (Omkar Das, in possibly the single best acting I’ve seen coming out of Bollywood to date) into agreeing to kill himself for the family’s good. When a local journalist overhears this, he informs his head office in Delhi of this possibly attention-grabbing story. Soon, a deluge of TV channels and newspaper reporters descends on the village, intent on wringing every last drop of news value from the hapless farmer’s plan to commit suicide. And along with them come travelling fairs, merry-go-rounds, candyfloss stalls and all, to make money out of the crowds.

Since the village falls in a constituency that’s about to hold an election, in which the Chief Minister’s seat is at stake, politicians also jump in to score points over each other. While the Chief Minister airily offers Natha a hundred thousand rupees not to kill himself (a promise that needless to say is never kept), his main opponent donates the farmer, who lives in a village that has never seen electricity, a...TV set.

This is a film that takes no prisoners; its savage satire spares nobody; from the elder brother (who tells the younger that if staying alive will bring in so many gifts, imagine what riches death might bring) to a bureaucrat who airily tells journalists that relief measures aren’t being taken because “we are still waiting for the court order.” There is the Agriculture Minister (played by the great Naseeruddin Shah, the one single big name in the movie’s cast) who instructs his assistant to find some scheme under which the farmer can be “benefited”, that is, fobbed off with some kind of aid. The assistant comes to the conclusion that all available aid packages benefit everyone except live farmers; to a farmer’s family, he is literally worth more dead than alive.

Welcome to the real India, as I said.

As the media circus envelopes the village, Natha goes into hiding, and the media gets into overdrive about his fate, tracking down (in one surreal scene) his poop to discuss his mental state. The resolution of the storyline comes in a way which is no satire; I won’t give it away except to say it’s more and more a fact of life for farmers in India today, thrown off their land and driven to do anything they can to make ends meet.

There are superb minor touches in the film, too. There is the discarded polythene packet blowing in the wind, left by the city folk after they abandon the village. There is the TV journalist who drags his microphone cable over Budhia’s head in his haste to run after a visiting politician. There is Budhia and Natha’s bedridden mother, who rules the house with her shrill and strident voice. All these are minor things, but they give the film life like few others in recent times.

This film is, of course, satire, but satire as a genre doesn’t exist, officially, in India (if it did, the government would squelch it pretty damned quick). So they call it comedy. And because it’s satire, it has its exaggerations, but one wonders to what extent these can actually be called exaggerations. After all, this is the Great Indian Media, whose stars openly meddle as lobbyists and contact-men in politics. This is the Great Indian Media, whose only function is to make myths. And this is the Great Indian Media, whose heartlessness is to be seen to be believed.

Actually, that heartlessness, if anything, is understated in the film, for one very important reason. The story revolves around the media feeding frenzy, which forces the politicians to take notice. The story demands that the feeding frenzy continues to the end. But in the real India, said frenzy would last all of two days, after which the media would abandon the hapless farmer to his destiny and go off looking for fresher news. Natha would have been left to hang himself or drink a can of insecticide without a qualm.

I’m sure this film won’t go down too well with the myth-makers of India Shining, but myth makers don’t exactly love hard truths. And this film is everything that that piece of flyblown garbage-porn, “”Slumdog Millionaire”, wasn’t.

The laughs are savage, there are no logical loopholes, and it leaves you thinking.

Incidentally, this is the Indian entry to this year’s Oscars. I wouldn’t mind if it wins, if only because it will show the world what’s really going on behind India’s alleged economic miracle.

Of course that won’t save India’s Nathas.

But it might begin things changing, however slowly.

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