IN MEDIA RES
An extremely well-made first feature is also extremely overfamiliar, what with its initial investment in farmer suicides giving way to easy potshots at our media.
AUG 15, 2010 – YOU’D THINK THAT A FILM ABOUT farmer suicides would play like Godaan-meets-Gabhricha Paus, but Peepli [Live] is more interested in being a satire about our media. It plays, instead, like Ace in the Hole-meets-Network. The former was about callous big-city media’s exploitation of a hapless local trapped in a cave, which results in the site burgeoning into a makeshift carnival of sorts, a haven for appallingly insensitive disaster-tourists. The latter cast a cynical eye on a ratings-obsessed television station that had little qualms about letting someone die on air. Both these American films came before the era of reality television, and Anusha Rizvi’s satire, thanks to the timing of its release, draws upon that additional dimension. Will Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri), a farmer about to lose his land to the bank, kill himself as claimed? It’s a reality show of the most appalling kind: Non-Survivor.
The problem with Peepli [Live] is that it soon manages the seemingly impossible feat of nudging Natha into the borders of his own story – perhaps intentionally. The journalists become the focus. So we’re told that no one really cares for Natha – all they want is an exclusive story and explosive ratings. We’re told that our news channels, in the headlines segment, would rather open with a bit about Shilpa Shetty denying an affair with Prince William. (The headline about farmer suicides comes third.) We’re told that, under the guise of live reporting, our media preys on innocents, as when a reporter enters Natha’s humble home and attempts to make a “point” about the way clothes droop sadly from a line. And we’re told that politicians are no better, that they’d rather gift Natha a big-screen television set, which he has little use for, than do something that might actually alleviate his plight. But haven’t we been told these things in at least 1387 other films?
Peepli [Live] closes with grim statistics about farmers in India, but it doesn’t earn this concern because it’s more about the grim realities about our media. (This is somewhat like how Taare Zameen Par, another Aamir Khan production, started being about a boy and eventually got around to being about his teacher. Natha, eventually, is just chum for media sharks.) At one point, Natha goes missing after setting out to relieve himself, and Rizvi seizes this opportunity to skewer the media some more. At first, it’s very funny watching a battalion of camera-armed journalists in pursuit of a poor man who just wants to do his morning job. But after he goes missing, we see a reporter speculating about the state of Natha’s mind based on the colour of his shit. What was amusing turns arduous – not least because our media, the way it functions, is already its own satire. Peepli [Live], after a while, ends up satirising an already broad satire.
The one media-related aspect that’s reasonably involving is the invisible line between the English-language and vernacular media. “Asli patrakaar to hum hain… Junta ki nafs pakadne wale…,” boasts Rakesh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a reporter for a Hindi newspaper, that they’re the ones who know the pulse of the people. In contrast, Nandita (Malaika Shenoy), a journalist for an English television channel (and the one who read out the headline about Shilpa Shetty), confesses, “Farmer kind of stories are not exactly my forte.” And yet, after reaching the site of Natha’s story and enlisting the help of Rakesh, she takes it upon herself to condescend to the man, secure in her superiority. At these moments, you wonder what might have resulted if the satirical aspects had been jettisoned in favour of an in-depth look at our media – a sort of Luck By Chance in the newsroom, given that Rizvi’s journalistic background makes her as much an insider as Zoya Akhtar is in the film industry.
The characters stay mostly at the level of pawns to be navigated through the screenplay, with one-liner motivations. (Contrast this with Gabhricha Paus, where the entire family was a living, breathing entity. You were invested in whether or not the farmer would die, whereas, here, Natha’s fate is utterly uninvolving.) Natha’s wife (Shalini Vatsa), for instance, is detailed mainly through her acrimonious relationship with her bedridden mother-in-law (Farookh Zafar, who’s a caustic riot each time she opens her mouth), but we get little insight about her relationship with her husband – especially a husband about to give up his life. Natha’s bonding with his loser-brother (Raghubir Yadav) is far more tangible, and the scene where they discuss which one of them should commit suicide in order to save their ancestral land is a little gem, all the more impressive for the lightness of its touch, given the subject under discussion.
Rizvi is a fine filmmaker, with an excellent eye for detail (an inscription on a wall that says “thookna mana hai” is embellished with spittle) and the ability to draw terrific performances from her cast. She narrates her story with very little background music, and the fact that we respond to events the way we would had they been set to strings and percussion shows a talent for staging that’s impressive for a first feature. She also has a gift for the grace note that’s amply demonstrated in the borderline-absurd moment where a beleaguered Natha finds solace with his goat, or the ones that depict Natha’s pitiful dreams, or in the heartrending subplot about a ditch-digging farmer, or in the stray shot of a tightrope walker who appears to symbolise the tightrope walk that is these farmers’ existence. At all levels but the choices in the plot, Peepli [Live] is a solid achievement. But for actual insight into the minds of farmers at tether’s end, you’re better off watching Gabhricha Paus, which may not be as well-crafted but at least it doesn’t let its comedy erode its compassion.
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