Peepli Live is an odd combination of sad and somber subject matter and lighthearted comedy. Perhaps this is not an odd combination, but rather the very definition of satirical comedy. Nevertheless, if one knew nothing about it before viewing it I think the film would make one feel somewhat guilty for laughing at certain points throughout. This review will briefly summarize the film, comment upon its putative implications, and then suggest some related work that might be profitably viewed alongside it.
The film begins as the story of one young father of three children, living with his wife, his mother, and his brother. The man (Natha) and his brother have just returned from town, and have learned that the bank is going to foreclose on their farm. It is later revealed that the payments on the loan for the farm could have been kept up were it not for his mother’s expensive medications. The two brothers travel to the home of a local, small-time crime boss, in search of another loan. They are there mocked and notified that India has a policy whereby the family of any farmer who commits suicide will be paid 100,000 Indian rupees (which is about $1,500 USD). He and his brother discuss what to do about this. His brother (Budhia) seems to volunteer to kill himself to save the family farm, but we soon learn that his brother’s true motive is to get Natha to kill himself. Not that he is an evil man, but one gets the impression that he would rather Natha die than him. This impression is confirmed throughout the film.
The home life of this family is dysfunctional. Natha’s wife (Dhaniya) seems very cold, and takes no responsibility for their predicament. On the other hand, the fact that she lives with Natha’s intolerable and hilarious mother no doubt has a lot to do with her attitude. Much of the real tragedy of the story concerns their children, who are probably not very different from many of India’s poor children. The children are mildly abused, and definitely neglected. The family goats get more affection than the children do. But one senses that this is not so much because their parents are neglectful, but rather because of the impossible burden that their circumstances place upon them. In any event, Dhaniya does not object very strenuously when Natha proposes that he kill himself to save the family farm. If anything her mood improves considerably.
Through a series of coincidences, Natha’s dilemma becomes locally and eventually nationally well-known. Reporters flood in to the small village his family inhabits. At first it is just a good opportunity for journalists to get a good story, but soon the affair evolves into something like a national debate. Because it is near election time, each party seeks to turn Natha’s dilemma to his or her advantage. What no one seems to care about, however, is the plight of the Indian farmers—increasingly displaced and indeed destroyed by the intrusion of capitalism—that Natha’s case symbolizes. The theme of the film is perhaps best summarized by a random person in the film, commenting upon Natha’s dilemma and his plan: ‘They [the Indian government] can’t pay for the living; how are they going to pay for the dead?’
After a good deal of political jockeying, with various promises made and broken—and with one death threat from the local crime-boss—one of the political parties decides to kidnap Natha, in effect to remove the political power his case has generated. They plan either to kill him, or to force him to commit suicide. One young reporter (Rakesh) who actually does seem to care about India’s people finds out about the plot, and all of the journalists soon converge on the kidnapping site.
Some of the comedy of the film should be remarked upon. Natha’s mother has already been mentioned as a bountiful source of amusement. Also when the media frenzy first centers on Natha and his situation the reporters are so keen to track all his movements and activities that they insist on filming Natha defecating. One hapless reporter tells his audience that it is an established fact in psychiatry that one’s bowel movements are the key to one’s inner self or soul. He begins to describe Natha’s last effort, but luckily we are spared any lengthy discourse on the matter. In all seriousness, however, it is surely the way in which the movie effortlessly mixes comedy and heartbreaking drama that is a key to its success.
One of the disappointments of the plot is the beautiful reporter Nandita. We learn early that she is ambitious, and good at her job. She is the one to ‘break’ the story of Natha and his family. But as time goes on she reveals herself to care about nothing but the story. She is incredulous when Rakesh expresses concern about the larger picture for the country of India.
In the end, unfortunately, there is an accidental fire that kills Rakesh, one of the only truly good characters in the film. His body is mistaken for Natha’s, however. Natha has run away. One does not get the sense, however, that he is being cowardly. Rather Natha (who speaks very little throughout the film) just seems confused and overwhelmed. He is eventually offered the choice of killing himself or being murdered by the local crime-boss, and he quite understandably walks away. His brother is not much of a friend to him, his wife is a bit of a nightmare, his mother is fully a nightmare, and he does not even seem to have much affection for his children.
What are the lessons of Peepli Live, both for the purposes of this course and for the broader scheme of things? The primary lesson, as far as I can see, is that no matter what one thinks about capitalism, introducing it into an enormous country such as India with little planning, and effectively by brute force, can be disastrous. This point is highlighted early in the film when the Minister of Agriculture himself starts arguing that farmers should turn to industrialization to ease their woes. But it is surely a sign of moral bankruptcy when a government offers, in effect, to pay the poor to kill themselves. Probably politicians in the United States would like the poor to kill themselves, but they are not willing to pay much for it.
What films could be chosen alongside this one, if one wanted to understand India’s relevant problematic? Two possibilities stand out. The first is Zubaan, and the second is Aligarh. The first of these is a musical drama that tells the story of a young man who loses his faith, but finds it again in music. The second is based on a true story and based in Uttar Pradesh. It is the story of a successful professor at Aligarh Muslim University who is fired because he is fired on the grounds of homosexuality. Each of these films would nicely complement the tragic yet not hopeless picture of India so magnificently delivered by Peepli Live.
- Peepli Live. Written and directed by Anusha Rizvi, and produced by Aamir Khan Productions. 2010.