Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Peepli [live]

5 days ago the Hindi movie Peepli [live] was released in theaters across India. Peepli [live] is the story of Natha, a farmer from the village of Peepli, who loses his land because he defaults on a loan. When Natha and his brother approach their local politican for help, they are told facetiously that if one of them commits suicide, perhaps the compensation that the government will give them will be enough to get their land back. Natha and his brother take the politician's words at face value, and Natha is hoodwinked by his brother into agreeing to commit suicide.

When Natha's decision gets out, the local politicans first threaten him. But then, realizing that it is election season and that they have to be seen to be doing something, they gift him a water pump and a color TV. There is a wonderful shot of the interior of Natha's hut, with him, his wife, brother and 3 children hovering around the pump and the TV, because they have neither the money to install the pump nor the electricity to watch the TV.

The Chief Minister of Natha's fictional state of Mukhya Pradesh is a political rival of the Minister of Agriculture in the Central government. To safeguard his reputation, the Minister announces the Natha Card (presumably a credit card for farmers), knowing full well that the Center has no funds for such a program, and that the costs will have to be borne by the States. Ironically, Natha's family themselves are ineligible for the card because to qualify they in turn must have the Below Poverty Line card, which they don't.

Yet the "live" in Peepli [live] is for the role that the media plays in this story. Natha makes headlines not only because it is election season but also because he is, as journalist Nandita oxymoronically describes him, a "live suicide". Natha's story becomes the means by which Nandita attempts to bolster her flagging ratings, with the hook, "Will Natha commit suicide or, won't he?" pulling viewers back to the TV again and again. In the media circus (literally) that ensues, the fundamental issues of Natha's land, and the much larger context of agrarian dispossession in the country, are completely ignored.

Peepli [live] is a farce, but what makes it so poignant is its ability to tell the truth. For anyone who has experienced or observed the Indian political system, Center-State conflicts, populist promises that deliver color TVs but little development, and the maze of bureaucracy that confronts any effort to claim benefits are all too familiar. Similarly, my husband and I often sum up the creed of India's 24-hour news channels as, "It's all happening now". No doubt this is a trend sweeping news channels across the world, but I wonder if they have taken it to the extremes that India has. NDTV, which continues to be a popular channel and, for many Indians was the first alternative they encountered to the government-sponsored Doordarshan, has 4 lines of scrolling and flashing text across its screen.

Although the movie ends on a sober note, I left it with a feeling of optimism. Peepli [live] joins another recent movie, Love, Sex Aur Dhokha, in using one form of visual media (film) to critique another. In Peepli [live] the critique is of course of 24-hour news, while in Love, Sex Aur Dhokha it is of the ubiquity of video in our lives, whether in home videos, Internet porn or camera surveillance.

While Love, Sex Aur Dhokha had at least one song-and-dance sequence, in Peepli [live] there are none of the formulaic elements that are common to Indian films. Yet despite its serious subject and treatment, Peepli [live] is a very well-made, entertaining film. If such a film can fill seats, it has the ability to tell an in-depth, nuanced story - exactly what is missing in our news channels today. And there may be opportunities for these competing visual media to infiltrate each other, as with NDTV airing documentaries on developmental and social issues. Of course, the subtitles on these documentaries are often completely hidden by all those lines of scrolling text.

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