"Peepli Live can be accused of the same crime that it accuses the media of – just scratching the surface of all issues it could in an hour and a half without really trying to push the envelope of discourse on any front, neither the role of media, nor agrarian crisis or indeed the crisis of Indian politics itself", says Tejal Kanitkar in a review of the movie in this post.
I cannot say that I hated Peepli Live (like I hated Rang De Basanti, say). But neither can I say that I liked it. There are several very beautifully done scenes in the movie and yet it leaves much to be desired. Before the release of this movie some film critic had deemed it as ‘the first dark comedy worth watching after Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron’. Needless to say, this increased my expectations from Peepli Live considerably. The movie has been touted as many things – by its producers and promoters as well as its critics and other audiences – some of which I am listing here. First, a satirical take on the issues facing many Indian farmers who are caught in the mire of debt and for whom a fellow farmer committing suicide has now become commonplace; Second, a satirical take on the apathy and vacuous nature of the media for whom TRP ratings and selling their story has become more important than human life; Third, a poignant attack on Indian politics, bureaucracy, media and the whole lot.
The first thing that I thought after the movie ended was: where is the satire? There is a sprinkling of satirical scenes for sure, for example, when Budhia and Natha are given a Lal Bahadur as a one shot solution to their woes, or when a Hindi news reporter is going on about the ‘adarsh bhartiya naari’ and the old woman on the cot behind him (who he is talking about) is smoking a bidi without a care for any of his rambling. There is also a sprinkling of jokes which border on slapstick, the scene where the media analyses the colour of Natha’s bodily excretions, for example. In the entire movie, Natha’s mother is shown to be cursing Natha’s wife so many times, that any scene with the old woman cursing becomes funny after a while and the distress of Natha’s wife is lost on the audience. And then there are the really serious scenes, such as the last scene where the family is in distress once again as well as the scene with the local reporter Rakesh and the old farmer who keeps digging for ‘mitti’ to sell to eke out a living. There is no doubt that some of these scenes are moving and make an impact by themselves, but mixed up together as they are in the movie, the final effect is incomplete and confused. Films such as Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron are satirical in their entirety. There is no such mixing and muddling. The audience leaves the theatre having enjoyed the humour, yet with a sense of melancholy which they are forced to contemplate. With Peepli Live you don’t know quite what to think.
The director seems to have enjoyed focusing on close up shots of peoples’ faces – at the beginning of the movie where both brothers are travelling to the district place (presumably) and back, in the middle of the movie where children and others are enjoying the mela that has come up in lieu of Natha’s suicide, and at the end where the audiences get a willy wonka ride from Peepli to Delhi. Doing this once in the movie is understandable because it undoubtedly is a powerful technique as the scene shows not only the person’s face and posture but inherently also the social conditions in which he/she lives. But using it all the time gives an impression of trying to create a museum of sorts for urban audiences watching this movie in multiplexes in order for them to comprehend the creatures that inhabit the countryside. Having said so, however, this impression is somewhat belied by the fact that there seems to have been a conscious attempt in the movie to refrain from glorifying rural life. It has tried to show not only the despair of poverty but also in some ways has challenged the illusion of innocence that many still hold about rural India.
The movie has been able to portray certain very subtle and valuable insights of the director/writer. For example, the aspirations of the local news reporter, his fascination with big city journalists and his subsequent disillusionment and conflict with the same. The closer relationship he shares with the people of Peepli (which is, of course, connected with his conflicts) is also well depicted. Another powerful portrayal is of the differences between the English, Hindi and local media. The movie shows quite slyly the elitism of the English media and the patriarchy of the Hindi media and their resultant political affiliations which are both cause and effect of these characteristics. It also showcases quite nicely the difference between these huge media houses (with close relationships with political parties) and local language print media which has to work in conditions which are much tougher and under the constant threat of victimization from the local bureaucracy. However, these differences which are shown in the beginning seem to disappear in the end where it is just a race towards the story for all news channels except for the moment of epiphany experienced by the local news reporter Rakesh. All news channels and newspapers then become the ‘one’ enemy. It seems as though the writer/director has flagged issues and then shied away from delving deeper into any of them.
My main criticism is of the portrayal of politics in the movie. I saw no qualitative difference between what has been shown as politics in Peepli Live and what passes for it in the movie Rajneeti or any other Hindi film for that matter. The recent Lok Sabha elections saw a slew of new middle and upper middle class candidates contest elections in Mumbai and some other cities. Their bid was to clean Indian politics of its corruption and lumpen influences. This is a manifestation of what the Indian middle class construes as the ‘problem’ of the Indian polity – corruption (followed or preceded, mostly, by population). Peepli Live does not try to challenge any of these notions and, in fact, reinforces them. The film does not go beyond the portrayal of politicians as corrupt men making and breaking coalitions in their bid for power. There is a hint of critiquing crony capitalism (where the chief minister asks his secretary to give the contract for seeds to a company called Sonmanto), a hint of a bid for industrialization (where the agriculture minister makes the point about people moving out of agriculture), but none of these issues are given much footage as the focus is on the nature of the politicians themselves and not on their politics.
All in all, I think Peepli Live can be accused of the same crime that it accuses the media of – just scratching the surface of all issues it could in an hour and a half without really trying to push the envelope of discourse on any front, neither the role of media, nor agrarian crisis or indeed the crisis of Indian politics itself.