Monday, August 16, 2010

Peepli [Live]: quick notes

I thought Anusha Rizvi’s film was a really good black comedy. Very irreverent and caustic about many things while remaining basically sympathetic towards the tragedy of the people at the centre of the storm (the unfathomably helpless villagers who find a media circus descending on them after word gets around that one of them has decided to commit suicide in protest). This is a difficult balance to get right. When I spoke with Jaane bhi do Yaaro's dialogue-writer Ranjit Kapoor last year, he pointed out that throughout the creation of the many lunatic scenes in that script, he was careful to preserve the essential integrity of Vinod and Sudhir, the movie’s idealistic photographers/fall guys. The audience could laugh all they liked at the situations that these two guys find themselves in, but it was important that they took Vinod and Sudhir seriously.

- Peepli [Live]’s beleaguered protagonist Natha spends most of the film dazed by all the attention he is getting, uncomprehending of the fact that he has been turned into a Cause and a Symbol, perpetually fearful that having made an offhand statement during a private conversation with his brother, he will now be forced to follow through on his promise to kill himself. (Once his story get publicised, his life is no longer his own anyway: he's a pawn in a game that he can't begin to understand.) A little something to chew on: try comparing this reluctant Everyman with the rabble-rousing messiah figure played by Amitabh Bachchan in Main Azaad Hoon (itself a remake of Capra’s Meet John Doe). Consider that Main Azaad Hoon was hailed as a courageous, non-mainstream (or semi-non-mainstream) attempt to address the plight of the common man.

- I disagree with the common reaction that the film was too over-the-top in its satirising of TV journalism. A couple of the gags might have been obvious (such as the scene where a round-up of national news prioritises an item about Shilpa Shetty and Prince William, with farmer suicides coming third on the list) but try sitting down to watch our real news channels – Hindi and English – for a couple of days and you’ll find that the blackest satire is inadequate as a lampooning force; real life is always a few steps ahead. The many good vignettes in this film include throwaway shots of city journos brandishing the villagers' possessions in front of their cameras like spoilt brats who have found an artillery of new toys to play with, or milking every moment for its potential emotional impact, even when the villagers themselves are being stoical and dignified. (Something I’ve been wondering generally after watching this and other depictions of electronic media in our recent films: are there young journalists who have quit their jobs and opted for alternate careers, out of sheer embarrassment if nothing else? Or do skins in this profession get rhino-thick at a very early age?)

- In our media-saturated age, films like Peepli [Live] are begging to be made, but for an uncannily prescient portrayal of a personal tragedy being turned into a carnival by cynical journalists, do watch Billy Wilder’s 1951 masterpiece Ace in the Hole. Nearly six decades old, and that film looks fresher each year.

P.S. Here's a feature story done by the wife for Mint newspaper, about one of the country's many Peepli villages - this one in Aligarh on the UP-Haryana border.


  1. Peepli [Live] reminded me also of Jaane bhi do yaaro - for their biting satire, of course, and because it was interesting to see how mass media has changed across three decades.
    Till about halfway through the film I wondered how they were going to satirise the media ENOUGH because no matter how sharp the scenes, they were still only depicting realistically. That of course was till one of the journalists invokes scatalogy to bring him TRPs.
    As for cleaning up the electronic media, perhaps laughter will accomplish what self regulatory boards cannot.

  2. >>while remaining basically sympathetic towards the tragedy of the people at the centre of the storm

    Was it really sympathetic, though? Natha, yes of course, has a deer trapped in the headlights air about him right through, and his wife seemed to me, to be really deserving of sympathy - his mother and his brother both appear as manipulative and exploitative and the rest of the villagers not much better in various shades of venality. I thought she satirized the villagers just as much as she did the media - in being dim, feudal, and only waiting for mai-baap govt handouts - only the ditch-digging skeletal man is shown as being detached from the carnival and having integrity (as also the conscience examining Rakesh). Everyone else was up for grabs.

  3. Somehow, it didn't seem to me to be a satire at all. It seems so close to reality that all of it seemed very scary. As for the lampooning of the state of media, I completely agree with it being inadequate.

    The most disturbing aspect of the narrative for me, however, was not the media, but the attitude of the villagers themselves reflected in their inherent Indianness: the subtle caste differences (I don't remember any direct references to it in the movie). They are stoic and welcoming, for lack of a better word, to a fault; never once having the courage to kick anybody out of the house. So used to others being patronizing towards them and needing them, they can't just tell them to go to hell. And the wife, who has done so to some extent can't assert herself being a woman. So, she is just reduced to ignoring them and concentrating on household chores.

    Talking of which, I felt Natha-&-wife relationship could have been explored more. In fact, they reduced her to a very uni-dimensional character.

    *Spoiler*The detail of the "Pappu can't dance saala" ringtone was killer!

    Also, am I the first one to see the parallels with Guide?
    P.S.: Did anybody here see Salman Khan tell to the paparazzi approaching him for a “byte”, to go watch the film? He said, in his inimitable-style-which-can-be-endearing-sometimes, "zaroor zaroor dekhiyega. Aap log;especially aap log" and they just stood there dumb uncomprehending of what he was saying. Priceless!

  4. I am also very surprised that the villagers of the real Peepli and Pipli didn't raise a protest to get the name changed. Aamir Khan?

  5. I have faint memories of a movie called Kamla starring Marc Zuber and Deepti Naval. I believe one of its themes was the callous nature of media.The story had great potential, and the film , as much as I can remember, was alright too.

  6. That of course was till one of the journalists invokes scatalogy to bring him TRPs.

    Sheetal: so you'd say that scene was exaggerated? Just asking honestly - I don't really watch enough TV news, so never quite sure about what lengths they are going to these days!

    Radhika: that's an interesting perspective. I suppose it's a question of degrees - of course, there's an element of misanthropy built into really good black comedy, which tends to lampoon the human condition in general rather than neatly divide people into Victims and Tyrants. But I didn't really get the impression that the villagers were being satirised as much as the media was. Being depicted as uneducated about the ways of the world is of course another matter.

  7. Thanks for the link to the wife's article - she has a lovely, warm style of writing.

  8. A few years back I had see "Mad City" starring John Travolta and Dustin Hoffman that also has a sub theme of how news reporter turn everything into a national spectacle. Though the movie doesn't have a great rating on "Rotten Tomatoes" but I think the portrayal of 24x7 news media was spot on. Looking forward to seeing Peepli [Live]

  9. Mercifully though, they didn't give in to the urge (very tempting) of anyone being redeemed, (either being struck by an epiphany or making a speech at the end) leaving the uneasiness hang in the air.

  10. >>But I didn't really get the impression that the villagers were being satirised as much as the media was. Being depicted as uneducated about the ways of the world is of course another matter.

    Heh, not just the media -the politicians and the bureaucrats also - I loved the bits where they can't find an appropriate yojana - and the Crishna's stuck record of "we are awaiting the High Court orders" and the gifting of the LalBahadur. But consider the last one - when Natha is told "see, a handpump for not dying, so imagine what you'll get for dying" - Raghubir Yadav's character is not naive, he is as exploitative as they come, just not very good at it.

    For all his duhness I thought Natha had a pretty good sense of self-preservation, no? managing to escape the media and the thugs.I thought the egg-lech scene was hilarious - how Natha is totally distraced by the eggs the bigshots are eating, when he is supposed to plead his case and is instead ogling the food.

  11. I don't consider the colour-of-shit scene too exaggerated, TV news comes too close to that thing.

    For another absurdist comedy about media madness, watch Sidney Lumet's Network.

  12. Sudipto: forgot about Network - now there's another film that brilliantly anticipates the world of reality TV!

    I thought the egg-lech scene was hilarious - how Natha is totally distraced by the eggs the bigshots are eating, when he is supposed to plead his case and is instead ogling the food.

    Radhika: that shot was also quite telling, I thought - a reminder of how people are hard-wired to focus on very short-term benefits and lose sight of the larger picture, even when they are in dire straits.

  13. I was keeping away from this post till I had seen the movie myself ! I would love to read a proper review from you - though I don't know if you plan to write one. Even though the movie was funny in its satirization of media ( which was in no way exaggerated - I don't watch news on TV anymore and there is a good reason why) I left the movie hall feeling incredibly depressed. The movie is definitely centered around Natha's plight as a farmer in today's India with largely urban capitalist focus and the reduction of rural India as that of a gullible vote bank.
    The reference to Prem Chand's Godaan with Hori's story line was also poignant.

  14. Nice post. Havent seen this.
    Going by your review, the film appears to be closer in spirit to Capra's Meet John Doe or Sturges' Hail the Conquering Hero than to either Ace in the Hole or Network.

    I found the latter two films way too serious, cynical and self-absorbed. Network especially was hard to watch what with all the overwrought dialogue.

  15. Vipula: thanks for the Godaan reference - I should have spotted it, especially since I saw a play adapted from the story just a few months ago.

    shrikanth: no, Peepli Live is definitely closer in tone to Ace in the Hole and Network than to Capra or Sturges.

  16. Except for the fact that unknown, uglier and therefore more appealing faces got more screen space and time, the film left me absolutely cold. Natha's silence didnt make me wonder why he doesnt speak (except make me laugh when he does), medi...a farce is overdone and the accidental martyrdom of the small-town-honest-reporter left me asking whose story does the film want to stay with - Natha's, Rakesh's or Hooriya's?. Urban/Rural dichotomy is too readily constructed - Opportunism=Urban, Innocence=Villagers/Peasants. The only time the film got my gut was when Natha dreams of riding a grandly decorated horse, a very special moment but one that is unfortunately lost because the film is desperate to make us laugh, then make us weep.