Aamir Khan knows quite a bit about timing it right. A small art house indie that may have otherwise not got the attention it deserves gets all of it and more, thanks to the box office mogul.
Very few art house films have drawn the mainstream audience and Peepli Live does what Ketan Mehta's Hero Hiralal (1988) or Aziz Mirza's Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000) couldn't. Now, both these films were satires on the media coverage of an event (the suicide of a hero in Hero Hiralal and the live execution of a man who's possibly innocent) and in terms of structure and theme trod exactly the same territory Anusha Rizvi does. The films were largely inspired by other films made in the genre (Switching Channels, Network, Dog Day Afternoon to name a few) but barely made an impact at the box office probably because they hit the market before it was ready to consume media-bashing. Despite Shah Rukh Khan's presence and marketing, Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani sank because the media wasn't exactly cut-throat and sensationalist back then.
With Peepli Live, we can see why it strikes a chord. People going to the movies may not relate to farmer suicides (they may want to... given that they do read the stray story about droughts once in a while) but they can surely relate to competing channels doing the Breaking News/Exclusive and trying hard to make you think that journalists actually give a damn about what they report.
Anusha is a smart journalist and storyteller. She knows which part of her story to play up to entertain and which parts of it to get the point across. Peepli Live, right from the title, is all about the contrasts. Peepli is an old-fashioned, remote village in the heartland of India. And Live is modern-day urban media speak for “Your eyeballs please”. Peepli is a hamlet where farmers either die a slow, natural death or hurry up the process by killing themselves. Live is the world where journalists take pleasure in manipulating the emotional potential of the human interest story. Simply put, Peepli is where poor people die, Live is what the rich watch in between channel surfing.
The biggest triumph for Peepli Live is in bringing out these contrasts between the haves and the have-nots in a landscape untouched and neglected by the government and then invaded by video cameras that have turned a news story into a reality show. Right from casting (so rare to see an Indian film pay so much attention to getting the right kind of raw actors who would look fresh and unknown on screen) to production design (just look at the soiled clothes and the earthy tones of Peepli contrasted with the world of the rich and the bureaucratic) to performances, Peepli Live gets every bit right.
There may be a bit of a fumble towards the end (a hurriedly executed sequence involving explosives) but the end justifies the means. The climax is dark yet funny. It is morbid, yet there's hope. It's tragic, yet it is just another day in the life of the Indian farmer/ news channel.
It's this balance, sensitivity and exposition of contrasts, apart from Aamir's timing, that makes Peepli a compelling watch. The point Hero Hiralal and Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani tried to make using the larger-than-life cinematic idiom is more effectively made through Anusha's sense of realism and satire.
And yes, Aamir Khan's name has taken this small film a long way and got it an audience it truly deserves.
Director: Anusha Rizvi
Cast: Omkar Das Manikpuri, Raghubir Yadav, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Malaika Shenoy, Shalini Vatsa, Naseeruddin Shah
Storyline: Media sets up a circus tent at a village called Peepli when word gets around that a desperate farmer is planning to commit suicide to get compensation from th government and pay back his bank loans
Bottomline: A regular “See how manipulative the media has become” film snowballs into a more significant social satire, thanks to the plight of the neglected Indian farmer.