REVIEW: Peepli Live Promises Modern India, Delivers Muddled Satire
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.