Peepli Live is a 2010 Indian comic satire that deals with the issue of ‘farmer suicides’ and the consequent political and media responses. The strength of the film lies in the facility with which it takes up a national problem, camouflages it in idiomatic entertainment jargon and then detonates its message while the audience is laughing and off guard. The film also shatters two basic assumptions regarding depiction of social realities in Hindi cinema. The first is that in order to discuss a serious topic we must adopt a tone of high solemnity; the second is that issues of grave national importance cannot be made into commercial hits.
Peepli Live mocks this effort to compartmentalise our understanding in terms of rural or urban, important or trivial and life or fiction. The closing sequence of the film underlines the artificiality of these divisions through the camera that shows us the proximity of experiences that we want to believe are poles apart.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, between 1997 and 2008 there were more than 1,99,132 suicides by Indian farmers. Since 2002, there has been a suicide every 32 minutes. The film converts these figures into stories about personal and collective loss, gradually layering the narrative with insights into vote-bank politics, bureaucratic ineptitude, land mafia and middlemen, poverty, and most of all, the loss of the great Indian dream of Green Revolution and self-sufficiency.
The story revolves around farmers Budhia and Natha living in Peepli village who have lost their land to the bank, as they were unable to repay the loan. Penniless and destitute, they come to know of a government scheme which provides compensation of Rs. 1 lakh to the landless farmer’s family if he commits suicide. In a desperate attempt Budhia persuades his brother Natha that committing suicide would get his family the much-needed money.
A local newspaper gets to know of this and publishes the story which then becomes hot news as newspapers and TV channels vie with each other to bring the latest and most fantastic news about Natha. They even chase Natha when he is going to the fields to relieve himself. The upcoming elections in the state only add to the drama as political parties indulge in the blame game regarding Natha’s plight. The government, administration and everyone else try to take advantage of the hype surrounding Natha. Every politician wants to use Natha to his own advantage, with the Agriculture Minister of the country deciding to do nothing other than announcing a scheme under Natha’s name, which he knows is sure to fail. The Chief Minister of the state, in the throes of an election, announces some monetary relief for Natha which is cancelled by the Election Commission. Even after much scrutiny, the District Magistrate does not find a suitable scheme for Natha, since all the schemes are either for the unemployed, or for people below the poverty line or for people without a house. Amidst all the hue and cry, everyone forgets Natha who becomes increasingly disillusioned with everything, including the idea of suicide.
In the meantime he is kidnapped by the local corporator and used as a tool for political bargaining. Again, the local reporter cracks the secret of Natha’s hideout and a commotion ensues in the dead of night involving the entire media crew. A charred body is found after an accidental fire, and everyone believes it to be Natha. The supposed death of Natha spells the end of media interest and they leave the village – abandoning the family to utter poverty and indebtedness. The media war on TRP ratings benefits a section of businessmen, the politicians see their own benefit but the farmer gets nothing and is left only with an unusable hand-pump (gifted by the government), in a dry, arid area. The master-stroke though comes at the end of the film; we see that Natha is not dead but employed as a labourer on a construction site in the city, all the sadness in the world etched on his face.
The loss of land to the real-estate boom is propelled by the political will not to promote agriculture. We look at grand buildings and congratulate ourselves on the ‘development’ of the country, seldom seeing the exploitation and suffering of the poor and the marginalized. For the farmers, facing an agrarian crisis and complete government apathy, there are but two options – either to commit suicide or leave farming and sell their labour for cheap in the city.
This is the harsh reality of “Shining India” that is always swept under the rug. States seeking to industrialize at all costs seem to have declared a war against agriculture and agrarian society. The cities have become the economic and political hub, and farmers are leaving their villages in large numbers. The Indian state is deeply embroiled in these capitalist processes, often as the violent initiator. Experts blame the suicides on polices like trade liberalization, corporate globalization and large-scale industrialization of agriculture. The beginning of the present agrarian crisis needs to be located in the 1980s when the terms of trade were starting to go against agriculture, urban-biased policies were dominant and farming was becoming a losing proposition. The crises are ecological, economic, and social, each inter-linked with the other. There seems to be little realization among the urban elite of the economic importance of farming, though an official report says that 60 percent of the Indian population is still dependent on agriculture..
This is the story of India beyond the glossy picture, the India that everyone loves to ignore. Peepli Live highlights the plight of a farmer in a tiny corner of a gigantic country, showing us the nexus between bureaucrats, politicians and the media which not only contributes to the plight of the farmer, but also creates it.
For each one of them Natha is an encashable proposition, not a person. A product that is initially seen as worthless becomes a commodity everyone wants a piece of. The gradual dehumanisation of Natha is one of the most frightening aspects of the story. The question one is forced to ask is: Does a human life have intrinsic value or is value conferred on it only by social circumstances and thus, liable to change? In this process, human life is seen for its utility value only and assessed in terms of ‘shelf life’.
Urban movie goers may not relate directly to farmer suicides, but they can surely relate to competing channels doing the “Exclusive Breaking News” routine with journalists wringing the last bit of emotional content from a human-interest story. Peepli Live, right from the title, is all about contrasts. Peepli is a village in the heartland of India which has seemingly remained unchanged for centuries; and Live means urban, state-of-the-art news channels. Peepli is a hamlet where farmers either die a lingering death or hasten the process by killing themselves. Live is the world where journalists act as if they care about the news they are reporting. Simply put, Peepli is where poor villagers die; Live is what affluent city-dwellers watch on TV. The cut-throat competition amongst media houses means TRP ratings dictate the business. No matter how grave the situation, the media makes its profits by sensationalising news, while politicians use the saturation TV coverage to gather votes.
Finally, the farmers are faced with a business decision: whether to die a slow death, move to a city, or commit suicide and get the government’s Rs 1 lakh ‘compensation’?
Peepli Live is a compelling film that immediately draws the viewer in and tells its story in a simple but convincing manner and addresses relevant issues about the role of government and media in Indian society today.
Aamir Khan Productions and the debutant filmmaker Anusha Rizvi deserve kudos for bringing to life the narratives of the Indian farmer. The suffering of Natha and his family is portrayed in a non-intrusive way and becomes the story of real India and its people. The closing credits in the film remind us that 8 million farmers in India have left farming between 1991 and 2000. As a dialogue in the film says, “Natha marega, lekin Natha zinda rahega”. Truly, Natha the farmer dies, while Natha the migrant labourer survives.
Peepli Live is a rare film which not only criticizes government inefficiency but also analyses the reasons for it. The politician who makes promises that are the popular demand, the bureaucrat who tries to frame policies around these promises and the man at the bottom of the chain, on whom these policies will be implemented, all exist in isolation without a common frame of reference. Their isolation is deep-rooted, because they are based on age-old prejudices of caste and class. When there is pressure – in this case, media heat – each group looks for survival only for itself since there is no concept of collective survival. This gap between cause and effect is hilariously depicted in the ‘Lal Bahadur’ sequence.
To stop the media clamour, the minister puts pressure on the local bureaucrat to announce a relief scheme for Natha. A beleaguered Block Development Officer (BDO), fighting to survive the ministerial pressure announces that Natha will be given a ‘Lal Bahadur’, which is a hand-pump. This is of no use to Natha, since the means to make the hand-pump operational are not part of the scheme. The only use it serves is to establish that ‘something’ has been done. The underlying irony is in the name itself – Lal Bahadur Shastri, the second Prime Minister of India, campaigned for agriculture as a major pillar to support the Indian economy. His vision, the film seems to imply, has suffered the same fate as Natha’s dusty hand-pump.
The film underscores much that is wrong with the many schemes that our government launches, and validates the scepticism many of us have towards these poorly conceived, wasteful strategies. However, a conversation I had last week with our office driver came as a pleasant revelation. A resident of a small village in eastern UP, Bahadur works with us in Bangalore, but his family – parents, wife and four-old-year-old son – still live in the village. Last week, he found out he had been blessed with another baby boy. When I congratulated him, he told me he was upset that it wasn’t a girl, and went on to add that he wanted a girl so he could claim the insurance cover the government had introduced for female children. Maybe this is the incentive needed in a country where too many choose to abort female babies. This kind of muddle-headed concession might be just what is required to change social mindsets, those that are questioned in the film.
The film has excellent performances by Naya Theatre company member Omkar Das Manikpuri as Natha, and newcomers Shalini Vatsa as Natha’s wife and Malaika Shenoy as the TV newscaster, as well as the usual polished portrayals by Naseeruddin Shah and Raghubir Yadav.
It is often said “Character begins where a movie ends”– high impact films change the way we see the world. Indeed, Peepli Live leaves that long lasting impression in the minds of the viewers.
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