Written and directed by Anusha Rizvi, Aamir Khan Productions’ Peepli Live is about as funny as a heart attack.
Farmer Natha (Omkar Das) is the very picture of the word gormless. He’s bullied by his elder brother, the marginally more cunning Budhia (Raghubir Yadav) before whom he regresses into a state of infantile uncertainty; pegged as a twerp by his mother (Farrukh Jaffar) whose selfish refusal to die when she gets sick in her old age leads the brothers deeper into poverty and debt; and harassed by his wife Dhaniya (Shalini Vatsa) whose native shrewishness is only exacerbated by a pretty good recognition of her husband’s lackluster character.
It is easy to laugh at Natha’s stoic bovinity as he shuffles along behind his brother, trying to make sense of his life. If his hapless form makes an easy target for his wife’s taunts, his mother’s deprecations and his brother’s manipulation, it is no less convenient a target for the blows of the pissed-off local politician’s goons, a young reporter’s ambitions or our own derision. But it’s not quite so funny when you realize that those dazed eyes that peer out underneath that tangle of dirty hair and facial scruff no longer dream of anything but escape.
One particular day, when death is all anybody can talk about, a few careless words from an uncaring overlord, an equally carefully engineered conversation with his brother and a momentary impulse to do something, sets him on the path to what could be the ultimate escape: death.
A chance meeting with Rakesh (Nowaz), a young man who also wishes to do something – and suddenly Natha is an unlikely national headline in an election year. Everybody wants to know if he’s going to kill himself for the compensation money or not; if yes, then when; if not, then how come. Even as his unhappy family is imprisoned in their home, the area around his miserable hut turns into a fairground as the media, politicians and the locals turn his possible suicide into a thriving mini-economy where everything but reality has value.
Like any other movie, Peepli Live works best when it forgets that it has Important Things to say and show. The climax in particular with the big boom that kills real journalism was unworthy of a movie that gave us an exquisite scene in which the Agriculture Secretary daintily drinks the finest Darjeeling tea while passing the buck on poor farmers killing themselves on his watch or the hilarious scene in which Natha receives a “Lal Bahadur” and is sternly informed that he can no longer kill himself because the long dead Prime Minister has come to his rescue… even if his largesse has absolutely no bearing on Natha’s problems.
The news bits are particularly plastic. Cable news in India is so incredibly fevered, trivial, kiss ass, shrill and just terrible overall that a partially deaf blind man could see it – as the actors self-consciously attempt to parody something that is already a parody of real news, the cardboard scene collapses flat on its face. And rightly so.
The one standout of the whole news section is the vainglorious Deepak, star reporter for a Hindi channel and an unparalleled master of bull (and other species’) shit, played by Vishal Sharma with an earnest egotism that is instantly memorable. The political bits, meanwhile, are mostly ho-hum even if Naseeruddin Shah periodically makes an appearance to spray silky venom and a bureaucrat takes you on a brief yet entertaining tour of red tape in our republic.
In stark contrast are the scenes of the village. Perhaps somebody who has actually lived in a rural area might have a different opinion, but to this city brat Peepli Live came alive in the dying fields of Peepli.
“What is the answer to farmers committing suicide?” asks the shiny reporter.
“Industrialization!” replies the Agricultural Minister.
Peepli Live is funny but I’ll laugh the day I can eat a steel curry with iron rice.