This note is for Parthada and Kavita who are waiting to hear my views and for Aru for posting a wonderful review of Peepli Live. After the review that Aru posted, I have nothing else to say on the film. So here are some of my own observations on Peepli Live.
Long ago, which means one and a half decade ago, a film was released starring Amitabh Bachchan called Main Azad Hoon. The story revolved around a media gimmick in which a fictitious character called Azad was supposed to commit suicide on an announced date if some of his demands were not met. These demands were that some of the corruption in the government departments be put to an end. Amitabh Bachchan who played the role of a vagabond with Annu Kapoor as his hanger on, slipped into the role of Azad. The film did average business because Amitabh was too great a star to be a vagabond just picked up by some journalists by the lure of some food. The script was written by Javed Akhtar. Jaya Bhaduri alias Jaya Bachchan pronounced that a weak script was the reason behind the film’s not too good a collection. I always had a hunch that were Anil Kapoor to be cast as Azad; the film would have been one of the greatest hits of Hindi cinema. Main Azad Hoon was the remake of a black and white American film, Meet John Doe. Javed Akhtar hugely improved on the script of John Doe and despite the fact that Amitabh looked always ever so jarring as Azad, Main Azad Hoon, hereafter MAH, was characteristically a tight script, with sharp editing, fast pace and wove together very large issues of peasant-worker unity and industry-speculator-media baron-builder-blackmarketeer-politician nexus. In a span of three hours, MAH was comprehensive and conclusive.
Peepli Live is an attempted remake of Meet John Doe, Main Azad Hoon and later on the Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, a spoof on media sensationalism. For viewers who have watched these films, Peepli Live is just another of these. For an Aamir Khan production, one naturally expected more originality. The film uses many “cuts” of Main Azad Hoon, many punch lines and humour of Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, some of the key top down shots of Meet John Doe and uses some distinctly recognizable scenes from Ray’s Goopi Gayne Bagha Bayne especially when the village politicians make fun of Natha and when Natha, albeit in a dream sequence leaves his village for good. When looked at from these points of view, Peepli Live will not appeal to the frequent film viewer.
But where the film does well is in its passing references and in shots that are smuggled into the frame without the director meaning to attract any attention. For instance, when Budhiya inspires Natha to die for a larger good and the constant harping of Lal Bahadur Shastri’s name connects our recall to Jai Jawan Jai Kisan, which in the context of the film hints that like the soldier, the peasant too is now to be martyred at the altar of the nation’s development. The insistence of the camera to contain within the frames the armed guards of the politicians, the sophistication of the arms and the guards increasing in order of importance of the politician hints that our democracy is based on force rather than on consensus. The shots of the giant wheel, the bangles on the stands, and the tightrope walk of the acrobat on were interesting metaphors, symbols, signs and indexes of a life unaware and oblivious of an impending doom. The shots where Natha flees the scene are unusual and original.
The film dwelled far too much on the media circus making it more of a critique of an insensitive and sensational culture of reportage. This we all know. The film has spoken aloud far too much on the red tapism of bureaucracy, futility of government schemes, politicization of poverty and farmers’ deaths and the involvement of the State with American giant seed companies. These are things that we also know. But there are some understated things which the script only lightly touches in passing and to my mind these should have been the central concerns and these are as follows. The issue of persistent malnourishment without overt famines, deaths that are due to extreme poor conditions of living but appear to have been natural, the default of bank loans because the relative income rather than absolute income from farming keeps falling, the futility of pesticides, fertilizers and tubewells in areas of water scarcity and compensation that comes only upon the farmer’s death when it should have come in at a time when the death could have been averted. When Budhia says that he cannot get a below poverty card because according to some statistic he is not poor, we realize the paradox of the system which requires a poor to be identified as poor when in reality poverty is so apparent and evident. Budhia’s statement also brings us to yet another anomaly in our address of poverty where he tend to look at poverty in terms of a set of static indicators rather than address those dynamic conditions that cause people to become poor. The silences of the film were more pregnant with meaning than the overtly shown tale of media mayhem.