Once in a while a film is made which does not try to sell you a dream but rather shows you the inner contradictions of the society that we live in. (This review contains spoilers)
Once in a while a film is made which does not try to sell you a dream but rather shows you the inner contradictions of the society that we live in. Peepli Live undoubtedly falls into this category. Over the last two decades we have become habituated with Bollywood films depicting the paraphernalia of the super rich, where the poor are conspicuous by their absence. This essentially reflected the amnesia of India's elites about the poor and downtrodden. Even when there have been films depicting the poor, like Swades, the rich and the elites were projected as the messiah of the poor. Peepli Live is a welcome break from both of these trends. It is a story about the helpless farmer with the camera and the director situated firmly in a rural setting, while the rich and the elites (including the politicians) are nothing but outsiders and intruders.
It is a story about an indebted farmer household who are desperate to save their land from being taken over by the bank. The younger brother Natha, under instigation from the elder, decides to commit suicide. This is because the government, while doing nothing for the farmers, have declared a scheme for compensating the families of those who commit suicides. In his resolve to commit suicide Natha is not alone. There were at least 16,196 farmers’ suicides in India in 2008, bringing the total since 1997 to 199,132, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. The utter poverty of Natha and his helplessness is essentially a story of a large part of rural India.
The resolve of Natha to commit suicide is leaked by a rural reporter to the press and it becomes a major news item. The entire media contingent of the TV channels, from the upstart lady of the English channel to the sensationalizing Hindi TV reporter descends on Natha's house and the village. The sheer heartlessness of the mainstream media is shown in the movie with great details. The complete unconcern of the media with either the plight of Natha or the neighbouring villagers, the complete insensitivity of the media-persons is shown in a black comedy style. It is a nature of the Indian media to convert every issue of any importance into a spectacle. Without a spectacle, there is no news, since essentially they are not covering news but they are covering a 'story'. Since Natha's proclaimed suicide is a story, they have to capture it with foremost zeal. Therefore, they chase Natha even when he is going to the field to relieve himself. We, as audience, identify with this intrusion of the media. Every now and then we find them with their mike sticks running after grief stricken families asking the most stupid and audacious questions. In this media circus, the plight of Natha is pushed to the background. He loses control even of his daily chores and becomes a prisoner in his own house.
The other species in the film, apparently concerned about Natha's plight are the politicians and the bureaucrats. Again, it depicts the usual story of utter indifference to the plight of the poor farmers. Every politician uses Natha for his own advantage, with the Agriculture Minister of the country deciding to do nothing other than announce a scheme under Natha's name, which is sure to fail even according to the Minister. On the other hand, the Chief Minister of the state, on the face of an election, announces some monetary relief for Natha which is cancelled by the Election Commission. Even after many scrutiny the District Magistrate does not find a suitable scheme for Natha, since all the schemes are either for the unemployed, or for the BPL or for people without a house. This is the story of targeting social sector benefits in our country. Be it PDS, or Employment schemes or Housing schemes, the criteria for selecting the poor is so strict that hardly anybody can avail of these schemes. The neo-liberal ideology in the name of targeting essentially excludes the poor. Budhia, Natha's elder brother, therefore laments in the film that one needs a card to be designated as poor while we are struggling to meet ends.
Within this overall media circus and the political game, Natha 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 at the dead of night involving the entire media crew and an accidental fire kills a person, which everyone believes to be Natha.
With the supposed death of Natha, every media-person leaves the village leaving his family where they were, in utter poverty and indebtedness. The media war on TRP ratings benefits a section of the media, the politicians see to their own benefit but the poor farmer gets nothing and is only left with a tube-well (gifted by the government), in an arid dry area. The tragedy of Natha and his family is palpable and so is the irony of the politcal-economic situation of India.
The director of the movie deserves kudos for bringing to life the conditions of the farmers in our country, which we have read in the reports of P. Sainath and other persons. She does not try to intrude into the reality of suffering of Natha and his family and bring in a messiah to save them. Instead she remains true to real India and its people.
The master-stroke however comes at the end of the film. We see that Natha is not dead but he is working as a construction worker in Delhi, with all the sadness of the world depicted in his face. The bubble of real-estate boom is fueled by the induction of poor migrant workers from the villages who live and work under abysmal conditions. We look at the grand buildings and pat our backs on the 'development' of the country. But behind the glitter of these buildings are the exploitation and suffering of the poor and the marginalized. Particularly, for the poor farmers, on the face of agrarian crisis and complete apathy from the government, there are but two options-first is to commit suicide or second to leave farming and join the ranks of unorganized migrant workers. The closing credits in the film reminds us that 8 million farmers have left farming in India between 1991 and 2001. As a dialogue in the film says, “Natha marega, lekin Natha zinda rahega”. Truly, Natha the farmer dies, while Natha the migrant unorganized worker survives.