Pics:Screening of Peepli Live
A television crew intrudes into a village hutment and plonks a camera bang in the middle of its cramped, messy space. It is looking for an exclusive, TRP-boosting ?conversation? with a suicidal farmer. The latter, dread and bewilderment writ large on his face, cringes in a corner of the room.
The star reporter, doing her best to exude sympathy, seeks to assuage the man's fears. "Don?t be afraid," she says. "This camera cannot do anything."
Well, the TV cameras do an awful lot of things in Peepli Live, and not all of it is of a salutary nature.
Writer-director Anusha Rizvi's debut feature, a disarmingly simple but remarkably powerful film, is a major triumph. She taps into the power of the medium to narrate a story rooted firmly in the depressing realities of rural India, but without ever going into paroxysms of self-righteous indignation.
Peepli Live lampoons an entire range of usual suspects ? voyeuristic media persons, smarmy bureaucrats, scheming local-level political goons and self-serving rulers, all of whom want a piece of the sleepy village where a farmer is about to kill himself so that his family can survive. Thanks to the film's nifty blend of humour and bathos, it does not slip into diatribe mode. It instead acquires the spiky edge of a pulsating yet biting satire.
Rizvi collates elements from the theatre of the absurd to craft her sly portrait of a grim scenario that urban Indian moviegoers are rarely, if ever, exposed to.
The film explores the clinical and incongruous response of the media and the ruling establishment to what is a life and death question for a farmer on the brink of becoming just another statistic in a never-ending tale of woes. This coldness is best captured in the nonchalant refrain of the natty agriculture secretary: "we must wait for the court's order."
The peasant-protagonist Natha (amateur actor Omkar Das) cannot wait. He and his elder brother, Budhia (Raghuvir Yadav), are in danger of losing their plot of land, having failed to repay a bank loan.
By way of one last desperate throw of the dice, Natha decides to commit suicide in the hope of securing a government compensation of Rs 100,000 for his dependents. But as word gets around, the media descends on the village for a scoop and opportunistic politicians jump into the fray to draw mileage from Natha's predicament.
As the frenzy peaks, cold drink kiosks and tea stalls come up around Natha's house in next to no time. The whole world wants to know whether Natha will really die. But does anybody really care?
We laugh as everybody in Peepli seems to cut a sorry figure. But do we feel guilty as well? Peepli Live seeks to push us across the line that divides detached glee and genuine concern.
The film is set in a fictitious state, Mukhya Pradesh, where, as the film's theme number, Des mera rangrez yeh babu (from the Indian Ocean album, 'Jhini') asserts, surprises, shocks and quirks lurk at every corner. Its vast gallery of characters is brought alive by actors who, in keeping with the backdrop and the situations, look and sound real.
A Dalit leader called Pappu Lal gifts Natha a huge television set, while an eager-beaver babu hands out a 'Lal Bahadur' (a hand pump in bureaucratic parlance) to the farmer. He has no use for either. A local henchman whose mobile ringtone goes Pappu can't dance saala throws his own rough and ready brand of politics into the mix.
And the cocky chief minister of Mukhya Pradesh declares grandly: "Natha nahin marega." For the first and the last time, a faint smile flickers on the farmer's lips. It is certainly not the all-knowing smile of a man who is in control of his destiny.
Natha's descent into hell is complete when we see him, in the film's final scene, covered in grime in a big city construction site, having lost the battle for dignity.
A film that ends by informing the audience that "8 million farmers quit agriculture in India between 1991 and 2001" and does so with the muscular backing of Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan and UTV Motion Pictures, one of the biggest production houses of the Mumbai movie industry, is nothing short of a miracle.
However, that is the least of the many reasons why Peepli Live should rank among the best films made in India since the new millennium began. It has its heart in the right place, and it's a heart backed by a ticking mind.
(Saibal Chatterjee is a National Award-winning film critic who has covered film festivals around the world, including the ones in Cannes and Toronto. He will be writing reviews exclusively for NDTVMovies.com)