Journalist and documentary filmmaker Anusha Rizvi marks her directing and screenwriting debut with “Peepli Live.” But judging from the smart, confident nature of her work, you’d think she was a seasoned pro at bringing barbed social satires to the screen. While it’s produced by Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan, “Peepli Live” is far removed from India’s fantastical commercial cinema: Here we have the rural India of penniless, indebted farmers and their hardscrabble families, living in the backwaters, far from the pubs, malls and office parks of urban India. It’s an India in which farmers – caught in the stranglehold of unsustainable farms, poor harvests and oppressive debt – are driven to suicide. Indeed, stories of farmer suicides and of farmers abandoning their livelihoods have provided ample fodder for the Indian news media for years.
“Peepli Live” focuses on one such desperate farming family living in the eponymous fictional village in central India. After learning of a government policy to pay out huge sums to families of farmers who’ve committed suicide, Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri), a farmer entrenched in debt and about to lose his land, decides killing himself is his family’s ticket to a better future. Natha is the meek and gullible foil to his brother Budhia (Raghubir Yadav), his laughably craven and conniving brother who talks Natha into his vow of suicide. While the decision prompts outrage from his put-upon wife, Dhaniya (Shalini Vatsa), and his browbeating mother, it quickly makes Natha a national celebrity as reporters from 24-hour news channels descend upon their village to capitalize on the situation.
Because news of Natha’s imminent suicide hits just ahead of a national election, the incumbent politicos start feeling the heat and beg him not to go through with it. Rival candidates, meanwhile, fuel voter unrest by making Budhia their poster boy for all that’s wrong with their elected leaders. But the attention of every news reporter is turned instead on Budhia, consumed more with spinning a tragic human-interest story to boost ratings. One of these news channel go-getters is Nandita (Malaika Shenoy) who finds herself an inside man in Rakesh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a local reporter whose big-time aspirations are tempered by Nandita and her cohorts’ predatory tactics. Rakesh, in fact, become the film’s moral barometer and, as viewer, we find ourselves anchored to his slow disillusionment with society’s bottom-line obsession with celebrity and fame.
Where “Peepli Live” falters is in its depictions of rural family life. Rizvi’s vision doesn’t stray far outside the tired, overly familiar clichés of the domineering housewife and mother-in-law, the nagging children, and the layabout men. The performances are amusing and pitched just right, but a little of the mother-in-law’s quibbling goes a long way. What we crave is a deeper exploration of Natha’s dazed psyche as he finds himself backed into a corner, and of the nuances of alienation he feels in his own home. While it’s frustrating that Rizvi’s finds less success when called on to create more fully rounded rural characters, “Peepli Live” scores thanks to its acerbic spirit. Its comical, sharply observant caricatures of India’s political and media jackals offers a much-needed reality check in a country where celluloid escapism is too often the rule.
Directed by: Anusha Rizvi
Written by: Anusha Rizvi
Cast: Omkar Das Manikpuri, Raghubir Yadav, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Shalini Vasta, Farrukh Jaffer, Malaika Shenoy, Vishal O. Sharma, Yugal Kishore, Sitaram Panchal, Nasiruddin Shah