Peepli [Live]

Peepli [Live] is a study in absurdity that is the modern Indian political discourse. Fueled by a hyperactive fourth estate, dire circumstance, and a simple-minded yet sophisticated populace, politics in India achieves surreal zen that is unmatched. The movie tries, and largely succeeds, in capturing the essence of life outside the sliver of urban India.

Peepli is a fictional village in Madhya Pradesh, which is plagued by familiar oppressive conditions for farmers. A couple of brothers, on the verge of losing their land, decide that one of them has to commit suicide in order to qualify for the government program that supports indebted (dead) farmers. A passing reporter hears this and runs a story in the local newspaper. A rare union of upcoming elections and deficient news cycle causes the story to be picked up by the national news.

What follows is a crazy sequence of loud news reports, visiting politicians, silly social schemes, and through it all a simpleton farmer struggling to make sense of his world turning upside down around him.

The family at the center of the story is cast perfectly. The brothers Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri) and Budhiya (Raghuvir Yadav) are spot on. Natha is the simpleton that is swept up in the frenzy around him, and is successful in conveying that through a mostly silent portrayal. His wife, Dhaniya (Shalini Vatsa) is a caustic woman, that takes on more than her share in a brusquely efficient way. Natha and Budhiya's ailing mother Amma (Farrukh Jaffar) would have been wildly entertaining but for the fact that she is ill and bedridden. The portrayal of angst with stubborn strength in the family is realistic, echoing the millions of other families that find themselves in similar situations across the country.

The story itself is believable, in a Bollywood sort of way. There are no abrupt dance sequences in Switzerland, but when the entire news media latches on the question of Natha's suicide, there are moments of ridiculous excess. Yet, they succeed in not looking fake. The feel of the movie is more like a documentary, supported by a minimal soundtrack. Certain plot turns are pandering comic reliefs, yet there is a subtle undertone to the movie that keeps reminding us that the loudness of what is on the screen may be overwhelming a greater need outside the spotlight. In essence that is the moral of the story, and the movie does well in conveying it with a sense of determination.

The movie is by no means as polished as it could have been. While the acting is tight and natural, the narrative is sometimes strained. The story is largely inconsequential, beyond its relevance as social commentary. But thankfully there is no sermonizing, no answers, no heroes or even villains for that matter. There is just the desperate opportunism of our times.

All in all, Peepli [Live] was a absorbing watch. It was refreshing to see a movie that is not typical Bollywood. And featuring no superstars, it was a story that stood quietly for itself. A little like the people of the village of Peepli.

January 22, 2011

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