Jottings on Peepli [Live]
I recently read a piece by a friend that bemoaned our fraught relationship with our own cinema; I immediately thought of all the usual elements that have brought us notoriety — the melodrama, the song and dance, and of course Bollywood’s miserable attempts at making ‘social films’. Issues from dyslexia to terrorism have all taken massive beatings in the hands of our filmmakers who barely manage to get facts (symptoms?) right and parade their hysteria in the form of films that people love to love because they give us a warm, gooey, we-have-done-our-bit-for-society feeling.
Perhaps this is why Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli [Live] came as something of a shock, something that successfully turned the trajectory of the very texture of popular Bombay cinema. Peepli [Live] tells the story of Natha (Omkar Das) and Budhia (Raghuvir Yadav), brothers whose ancestral farm lands in the village of Peepli in Mukhya Pradesh are about to be auctioned off in order to pay their debt. The brothers are told about a government scheme where the families of farmers who commit suicide are paid compensation in the amount of one lakh rupees. This is when Natha decides (with the help of his not-so-innocent brother) to commit suicide. As news of his decision spreads, local and then national news channels decide to project this issue as one that can turn the upcoming election around. Hordes of news vans and reporters camp in Peepli to cover the first ever live suicide in the world.
The film has contemplated the ‘event’ of death in a way that popular Hindi cinema has avoided for the longest time. While there is an encounter with the event of death, death, in this film has been stripped of all its finery and ritual – it is not poetic, it is not romantic, and there is no better world that the dying man goes to. He is quite simply, forgotten. The two deaths in this film are of secondary and tertiary characters, and are, at one level, somewhat predictable. The lack of spectacle in these deaths, worked in with the masterful use of an indifferent silence is instead used to underscore the inability of the media to actually understand, cope with and represent death.
While the action of the film is based in the countryside, it is really about the relationship of the urban middle-class with their rural counterparts. What is our link to the villages – it is the media, which itself is embedded in the aesthetic and psyche of the city – it is colourful, there is bling and there is a supposed reason for every sentence uttered (in this case, TRPs). News, as the cliché goes, is a product, which is entrenched in a careful system of commodity production—demand and supply. Rizvi, herself a journalist till fairly recently, has sharply critiqued this system of producing news. The desperate need for stories, the need to get ahead and the loud, unfeeling reportage depicted in the film is greatly detailed but also gives way to some moments that seem like they got out of the director’s hands as the desire to make a scathing point took over. What is more striking is her use of silence in the midst of the general din, bringing attention to the media’s inability to access and therefore report the truth, whatever that is.
The most poignant aspect of this film is its tone. Rizvi has used a texture of satire that has been missing from the mise-en-scene of Bombay cinema for a while. The careful handling of satire becomes evident in the way it is sewn into the tragedy of the film. Rizvi uses the seemingly meaningless, small, non-event to convey the dripping irony of the situation. My personal favourite is the moment with Natha’s son asks him whiningly, “Bapu tum kab maroge, batao na kab maroge…jab tum mar jaoge main thekedar ban jaaonga” (Dad when will you die, tell me when will you die… when you die, I’ll become a landowner). The darkness that comes out of this humour is never ending, and Rizvi has braved this no exit approach that has been visible only in the work of Anurag Kashyap (his early phase – Paanch, Black Friday and No Smoking to be precise) and Dibakar Banerjee (Love, Sex Aur Dhokha) in the recent years. Despite frames drowning in natural light, there is a sense of doom that envelops this film. Rizvi’s refusal to embed Peepli with a childish idealism was a welcome move. Her film offers no hope, and certainly no solutions. There is, instead, an insight into our modernity and the dominant discourse about development.
Rizvi has worked immensely hard on the visual landscape of her film. Be it the newsroom or the village, there is an attention paid to details – in costume, in dialect, in the songs, in relationships – that is rare in Bollywood. There are some moments in the film that are beautifully crafted, her use of colour for impact is brilliant in certain scenes, for instance the long lines of white ambassadors carrying politicians that cut their way into the green and brown on the village is particularly striking. I was also stunned by the quiet surveillance of the space of the village once the reporters have left – the camera pans over a literal and metaphorical mess as the carnival folds, leaving behind a deathly silence. The change of scene to the city, which has its own definition of spectacle, is what the film closes with – where Natha, once a celebrity is part of a nameless crowd. He isn’t physically dead, but he may as well be.