I thought at first I wouldn’t have much to say about Peepli live (Anusha Rizvi, 2010), but as I started writing, the following article poured out very easily! I had told myself that the film wasn’t much more than a properly engineered denunciation of the antidemocratic shifts in today’s India, plus the scathing condemnation of an economic system that lets its farmers die for lack of any viable support, and somehow I wasn’t very enthusiastic. Perhaps the film was too much of a documentary nature? It’s true that this is one of my limits: I do enjoy a certain amount of glamorization, and lo! There isn’t any in Peepli. The film is also rather dry on beautification, and perhaps for the good reasons: it wants to underline how much the mediatisation of drama turns into a dramatisation of the media, and there isn’t any need to show beauty within that blueprint. Anusha Rizvi goes about her business of constructing her cinematographic argument, and it works all the better as it stands out, like a sharp blade, unhampered by any other intentions.
But before I tell you what sprung up while I was writing, I have to direct any of you who are interested in such films to filmigeek’s review because it tells the story and captures its essence so very well. Carla keenly analyses the balance of cynicism and humour present in the film’s demonstration (which doesn’t remain a demonstration, but really mutates into a very watchable story), and she assesses its power: are we trivialising the tragedy of these poor farmers - who are so trapped by the economic crisis that they have to resort to suicide in order for the government to take care of them – by laughing at it, even if ever so slightly? Are we any better than the voracious media who know nothing apart from pandering to their supposed audiences the way politicians pander to their electorate? (1) We watch, feel, and leave, right? And in the meantime, the farmers continue to starve and exhaust themselves, digging away in a pit that will sooner or later become their grave.
The trouble (if it’s a trouble) lies in the story of the film itself. It’s supposed to rouse our attention to the plight of poor peasants of “Mukhya Pradesh” (there must be some joke here) who are oppressed to the point where they must commit suicide in order to draw the indispensable funds they need to survive (!), but instead it evolves into a film about the parasitic oppression of the media unable to extract themselves from the oppression of sensationalism and “fourth-powerism”. Yes, maybe one should not stop half way and say it isn’t a film about oppressed peasantry, but really about obnoxiously self-important and insensitive media? This is the logical outcome of the conversation which is held between Nandita (the main journalist in the film, Malaika Shenoy) and Rakesh after Hori Mahato’s death (the farmer who was so impoverished that he had to sell the earth he was digging and died in his pit) (2).
Rakesh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, above) is Nandita’s assistant, a promising young journalist wanting to follow in his successful mentor’s footsteps. At one point, he asks her to have a look at his CV and “do something for him”. But the death of the grave-digging pauper peasant jolts him into awareness: Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri), who has announced his suicide (or rather, whose suicide has been announced – he himself has no intention of dying!) is no longer important for him. What has become important is the social and political oppression which crushes all these farmers at the hands of vulgar and beastly thakurs and criminally corrupt politicians. We can guess that this is what he will now fight against, perhaps idealistically, because he doesn’t join Nandita when she leaves the village after Natha is declared dead.
But the film’s point doesn’t lie with the idealistic and honourable Rakesh. It focuses on what Nandita answers him, when he asks her what importance Natha has for the media:
- A farmer is committing suicide because he’s in debt. You don’t think that’s important?
- Yes, it’s important. But there are other farmers too in this village. Aren’t they equally important?
- You don’t just abandon a story midway Rakesh, and move on to something else. No. You’ve got to follow it right to its conclusion.
Rakesh then tells Nandita about Hori Mahato, how he died from absolute abandonment and misery. Nandita answers:
- Let me try and explain this to you. Research shows our audience is interested only in Natha. Do you know why? Because he is the original live suicider. Do you have any idea how big this is?
So now we have it. Here we can understand what the film is doing. Natha is the “original live suicider”. I don’t need to underline the fantastic paradox for a man to be considered a “live suicider”; what is clearly important to the media is the “live” dimension. Hori wasn’t seen dying live. But Natha holds the promise of doing so. Not only that, but he represents a “story”, that is to say he can ensure the media importance and purposefulness. Thanks to him, a channel gets to be watched as much as its “hero”. In fact, it gets to be watched more so, because it can multiply news items around the hero (interviews with the hero’s family, specialists speaking about hero-related problems, updates on the hero’s likes and dislikes…). Nandita’s channel is thus guaranteed a life thanks to the promise of death. Vulture-like, the journalist watches (and directs its spectators towards the show – its cameras are like loaded guns) what it has reason to believe is a dying prey, and what everybody needs to see as a result is no longer the sociological or political unravelling of the causes explaining why such a man is going to die, but an “original” event which normally belongs to the intimacy of the self and perhaps close family and friends – a man’s decision to end his life on this Earth.
So the film’s strength lies in this powerful exposure of the media carrion-feeder’s status. Its “live” film-mode doesn’t mean it’s showing any authentic or real objects: it’s a killing process. It isn’t interested in poverty, exploitation or oppression. It isn’t a democratic tool aimed at bettering the lives of people thanks to its confrontational methods or its uncovering of untruths. It is pandering to a lecherously prying audience, which as a result isn’t educated to a better understanding of society and social ills – one of the upheld “noble” aims of the media, this indispensable fourth power of any serious democracy. Instead it creates exactly the opposite. It hides the social injustice and oppression by focusing on the sensational and voyeuristic desire of common people to see in other people’s minds and hearts. It panders to that transgressive urge to know what should remain private and intimate. It is procuring this drug to an already addicted audience, and this makes it as tragically blind as the audience who believe what they are shown because it’s apparently professionally done.
What do people want to see most? Sex and death. This association of primal violence corresponds to a deep and elemental anguish: where do I come from? Where am I heading to? Sex correspond to the mystery of birth, and Death to the enigma of life. Nandita speaks about Natha as being “the original live suicider”. “Original” refers to both life and death, because our origin as human beings belongs as much to birth as to death. Both have an essential connection to our essence as men. You cannot speak about a man until it is born, of course, but what would a man be if he didn’t die? He would be a god, not a man. If one can watch death happening, as under a telescope, perhaps it will help relieve our quest and our fear a little. And if it’s done on this truth-revealing machine that we call the TV, then it possesses an attraction which cannot be resisted.
Natha is transformed into a man who will commit suicide in the face of the media. Note that he is made to be that; he himself isn’t willing at all. So what we see then is the hysteria of a whole nation involved in the observation of the impending suppression of a man’s self. If a whole nation is made thus to observe one such man magnified to national proportions, doesn’t it come close to observing itself dying? This is perhaps the ultimate phantasm: kill yourself and watch yourself doing so, whereas normally death is precisely what stops you from watching any more. One cannot watch one’s own death. And if one does, one dies. Now I realize that these statements are symbolical, but symbols have a lot of power.
One scene that had me in fits was the one following Natha’s disappearance. Taking advantage of the dawn when everyone including the soldiers, the journalists and the family, is busy more about themselves than others, Natha goes to relieve himself. He’s nevertheless spotted by one journalist who sends his cameraman up the makeshift tower to film him. We see him at first, but then: he’s gone! The scene that follows is pure delight. The whole nation seems to wake up to the shock. We see newspapers boys crying the event, anchormen analysing it, politicians taking their varied stances about it, and on the spot where Natha was last seen pushing hard, one senior reporter (Nandita’s rival channel’s head reporter) gets the essential piece of news:
It’s a great joke, but with a sting in it, don’t you think? Oh, and another great one: one day, crimson-scarf Pappulal, the leader of the dalit party comes to Peepli to honour Natha as the fighter of the cause of the poor – guess what he presents him with?
And last but not least, these are the most important words of the speech he delivers:
(1). The film brings in Naseeruddin Shah as Salim, the soft-spoken, wily minister of Agriculture. See top pic!
(2). A piece of information coming from Deepti Sharma, one of Carla’s commentators on her blog : this name is a reference to “Munshi Premchand's celebrated novel Godaan. Many decades ago, this beautifully written Hindi novel explored the sad plight of debt-ridden farmers as well as the great divide between urban and rural India. The old farmer in this film is even named after the protagonist of that novel, Hori Mahto. Much like his namesake, Hori in the novel fights a losing battle against debts throughout his life, and towards the end, deprived of his land, is reduced to undignified labor at a road construction.”
Article on Peepli live from Indian magazine The Caravan (French translation): click to enlarge.