When Natha, the unfortunate protagonist of Anusha Rizwi’s Peepli Live, wakes up from a peaceful nap to find his home being invaded by a news crew, the aggressive urban reporter tries to calm him by saying, “This is just a camera, it won’t harm you.” Perhaps it’s because I’m still getting over the impact of Dibakar Banerjee’s Love Sex aur Dhokha (LSD), but Rizwi’s film seems to be another distinguished specimen of Indian independent cinema’s recent focus on the role of the camera in modern Indian society. With a taut script, outstanding acting and mature directing, Rizwi’s directorial debut is a powerful and thoroughly entertaining film laden with irony, dark humor and most importantly, a wake-up call to a pressing issue.
The true winner in Rizwi’s film is the script. It is original, relevant, and doesn’t get distracted by pointless sub-plots. Natha (Omkar Das, who bears an odd resemblance to Rajpal Yadav) and Budhia (Raghubir Yadav) are farmer brothers who are about to lose their land to crippling debt. After an indifferent local politician dismissively suggests a government program that gives 100,000 Rupees to families of farmers who commit suicide, the brothers decide to try it out. Unaware that it was a joke, Natha agrees to commit suicide. The news spreads from local to regional to national news, until their tiny village of Peepli and Natha’s life are turned into a national media event – “the country’s first live suicide.” It isn’t long before the politicos get involved, each either encouraging or discouraging Natha from his decision solely for their own benefit. At first it seems bizarre, if not insensitive, to build a comic satire around the very serious issue of farmer suicides. However, it becomes very clear that the target of the jokes is not the plight of the farmers but the Indian news media and the politicians. And what a commentary it is!
Rizwi gets several nuances just right and provides cheeky humor around her various statements on the news media. The two most memorable include the reporter announcing the results of a poll on reasons for Natha’s disappearance citing suspicion on Islamic terrorists and even America. The other is Hindi reporter Deepak’s (the hilarious Vishal Sharma) extensive analysis of Natha’s feces to make conclusions on his personality and destiny. It makes you cringe but this isn’t cheap humor and you can’t help but burst out laughing at point the film is making. The battle for ratings between the Hindi and English networks and the incessant sensationalizing of the most trivial topics becomes the biggest joke in the film. This aspect of the film reminds the most of Banerjee’s LSD where sting operations become the key to news networks desperate for ratings.
One of the most memorable things about Peepli Live is the incredible acting talent that has been assembled. The only instantly recognizable face is Raghubir Yadav who plays covertly manipulative brother to Natha and once again delivers. The rest of the cast, including Natha, are all new or relatively unknown faces and each one lends such sincerity and conviction to their roles that you remain content just watching them interact with one another. Especially worth noting are Natha’s wife Dhaniya (Shalini Vatsa) and his mother (Farrukh Jaffar), two women who give the saas-bahu bickering a whole new ferocious dimension. They spew their tangy dialogs so convincingly that deep down a part of you wishes the entire film was about them. Omkar Das as Natha delivers a restrained performance. For being the center of all this attention and an entire plot built around him, he speaks the fewest lines in the film and does the least. Whether that’s an oversight in the writing or precisely the point of the film, Das is still very successful at garnering audience sympathy with his silence.
Peepli Live is a scathing satire on the news media as well as the hypocrisy of vote-bank politics in India but rarely does it go over the top. Rizwi exhibits maturity in both her writing and directing and above all brings to the forefront the pressing issue of farmer poverty and suicides. The ending, while it departs from the lighter tone of the rest of the film, is a worthy conclusion to such a story. It doesn’t spoon feed the viewer a happy conclusion but continues with the film’s ironic and realistic bent. Produced by Aamir Khan, Rizwi’s debut film is a triumph of story and, equally as important, provides a glorious boost to independent cinema hailing from India.