Saturday, August 14, 2010

Peepli [Live]: Brilliant!

Peepli [Live]
Directed by Anusha Rizvi
Co-Directed by Mahmood Farooqui
Produced by Aamir Khan
Five Green Stars (Extraordinary)

I won't give away the punchline to Peepli [Live], Anusha Rizvi's brilliant political  and social satire which opened Friday across India.  But I will say this: ending the film, as she does, with the jarring transition out of Mukhya Pradesh and the final scene which follows that journey, is one of the bravest things I have seen a filmmaker do in a long time.  The film did not end the way I wanted it to end.  It ended the way it needed to end. And because of that, I can't stop thinking about it.

Peepli [Live] is the story of two men, Natha Das Manikpuri and his elder brother Budhia, who are faced with an absurdly horrifying dilemma: the only way they can save their farm is for one of them to commit suicide.  There are government schemes to help the families of farmers who kill themselves, but there are no schemes to help help desperate farmers before they kill themselves.

Natha tells his brother that he'll take the final step in order to save the family's land.  Word spreads.  Before you know it, a media circus descends on the village and all kinds of cynical political machinations ensue.  Though this is an Aamir Khan Production, it breaks from the Aamir Khan formula in some important ways.  For one, the protagonists of this film are not superheros, as they have been in Aamir Khan's previous hits (superhero peasant-cricketer; superhero teacher; superhero idiot-genius).  Rizvi's protagonists are complex, human, and very funny.  But they are not....Aamir Khan.  And that makes all the difference.

This film is full of all kinds of humour.  Rizvi's portrayal of Natha, his family and the village is comedic, but sympathetic.  When the camera turns toward the bureaucrats, the politicians and the press, on the other hand, the word ruthless comes to mind.

Rizvi reminds us of the difference between satire and comedy.  Both make us laugh, but satire requires one more thing: it requires us to think. And that is what makes this makes this film so powerful: it not only lays bare hypocrisy, cynicism and rot, but it makes us laugh at these things.  This kind of laughter is not always nice, but it is, and always has been, an important kind of political act.

This is Rizvi's first commercial film and the film depends on actors with more experience in theatre than on the big screen.  But in spite of this--or perhaps because of it--Peepli [Live] looks nothing like an amateur production.  The reviews that I've seen so far have been positive.  (See this one by Suparna Sharma in the Asian Age, for example.) In the end, though, one is left with the impression that this film deserves a deeper reading than it is likely to get initially.  Like most good art, it works on many levels;  and there references and iconic figures that need to be decoded. There is no doubt in my mind that Peepli [Live] will be taught in universities for years to come--it deserves that level of analysis.

A film like this is bound to come under fire from all corners. Peepli [Live] will not please politicians of any party and certain members of the media will no doubt squirm.  At least one farmer organisation has already objected to it for not being "realistic" enough. Next thing you know, the media will be calling on Aamir Khan to set up a foundation to solve the farmer suicide problem.  But let's be clear about this: it is not the job of socially conscious artists to solve the problems of the world.  It is not even their job to report on those problems "realistically"--unless they choose to be documentary film makers.  It is enough that they honestly and seriously engage with those problems--and help us to engage with them.

Which brings me back to the last shot in this film.  When we watch any film--even a film like this-- we are trained to expect a conventionally satisfying ending.   Rizvi could have given us this. She could have cued the right music, tweaked the plot just so, and let us leave the cinema hall laughing or crying or just feeling uplifted.  But here again, Rizvi has refused to follow the typical script.  

Instead, of satisfying, she has given us unsettling.  I saw this film last night, and all day today, that last scene has been working at me. It's a little like the feeling you get when you have a stone stuck in your shoe and can't stop to take it out.  But it's the feeling is not in my feet, it's somewhere behind one of the middle buttons of my shirt.  

This is a film you must see.


  1. Yes, good movie indeed!

    I thank God for the new crop of Directors in Bollywood.

  2. @All Talk and anon--thanks for stopping by. It's funny, when I started writing this post on Saturday am, I thought it was important to give this film whatever help I could; it seemed too important to fail. But by the time I finished the post on Saturday evening, it was already clear that Peepli [Live] would be a success; some are saying it may even being a turning point in Indian cinema!

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