Never missing an opportunity to score a political point, Lal Krishna Advani advised producer Aamir Khan and directors Anusha Rizvi and Mahmood Farooqui that while their film, Peepli [Live], is impressive, it would cause distress to farmers. Peepli [Live] is a satire on contemporary India, where two brothers are about to lose their ancestral land because they have not been able to pay back their loan to a bank, and a politician suggests that they should consider committing suicide, since the government would then offer the family compensation of Rs1 lakh. As they contemplate ending their lives, a TV network in the Capital finds out about their plight, and hordes of competitors descend on the village, turning it into a carnival. With an important election around the corner, politicians turn up to score points.
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Given the number of farmers taking their lives in recent years, Advani assumed that farmers would find the film offensive. Indeed, in mid-August a few farmers in Vidarbha demanded that the film should be banned for trivializing their plight. Advani said the farmers would think that “the tragedies they have passed through were being made an object of mockery”. Instead of farmers’ suicides, he felt, the film should have chosen another subject as its central theme, such as the schemes of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).
In fact, Peepli [Live] does not make fun of farmers. If anything, it heaps ridicule on the ratings-obsessed media, which parachutes on the village, chasing the story as the sultry anchors try to squeeze whatever drama they can find, beaming images of the barren landscape from their futuristic vans. Crucially, they fail to notice the real tragedy of an old man continuously digging the earth so that he can sell the clay in the market, in a Sisyphean endeavour to remain alive, and his inevitable death.
One shouldn’t tempt fate, but it is pleasantly surprising that no TV anchor has called for protests against the film yet.
The film’s dark humour, depicting a hapless individual against a powerful state and its stubborn bureaucracy, reminds you of the way film-makers and writers—particularly in eastern Europe—have shown those with authority mocking ordinary people and the tragic consequences that follow. Think of Milan Kundera’s Joke going too far; where Jiri Menzel’s stationmaster’s moment of stupidity leads to far-reaching consequences; it is where Emir Kusturica’s father has gone away “on business” and it must remain a family secret; where Franz Kafka’s bureaucracy ends up denying compensation to the victim after whom the compensation scheme is named, because the survivors’ paperwork is not in order.
Advani wants the film to satirize MGNREGA because he can’t think beyond the next election, but the film does something similar, without the didacticism Advani wants: The frenzied manner in which politicians and bureaucrats try to create a scheme to make the problem go away is hilarious, and the creation of the Natha Card—to make it easier for farmers who wish to commit suicide to apply for their future compensation—is grim precisely because it is so outrageously funny. And yet, that central point—of India’s colossal failure in managing its human and agricultural resources—is lost when critics complain that the film does not offer any solution. (It is not the movie’s job.)
In fact, when Peepli [Live] tries to offer a message, it loses its wings—as it shows the high-rise towers being built around New Delhi, where the workers include people who have given up farming. There, it looks like the last scenes of an overwrought Mrinal Sen film, almost becoming a documentary, reminding us of the drop in the number of people listed as farmers between the censuses of 1991 and 2001.
The implied assumption is that the drop is a tragedy; whereas it shows the way some people have tried to lift themselves out of poverty, even if the choice is forced. They may not have chosen to be construction workers, but nor did they choose to be marginal farmers—a point often lost in this emotive debate.
Those who are no longer farmers haven’t all committed suicide. Many have explored different ways to earn a living, because the conditions in which they farm—small holdings, mounting expenses, poor irrigation, the hold of moneylenders, and an uncaring bureaucracy—have made farming impossible. Such farming is sustainable only through the drip feed of subsidies—handed gracelessly, never sufficient, and often disappearing before it can reach the beneficiary.
Farming can be profitable. As Bruce Scholten writes in his remarkable book India’s White Revolution: Operation Flood, Food Aid and Development (I.B. Tauris, 2010), with the right incentives, structures, leadership and empowerment of farmers, rural India can prosper.
Shyam Benegal told that story in Manthan in 1976. Peepli [Live] is not that film; it doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t mock farmers; it mocks us— consumers, anchors, politicians and bureaucrats—and our callousness.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org