REVIEW: Peepli Live Promises Modern India, Delivers Muddled Satire

Movieline Score: 6
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Peepli Live begins with a tight shot of the face of a man running, it would seem, for his life. Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri), a farmer belonging to the so-called Backward caste, is in fact catnapping in the ramshackle caravan carrying him back to the farm he is about to lose at auction, although his panicked sprint signifies something more than just an unpleasant dream. From the story told by Natha's startled face, Peepli Live opens out slowly to encompass several factions of Indian society, including the press, local, state, and federal politicians, and the shady elements binding them all together. It's a meticulously engineered design that a show like The Wire took several years to execute; here the strain shows within the first half hour.

I suspect that Peepli Live will have more success with its Indian viewership, mainly because I imagine they are less familiar with the mode of social satire writer/director Anusha Rizvi is working within, and her "shocking" concept of media martyrs still has some freshness. When Natha and his brother Budhia (Raghubir Yadav) are informed of a rumor that the Indian government is paying the equivalent of $2,000 to the families of farmers who commit suicide because of their debts, a dark seed is planted.

"Living is like an old-fashioned bell bottom; suicide is like the latest jean," the local equivalent of a lobbyist thug cracks, noting that thousands of farmers have already taken the plunge. It's a socially illogical solution born of desperation (it reminded me of the Scottish government's pledge several years back to buy poor teen mothers their own apartments; birth rates soared, of course), and certainly much nuttier policies have been instituted in India, several of which Rizvi spoofs.

Although the closing credits tell us that almost 200,000 farmers have indeed committed suicide in India in roughly the last 10 years, the effect of many of these early scenes is more slapstick than satirical. When either Natha's wife or mother is in play, however, these scenes simply feel shrill. The movie's tonal arrhythmia is established early on and becomes more pronounced as the film progresses.

Natha is simple; his brother is craftier, and manages to talk Natha into the deed before he knows what he's agreed to. The story seeps out to the local press like blood in polluted water, and soon a ruthless television reporter named Nandita (Malaika Shenoy) is leading a media charge into Natha's mud-caked village of Peepli, where dozens of reporters mine the story for ratings gold. A concurrent election means that various politicians also descend on Peepli, each trying to co-opt the story to serve their purposes.

Rizvi has fun with some of the tropes of this kind of satire, orchestrating a media circus around what amounts to a morbid deathwatch -- the entire debate comes to hinge on Natha killing himself on live television -- but much of it feels toothless. Because Rizvi is unable to commit to (or pull off) pitch-black satire, and is indecisive about how earnest her underlying social message should be, the film begins to work against itself, pulling the viewer's investment in two opposing directions. Americans have watched these themes play out in films like Meet John Doe and Ace in the Hole since the early forties (with Network as a kind of culmination, leaving a host of lesser descendants in its wake). And while the setting and the specifics are different here, the approach feels worn out. Ironically, western audiences may be too jaded to feel provoked or mordantly titillated by the endgame of the media attention on Natha -- the newspeople wind up literally analyzing a pile of his excrement on camera, looking for psychological spin after he makes an escape.

Indian filmmakers seem anxious to open up a branch outside of Bollywood headquarters, one concerned with representing "the story of India today," a phrase found in the press notes of a number of contemporary Indian films, including those of Peepli Live. I don't doubt that Rizvi's aim is true: A subplot involving a destitute farmer selling his earth to help supply brick-makers in the rapidly industrializing city-centers offers a more affecting and evocative metaphor than the one that animates the gaudy main action. I just wish what she had to tell us about the India of today might have taken a form less distractingly reminiscent of the American classics of yesteryear.



Comments

  • Sneha says:

    I am not surprised with this review. It is truly difficult for someone who has not lived in India or been exposed to the harsh realities that still continue to plague India. I think the filmmaker has taken a bold step in moving away from mainstream Indian cinema to portray these realities to the public. It may be much more subtle and "comic" than what truly is. That is simply because Indian viewers need some "warming up" to these kinds of movies.

  • Jubi says:

    The movie depicts the harsh reality of farmer of today in India....This is not a story to yesterday!!

  • Udayan says:

    Quite a bore movie,subject is good but not pictured in a good way......Pathetic Movie....Really disappointed.

  • Mirchiplex says:

    Peepli live got a rating of 4/5 on Mirchiplex.

  • Pulak Joshi says:

    There is only one word which can adequately describe this review, its "POOR". Peepli live is a fantastic movie, unfortunately the critic giving this review lacks the "Eyes" needed to gauge the message delivered.
    Simple message, simple delivery! Perfect!

  • Dhruv Chhabra says:

    I think this review is closest to what I feel about the movie. Truly, the movie did pretty well technically. I have seen life in rural India and I admit it was wonderfully portrayed. However, what failed to move me about the main theme of the movie, a sattire on farmers' suicides, manipulative political leaders and TRP starving ruthless media, was the way these things were handled. I understand these things are known to many people. When Anusha Rizvi picked this theme up and brought it to public 'again', I would have expected her to not just discuss what is known already. In one of her interviews, she pointed out that she didn't want to sound preachy but perhaps her social message was far too subdued in the noise and cacophony which was created to make the film more box-office friendly. Truly, the scene where they analyze the excrement was the lowest and cheapest point of the movie but at the same time I would say this wasn't far from reality. Before watching the film, I kept thinking about Aamir's ability to handle such sensitive subjects (Was extremely impressed by his treatment of dyslexia in Taare Zameen Par) and expecting something similar on these socially important areas. But I was moved only at one point in the whole movie and that was the point, as this review also points out, the sub-plot where a farmer who digs his land which finally becomes his own grave. All the rest of it was like watching just another media story on a news channel. At the end of the story, I asked myself a question: What was the point of this film? And I said to myself: Probably nothing ! I didn't learn anything new. Neither do I look at these things differently now.

    • Am says:

      Well , then what else did you learn from say movies like Ra.One, Don, Om Shanti Om, Dabang etc etc. I bet you love those movies!! I am not really sure what your basis of comparison is here! If you think you will compare this movie to say a "Shawshank Redemption" or a "No Country for old men" for its storyline of telling you something new then you are comparing apples with oranges!! This is a new start in Bollywoon commercial cinema but we simply ignore this fact!

  • bytewords says:

    I am not sure the review does justice to the movie. For what it is worth, the reviewer seems to have missed the movie altogether, harping instead on some accidental similarities with other movies. But perhaps that is to be expected---unlike the usual movies that pander to western audiences and prejudices, like Slumdog Millionaire, this one does not. Consequently, most of the movie seems to be lost on an non-Indian audience.
    To people who might still be considering the movie: watch it. The language is clever, the music is really beautiful, and the story plays up situations with an insight that is very rarely seen.
    It isn't meant to lecture you or teach you as some want, it is a nicely done movie. How it affects you depends on you. When did the movie claim to be a documentary?

  • CaliGuy says:

    I would rate Peepli Live at par with the Grapes of Wrath from a different perspective. The film has accomplished focusing on so many without taking sides or thrusting a punch in your face. In fact, the subtle punch is through Hori Mahato, his death and the death of the journalist in the fire. Non-Indians (and Indians) who have no clue about Munsi Premchand and Godaan will not know why that character was important and what message was sent through that character. Godaan is the Indian Grapes of Wrath and the main character was Hori Mahato and that was a pre-independant India scenario.

  • prasad says:

    Well, going by this review, no more movies ought to be made... any movie will resemble the pattern of some movie made sometime, somewhere.
    Maybe the reviewer just wanted to be different from other reviewers; and in trying to do so, has ended up with a review that sounds quite contrived and written by someone who had no real clue as to what was going on.

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