What struck me about Peepli (Live) was two of its female characters: one, the wife of one of the farmers at the heart of the story, and the other, a newscaster from one of the leading national TV networks.
To start with, the farmer’s wife: in all but one of the scenes that she is on screen, she is incandescent with rage. At one point, she even beats her husband and his brother with her shoes, carried away by her fury at their losing the ancestral land to the bank for non-payment of loans. And this is where the story starts: her husband, Nattha, and his brother Budhia, discuss the possibility of getting a compensation of Rs. 1 lakh from the government in the event of one of them committing suicide. (How the older brother gets the younger to be the one to ‘sacrifice’ his life is one of the masterful scenes in the film.) Somehow, the newspapers and then the TV networks get wind of this scheme, and an entire media contingent descends on Peepli village to cover the story of the ‘live’ suicide by a desperate farmer.
What follows is the usual political flim-flam by various parties and leaders at the state and national level. At some point, the focus shifts away from the very desperation that has driven the farmer to even think of suicide, and moves to the cut-throat race by the media to ‘cover’ the story from all possible angles, quite literally. The usual ‘aapko kaisa lag raha hai’ type questions and shrieking headlines abound. This brings me to the other woman I was talking about- the sharp-edged, clickety-clack newscaster, Nandita Malik, who rushes to Peepli as part of the madness.
I was quite pleased at the way there were no apologies for the way she and the farmer’s wife are portrayed. For once, a note of authenticity- the one quality I find lacking in the vast majority of Hindi films. In fact, the whole film has been handled with a genuine flair for the authentic. The sorry state of Indian farmers is no laughing matter, yet the director (Anusha Rizvi) does elicit laughs. This laughter is directed solely at ourselves, of course, but left me wondering what one could do about the very real plight of our farmers besides pay money to watch a film about it. I suppose raising general awareness would be a start.
Naseeruddin Shah and Raghubir Yadav are the only two actors I actually knew in the movie; a wealth of talent is exposed in the others who form the rest of the cast. The farmers’ bedridden mother who does nothing but hurl invective at her daughter-in-law, the rural reporter Rakesh who admires Nandita, the civil servants who are masters at the art of nothing-speak, the ministers, and of course, the two farmers themselves- all are well-written characters who strike a chord. Particularly hilarious are the Hindi news channel sharks. All in all, I am grateful for this type of cinema which makes a point whilst shunning preaching, pandering and piffle. (The only quibble would be the forced “Interval”: why does a two-hour film devoid of songs and dances need a two-minute break?)