In the village of Peepli, an old man with sunken eyes and a skeletal body shovels dry earth just to be able to sell it. Conversations about suicides are prosaic.
In the eyes of Anusha Rizvi, it’s a world full of absurdities and cruel ironies—enough to laugh about even as the unpalatable reality stings. Peepli (Live) is knee-slapping funny as well as chillingly dark.
Written and directed by Rizvi, co-directed by Mahmood Farooqui and produced by Aamir Khan Productions, it is a satire on rural India and how the world outside, informed largely by the media, views it. Black humour is rare in our movies, and this is one of those beautiful oddities that have come along. It is a must-watch. Anybody will laugh, with the characters, and at the expense of the universal laughing stock—the television media.
Rizvi, a former journalist, knows what transpires in TV newsrooms inside out. The two journalists in the story are meant to be representative figures—one, a know-it-all, animated, sophisticated lady from an English channel and the other, a sensationalist from a Hindi channel who thrives on tamasha. There’s also a local journalist who provides the leads and access to the story (which is really a non-story) that unfolds in Peepli. Rizvi’s portrayal of TV news media is unsparing—you will laugh your guts out.
There are no lead characters or apparent heroes in the film. It’s about a wretched, impoverished farmer, Natha, but the media is a character in itself. After the first half, however, the constant caricaturing of TV reporters becomes a bit tedious.
Content-driven: Clever writing and convincing acting make this satire on rural India, and how the world outside views it, a must-watch.
Peepli (Live) begins with the seemingly routine bus journey of two brothers, Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri) and Budhia (Raghubir Yadav). By the time they reach their hut in Peepli, where Natha’s wife, three children and a senile, bedridden mother are awaiting their return, the two men are drunk. They have been told that the family’s land, inherited by the two brothers, will be taken from them because they have failed to pay back a loan under a government scheme. They come to know of a new government scheme that provides Rs1 lakh to the family of a farmer who has committed suicide. Budhia convinces Natha that suicide is the family’s last hope.
Will Natha really do it? The country’s media pounces on the family and Peepli turns into a circus overnight. The agriculture minister, state politicians and power brokers can’t escape the repercussions of this drama.
This is a film that rests entirely on writing. The dialogues are cracker-jack; they smack of the real yet make you laugh out loud. It is clever writing brimming with irony. The idea itself, of the plight of farmers in our country and how disconnected our policymakers and decision makers are from them, and the absurdity of it all, is ambitious. But the script does not have high-brow, talking-down dialogues or situations. Poverty is not a spectacle in Peepli (Live). The film is shot like a documentary, with some MTV-like editing manoeuvres in parts. But technique is secondary, the content drives the film.
It is rare that a film which speaks so eloquently about the endless malaise of poverty in our country—farmer suicides, displacement of farmers from villages to the fringes of the city, hunger—should also be so much fun. At times the humour seems almost cruel. Especially in the second half, the black humour is relentless.
I actually wanted to see a bit more of Natha’s home, his relationship with his wife. Who is Natha, beyond being a puppet for politicians and media sharks? The only intimate scene is that of Natha hugging his pet goat when the animal wakes him and refuses to leave his side. The reporters, parked outside his house, are in deep sleep, and his family sleeps inside.
A film whose strength is its writing requires convincing acting. Peepli (Live)’s cast has done a very accomplished job. Manikpuri, who plays Natha, is a theatre actor from Habib Tanvir’s Naya Theatre. In look and mannerisms, he fits the role to a tee. He doesn’t have many dialogues as an ignorant villager who is overwhelmed by the attention he gets. Yadav is one of the finest actors in India. In the 1970s and 1980s, he acted in films that pioneered the parallel cinema movement. He is in perfect control in Peepli (Live), bringing out the helplessness and the shameless survival instincts of a man in his situation with conviction. Malaika Shenoy’s role of the English TV channel reporter seems researched. Vishal O. Sharma, as the TRP-pushing, brazen, histrionics-fuelled Hindi reporter, is brilliant. You know this guy.
You haven’t watched a comedy like Peepli (Live) in a long time in India. Perhaps never. Don’t miss it.
Peepli (Live) released in theatres on Friday.