UTV Motion Pictures
Directed and Written by Anusha Rivzi
Produced by Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao
With all the big, bright splashy blockbusters that have become the typical movie watching fare, it’s very easy to forget that there are other movies out there. Smaller movies with actors and directors you’ve never heard of. But in their own way just as entertaining as the mega-budget special effects laden extravaganzas we break our necks to be the first to see.
PEEPLI [LIVE] is exactly one of those smaller films. I would probably have skipped this one but thanks to the urging of my wife Patricia, who sometimes has a sixth sense about movies of this type we saw it in the theatre. And even though it gets to the point where it’s belaboring you about the head and shoulders long after you’ve gotten the point and the story noticeably lags, it was worth the time.
Living in the small Indian town of Peepli, Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri) is a farmer so destitute that if he woke up the next day and found himself dirt poor that would be a significant step upwards. His farm is a disgrace. A fact that is pointed out to him every waking moment of his life by his fearsome wife who seems incapable of speaking in a tone other than that which rivals an air horn. Natha’s mother (Farraukh Jaffar) lies on a cot all day satisfied to curse at and insult anybody within earshot while Natha’s three children apparently have inherited their brains from their father. We can only pray for them. And considering that Natha spends most of the day smoking pot with his brother Budhia (Raghubir Yadav) and has done so for many years, it’s not a surprise that the bank has foreclosed on his farm and intends to auction it off.
Budhia’s not quite as dimwitted as his brother and is quick to inform Natha that when farmers commit suicide, the government compensates the family with a tidy sum of 100,000 rupees. It’ll be enough to pay off the bank and still have some left over. In a hilarious conversation that is one of best pieces of filmic comedy I’ve seen recently, Budhia and Natha debate which one of them should commit suicide to save the farm and the family. It’s Budhia that comes out on top, convincing his brother that committing suicide would be a great honor and a way of gaining the respect of his wife, as well. Natha quite sensibly asks his brother what good having his wife’s respect is when Natha will be busy being dead. But Budhia, not having burned out as many brain cells as his brother has a fast answer not only for that but everything else as well.
Peepli being a town three traffic lights wide it doesn’t take long for the word to spread of the impeding suicide. It attracts the attention of two local politicians, one who will benefit by Natha’s death and one who won’t. They get involved, showering Natha will gifts and causing the poor guys to flip-flop. One day he says he’s going to kill himself, the next, he isn’t.
Ambitious and cynical television reporter Nandita (Malaika Shenoy) finds out about the story and naturally sees this as a way to climb up the cutthroat ladder of televised journalism the best way she knows how: over the bodies of her competitors. And that includes a small time rival reporter who is so desperate to get a piece of this story he even does an on-air analysis of Natha’s feces. Naturally, the two rival politicians are delighted by the media coverage and escalate their campaigns, tying it into Natha’s suicide which has by now become of national interest.
PEEPLI [LIVE] is based on a real life epidemic of poor farmers in India committing suicide back in the ‘90’s and it’s surprising how such a horrific tragedy can be the springboard for such a funny, witty satire. The subject matter of PEEPLI [LIVE] is the blackest of black comedy and there are things done and said in this movie that shouldn’t be laughed at but I sat there laughing my fool head off and not giving a flying kitty.
Poor Natha stands at the middle of a swirling storm of media frenzy and political maneuvering as everybody seeks to use his suicide to further their own ambitions and agendas and he’s truly confused as to what he should do without ever questioning why he should do anything at all.
The sharply wicked edge of the satire is blunted in the second half of the movie as the filmmakers have made their point long ago and simply stretch the story a little bit more than necessary before wrapping everything up into a not entirely satisfying ending. But it’s an ending that feels right and sometimes that’s more important.
The acting is refreshingly free of the usual mannerisms and stylistic flourishes that I expect from American actors. The very fact that these were faces I’d never seen before went a long way toward pulling me into the story and once I was in, I was in. There’s a lot of funny performances in this movie but the two standouts are Raghubir Yadav who really plays his part to the bust as the scheming sibling who’s cheerfully willing to sacrifice his brother so that he can enjoy a better life. But once Natha becomes a media darling, he’s quick to cut himself in. Farrukh Jaffar delivers her entire performance lying down and it’s one of the funniest comedy performances I’ve seen in ages.
So should you see PEEPLI [LIVE]? I say yes. If you want something a little offbeat and a departure from the barrage of your average CGI laden blockbuster, this is a nice little change of pace. It’s a very smart and very sharp satire of irresponsible politicians and the news media in India. It takes some really big shots at the frivolity of those institutions that I think hit their targets and does it in a very entertaining 104 minutes.