There was a time, when I was in high school, which was not ages ago, that the person who used to watch the news on television instead of IPL or MTV Roadies was considered the smartest among us all, by both teachers and students alike. I strongly feel that it is not at all the case anymore. In today’s India, the probability of ‘that person’ being the most stupid and misinformed of the lot is skyrocketing.
Since the last three months or so, following the tragic demise of a talented actor, we have been witnessing an unpleasant and insensitive circus by our mainstream media. The hullabaloo which started with a reported suicide, first offered a ground for news anchors to play Poirot from their studios, then turned into a misogynistic witch-hunt and presently has taken shape of a supposed crackdown on the bad-bollywood & its drug cartel.
This entire theatre of the absurd made me revisit the 2010 Amir Khan produced film Peepli Live, directed by Anusha Rizvi, and is probably one of the hilariously best satirical dramas in Hindi Cinema since Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983).
The film follows the lives of two peasant brothers-Natha & Budhia, played by Omkar Das Manikpuri and an impeccable Raghubir Yadav, whose ancestral land is about to be auctioned by the bank because of the non-repayment of a loan. The desperate duo goes to a local politician for help, he jokingly suggests that one of them should commit suicide as the government pays compensation of one lakh rupees to the family of the deceased. The poor farmers take this advice seriously and start mooting over the idea of one of them committing suicide to save their land. One struggling journalist working in a local newspaper, Rakesh ( Nawazuddin Siddiqui), overhears them talking about Natha’s decision of committing suicide to a local shopkeeper and sees a sensational story in it which might help boost his own career. He prints the story in his newspaper, it sells like a hot cake and what follows is a circus by TRP mongering T.V journalists & shrewd politicians which brings the hitherto unknown village of Peepli into the national spotlight.
The possibility of capturing a sensational suicide entices big media houses to Peepli and the tug-of-war begins. In the mad rat race for TRPs, journalists feel no hesitation in breaking any barriers of ethics and stupidity. They shamelessly breach into the lives of Natha and his family, acting like vultures with their cameras & mics to get just a glimpse of Natha, so much so that the poor man even finds it difficult to go to the loo, an open field, without some journalist scaring the simpleton peasant with his camera.
There is one hilarious scene in which a popular Hindi T.V journalist, named Deepak, examines Natha’s excreta to guess about his psychological state. In another scene, the same journalist pays some local women to act frantically as if they were possessed by a local deity, Peepli Mata and reports it as God’s way of giving assent to Natha’s suicide. The journalists of Peepli Live are just like our journalists, they are also ready to make up shameless lies and report on the basis of conspiracy theories. They can also shamelessly go to any extent to make their programs most appealing for the general audience in order to be at the forefront of the mad TRP race.
Gradually, the question of Natha’s suicide finds itself at the anvil of the upcoming state elections of Mukhya Pradesh and political rivals start using Peepli as the battleground to swing elections. Various politicians visit Natha to console him and extend their hollow support for him without actually doing anything to save his land from being auctioned. Whether Natha will commit suicide or not becomes a national concern but ironically Natha remains a passive spectator to the whole question about his own life and death.
In a satirically powered scene, an official is sent by the state to present a handpump to Natha as an incentive to stop him from committing suicide. The handpump is ironically called Lal Bahadur after India’s second prime minister – Lal Bahadur Shastri – who gave the slogan “Jai Jawan! Jai Kisan!”(Hail the soldier! Hail the farmer!). When Natha’s brother asks for the installation costs of the handpump, the official sneeringly replies – “Be thankful! Shashtri Ji has saved your life” and walks away. One can not miss observing the mocking transformation of founding fathers of India & their ideas into mere hollow symbolic names of ineffective government schemes.
In addition to the main story of Natha, there are many other minor tragic stories in the film which take place in the middle of the hullabaloo without gaining anyone’s attention. There is one character of a hauntingly cadaverous farmer, named Hori Mahato, who is always seen digging a pit and is ultimately found dead in it. But everyone remains too busy to care or even notice the poor farmer’s death, even though the entire circus of politics & media was taking place in the name of saving farmers. The name of the character is a direct reference to the protagonist of Premchand’s Godan (1936) and is a grim reminder to us as viewers about the abysmal condition of people like Hori which hasn’t changed much even after more than seven decades of Indian independence. Hori Mahato(s) still die neglected in their deep pits of misery.
In the second half of the film, events take an interesting turn as some men of a local politician are trying to kidnap Natha to settle some political scores and the local journalist Rakesh becomes aware of it. The denouement offers an unsettling and accidental answer to ‘Whether Natha will commit suicide or not?’, I won’t spoil the fun for you, watch the film and find out for yourself.
The subject of the film is inspired by the larger issue of farmer suicides in India and the authentic representation of the way T.V media operates is reflective of the director’s own experience as a journalist. Despite the subject of the film being essentially grim, Peepli Live is full of vibrant characters and hilarious plot points. At no point, it attempts to be preachy or elitist in its portrayal of the characters which are far removed from the glimmering city lights of our metropolitans. All of them are real beings and are not portrayed as some pitiable creatures worthy of our sympathies. The film very cleverly employs humour & satire to convey its point without feeling like a documentary. The realistic cinematography of Shanker Raman and the music by the Indian Ocean matches the tone of the film and further makes it more vibrant and entertaining without compromising a bit on its serious subject matter.
Today, after a decade of its release, Peepli Live is as relevant as ever because the media circus has never been so shameless. It is rather funny but I feel nostalgic for the media of Peepli Live because their circus was still in some way related to the real issues. The sensational and insensitive journalism was still being done with a hypocritical façade of genuine care about the practical issues. Now, in the age of (mis)information and social media, mainstream T.V media has completely done away even with that façade. If in the middle of – a pandemic, crashing economy, unprecedented joblessness, conflict with China and nationwide protests by farmers – Bollywood has been the preoccupation of our media, I don’t think so I need to say much about their unheroic outstripping of their own lampooned counterparts from a decade ago.
About the author: Rajdeep Chauhanis a literature student and a crazy cinephile. You can find him giving obscure film recommendations to random people. He lives by the Salvador Dali quote – “I don’t do drugs. I am drugs” .