This year, I was introduced to Soviet dramatist Nikolai Erdman’s The Suicide, directed on the Islamabad-stage: the plot focused on unemployed, impoverished Semyon, who contemplates suicide only to find his small apartment flooded with faux-sympathetic visitors [the Intelligentsia, representatives of the business world, the worker class, and the like] all begging him to die for their cause.
Why is this relevant? Well, Anusha Rizvi directed Peepli [Live] takes a leaf out of Erdman’s book [literally]: with an alleged suicide and the subsequent media and political uproar, it’s basically The [Farmer] Suicide. However, similarities [including a much-harried wife and derisive mother-in-law] aside, the film is quite the masterpiece, and a welcome addition to producer Amir Khan’s food-for-thought flicks such as Taare Zameen Par & 3 Idiots [read: India’s education system sucks!], mostly because beneath all the satire, the subtext touches a nerve.
The Plot, or Die, Farmer, Die!: On the eve of national elections in the [fictional] Indian village of Peepli, two poor farmers, Natha [Omkar Das] and Budhia [Raghubir Yadav], face losing their land over an unpaid government loan. Desperate, they seek help from an apathetic local politician, who suggests they commit suicide [‘Zindagi ban gayi hai bell-bottom aur khudkushi ban gayi hai jeans pant’] to benefit from a government program that aids the families of indebted deceased farmers. When a journalist overhears Budhia urge Natha to “do what needs to be done” for the sake of their families, a media and political frenzy ignites around whether or not Natha will commit suicide.
Alright, first off: do not get this film on DVD, despite the cover promising a Blu-Ray quality print – they lie! The film’s meant to be watched on the big screen, despite an unknown cast [minus Naseeruddin Shah, in a fleeting but effective appearance] and an offbeat premise. The reason? Never has a social theme been dramatized with such tongue-in-cheek humor and audacity; this dark, absurdist tale sure beats cinematic candyfloss, re: Aisha & I Hate Luv Storys. The movie, from its trailers, might lead you into thinking it’s arthouse cinema aimed for the festival circuit [which, well, it is], but you’ll find yourself laughing outrageously [particularly in a scene where a Hindi news reporter attempts to decipher Natha’s state-of-mind by examining his…err…feces – it’s 2010’s equivalent to Omi’s balaadkar speech in 3 Idiots], marveling at the similarities of the film with Pakistan’s own tempestuous economic state and the plight of the common man, and left contemplating at the inevitability of it all. Couple that with exceptional cinematography, strong performances all around, and a riveting [whoa, that’s a lot of adjectives] musical score – the song ‘Mehangai Dayan’, in particular, sure to bring the house down – and you’ve got a winner of a mockumentary.
What really works for the film is the sheer subtlety of it all – minus the obvious [re: the political maneuverings, the ‘will he, won’t he?’ of it all, the ruthless, TRP-hungry news channels], there are tender, understated moments that evoke compassion: notice a scene where Natha embraces his pet goat after a quarrel with his inquisitive, ‘when-will-you-die-papa’ son; shots of Natha impassively staring off into the distance in the face of a media circus; the arc featuring an emaciated villager digging soil to make ends meet, hell, the entire climax sequence – these are images that will resonate with you long after you’ve left the cinema-hall having reveled in this tragicomedy.
Debutant director Anusha Rizvi seems a connoisseur of Indian neorealism: Entertaining, thought-provoking, and, thankfully, never sermonic, the film will remind ardent fans of Bollywood of the bohemians of Bengal, Satyajit Ray and Bimal Roy [Do Bhiga Zameen, anyone?]
As mentioned, the performances are topnotch: who knew an ensemble of unknowns could put Bollywood’s foremost actors to shame? Omkar Das is only the second actor after Shiney Ahuja in Gangster to have created such an impact on expression alone [he might not have many dialogues, but man, his childlike vulnerability is heartbreaking]. Raghubir Yadav as Natha’s opportunist, scheming brother is equally phenomenal – I loved how both characters remain understated throughout. Shalini Vatsa is spot on as the harried housewife. Malaika Shenoy [playing English journalist Nandita Malik] and Vishal Sharma as her rival [Kumar Deepak], are both outstanding: the former packing a punch when showcasing the darker side of the media, the latter giving a pitch-perfect representation of a sensational and invasive reporting style [hint, hint, ‘certain’ local news channels]. Nawazuddin Siddiqui [as local journalist Rakesh] is poignant in one scene where he is told off for an awakened conscience. Every actor delivers without going OTT or theatrical [even more interesting given both leads have their roots in theatre]. However, for me, the best performance was by Natha’s ever-nagging, beedi-smoking Amma [Farrukh Jaffer] who chastises her son with gleeful abandon, firing one-liners that’ll have you doubling up with laughter. In fact, the saas-bahu banter is one of the highlights of this indie gem.
The only downer is the use of earthy, rustic language; at times, the humor is hard to decipher and you have to resort to the English subtitles, which dilutes the impact of the punchlines. Also, the film takes its time to unravel; those of a more impatient temperament might prefer something more…escapist [Tere Bin Laden], or fast-paced, like Mumbai noir flick Once Upon A Time In Mumbai.
As for Peepli [Live], the movie could be billed as a satirical spin on Mai Azaad Hoon [1989 drama starring Amitabh Bachchan & Shabana Azmi, itself an adaptation of Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe]; and make no mistake, that’s a huge compliment. Amir Khan, you continue to do Bollywood proud.
Now, if only you never give us a Ghajini [read: Memento Massacre] again, Bollywood might finally have found the rightful successor to actor-director-producer-and-legend Raj Kapoor. Shah Rukh, who? – Osman Khalid Butt
Cast and Production Credits
Year – 2010, Genre – Drama, Country – India, Language – Hindi, Producer – Aamir Khan, Kiran Rao, Director – Anusha Rizvi, Mahmood Farooqui, Music Director – N/A, Cast – Raghubir Yadav, Omkar Das Manikpuri, Malaika Shenoy, Shalini Vatsa, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Farukh Jaffer, Vishal O Sharma