Even in the years before it gained a cult following, this much was clear about Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron - the builder-politician nexus was just a smokescreen. The film’s real target was a larger, equally malfunctioning entity – India. Two decades later, Peepli Live, even though it is set in a village and looks at the specific problems of its inhabitants, is aiming at that same target, which is both changed and unchanging. Is it depressing to think that the same issues Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron provoked people into laughing about in 1983 – political opportunism, media manipulation, the crushed spirit of the average citizen – feel so of-the-moment when raised by Peepli Live today? It should be.
It’s a premise both audacious and completely probable. Natha, a farmer unable to feed himself and his family, decides to commit suicide with the misguided notion that the government will pay his family one lakh rupees in compensation. However, the media gets wind of this story and puts his ‘live suicide’ attempt on primetime. From then on, the decision of whether he will live or not is virtually taken out of his hands by TRP-crazed journalists and power brokers at different points along the political chain. The media sets up fort in Peepli and follows Natha everywhere, even to the fields to catch him during his early morning business.
There are times when the film is reminiscent of The Gods Must Be Crazy, but there’s at least one significant difference. That film sailed along on the helium of the supposed ‘innocence’ of the bushmen, while in Peepli, no one is completely innocent. Buddhia, Natha’s brother, and the one who plants the suicide idea in his head, certainly isn’t. Even Natha isn’t especially naïve; you always get the feeling he knows that something is wrong but before he can put his finger on it someone else has said something new and confusing. I liked that the director refrained from showing the villagers as necessarily nobler than the urban folk who invade their village (and also from employing the canard that they’d be happy if only they were left alone). It leaves the decision about whom to like and dislike up to the viewer, in a way that most films in the recent past haven’t. I found myself drawn to the character of Rakesh, a small-town journalist who badly wants to impress the imperious English-speaking reporter who breaks the story. Also fascinating was the near-wordless farmer who keeps digging (for reasons I am unable to explain, he reminded me of the master swordsman from Seven Samurai).
Peepli differs on a couple of counts from most of the breakthrough Hindi films of the past few years. For one, it focuses on a people whom mainstream cinema has less and less time for today. Though it may seem callous, I don’t think one can condemn this trend – one which started mid ‘90s and picked up steam in the aughts. If anything, it’s an accurate reflection of literate society’s urban bent of mind. If talented filmmakers are choosing to tell stories set in urban India, they’re simply making films about subject matter they’re familiar with. That may not be very civic-minded, but decades of making films that were set in a rural milieu didn’t do much for the people there either. If the truth is that there’s an ever-widening gulf between village and city life, then this urban bias on the part of movies is simply art imitating life (and also going where the money is).
The second way Peepli differs these films like Omakra, Dev D, recently Udaan, is stylistically. While these films employ considerable cinematic high-jinks to get their stories told, Peepli is unobtrusive by comparison. Apart from the occasional cranked-up frame for comic effect, Peepli refrains from showy camera movements or dramatic lighting. Instead of dazzling audiences, it seems content to wait and watch as events unfold. There are few moments of beauty – no waving fields, or villagers ‘forgetting their troubles’ and dancing, and Ghar aaja pardesi-type sentimentality to emphasise a return to roots. The structure was almost orchestral – moments of stillness broken by flurries of movement, every character an instrument contributing to the larger sound.
Where does Peepli’s ending – with Natha escaping his village and finding work far away in the big city, as a labourer in a construction site – leave us, the audience (maybe I should say urban audience)? Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron had an unhappy ending too, but it was played for laughs. Peepli doesn’t – a sign, perhaps, as to how the makers really saw the project. Rizvi had said in an interview that she’d be happy if her audience was made uncomfortable by her film. I think Peepli Live is ultimately a bit too successful in inducing the laughs to leave a lasting feeling of unease with its viewers. That’s hardly an indictment – the laughs earned by this movie are of a rare sort, in that they stem from understatement, not exaggeration. Peepli Live’s humour taps into something that is uniquely Indian; it flies in the face of the widely-held belief that humour is the truth narrated in a funny manner. Out here, it could simply be the truth. Our crazy country takes care of the rest.