Satire about Indian farmers hamstrung big agri-business is strong, but the subject and its treatment may confuse ticket buyers

Peepli Live

on August 13, 2010 by Tim Cogshell
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Since the early 1990s, nearly two hundred thousand farmers in India have committed suicide. The reasons for this are manifold but fundamentally are based in a clash between huge agri-business chemical companies (including American companies) and traditional rural farmers that work small farms to feed their families and their communities. Suffice it to say the farmers are left bereft after encountering agri-business and the banks that back them, and thus find death a better option. The Peepli to which the film's title refers is a fictional farming community; the story at the center of the film is about these circumstances, including the potential suicide of one of Peepli's farmers, Natha (Omkar Das), as he faces the wrath of his family and losing his land. Yet, Peepli Live is a comedy. Actually, to be fair, it's a satire. Indeed, its satire of government failures, political ineptitude, corruption and media exploitation is often very funny. Yet the opening statistic of two hundred thousand deaths from despair belies the humor. It boggles the mind. The juxtaposition of the tragedy and the lunacy of the circumstances are not completely disparate; satire is an appropriate weapon here, but it's the drama in Peepi Live that truly resonates. Audiences expecting Bollywood dance numbers or gags about cultural differences will be disappointed. Those concerned about the plight of desperate Indian farmers, which is the audience most likely to seek out Peepli, is not in a laughing mood, which can't spell good turn out for Peepli Live.

The film opens with Natha running. It's surreal moment as the rubber-faced, fuzzy-haired farmer is pursued, but by whom? Then Natha wakes only to find that he's still running (metaphorically) from the creditors who will soon take his small farm. With his brother, Budhia (Raghuvir Yadav), Natha wonders what they will do. They attempt get help from local political figures but are mocked by them. They attempt the get help from the greater regional and national governments and are ignored. In the news there are stories of farmer suicides and the government stipends that are sometimes offered to the families of these victims of modernization. So Budhia has a bright idea: he proposes Natha commit suicide to save the farm.

What ensues is a comedy about what happens when not only the systems of government and community breakdown, but when all the social structures that should support and protect a society, particularly the media, come undone in service of protecting patronage, corporate profits and ratings. Natha finds himself the subject of a nationwide, prurient interest in his pending suicide. Will he or won't he kill himself? Whatever might be done to prevent this; or should he be martyred for the cause and great news ratings. The media descends, the politicians spin and Natha reels. Maybe he should just kill himself.

Peepli Live is directed by Anusha Rizvi with Mahmood Farooqui, but its producer and patron is legendary India superstar Aamir Khan. That Khan has taken up this issue in any context is notable, and will be noted by Indian natives and expatriates. That it takes a movie star to make a film about such a horrible circumstance is yet another tragedy. Khan is not so much a star in the west, which suggests that the ongoing tragedy of Indian farmer suicides will not be truly noted in the west for some time to come. Satire or drama, the loss of these Indian farmers remains dangerously invisible.

Distributor: UTV Communications
Cast: Omkar Das, Raghuvir Yadav, Shalini Vatsa, Farrukh Jaffar and Malaika Shenoy
Director: Anusha Rizvi and Mahmood Farooqui
Screenwriters: Anusha Rizvi
Producers: Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao
Genre: Satire; Hindi-language, subtitled
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 106 min
Release date: August 13 ltd.

Tags: Omkar Das, Raghuvir Yadav, Shalini Vatsa, Farrukh Jaffar, Malaika Shenoy, Anusha Rizvi, Mahmood Farooqui
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