Cast: Omkar Das Manikpuri, Raghubir Yadav, Malaika Shenoy, Naseeruddin Shah
Director: Anusha Rizvi
The very opening scene of 'Peepli Live' establishes the film's villager protagonist Natha as a dreamer. It's unlikely however that even in his wildest dreams Natha (played by Omkar Das Manikpuri) might have imagined the nationwide frenzy he inadvertently goes on to create when he decides to kill himself. Buried under enormous debts and his land mortgaged to pay off his loans, Natha is manipulated by his brother Budhia (played by Raghubir Yadav) to commit suicide so his surviving family can live off the government's compensation.
But nothing goes according to plan. Once the press gets whiff of the story, a media circus unfolds in front of Natha's house in the obscure village of Peepli. Every journalist wants to cash in on the 'live suicide' by a now reluctant Natha. Immediately politicians jump in too: with elections around the corner, everyone from the local corporator, right up to the Union Agricultural Minister exploits the situation for their vote banks.
A scathing satire on the country's apathy towards the rural class, and specifically towards farmers, 'Peepli Live' employs a comic tone to tell a serious story. The witty script turns Natha into something of a local celebrity, who draws out the true character and motivations of all those who cross his path.
And no one is spared. Director Anusha Rizvi, herself a former journalist, exposes the television media with an unflinching, accurate eye. Hindi news channel reporters are portrayed as insensitive and sensational, shown sticking a mike into his bed-ridden mother's face, and going so far as to make a story out of Natha's faeces even. But Rizvi is equally critical of the supposedly superior English news media, lending a ruthless streak to a hotshot female anchor.
The director displays solid confidence while handling the media swoop-down on Natha; and in one particularly well-written scene between the prominent English anchor and an earnest local reporter, points out how journalism has become less about the issue and more about the story. But Rizvi appears less assured when it comes to her portrayal of the politicians in 'Peepli Live'. Each is squeezing the situation dry for personal profit - that point is well made. But after a while, this depiction becomes labored, and what we get is the crooked politician cliché. In a film like 'Peepli Live', this sticks out like a sore thumb. What's more, after opening on a high note, the film slips into a somewhat predictable rhythm.
Holding your interest until the end is Rizvi's strong thread of humour, like the bellowing cat-fights between Natha's ancient, beedi-smoking mother, and his no-nonsense wife played with glorious anger by the excellent Shalini Vatsa.
The script of 'Peepli Live' is a honed, precise affair, leading the viewer into exactly the world it wants to present. There are layers to it, if you look closer. On the surface, the film is about the farmer's plight and how he is exploited. Yet it also speaks about the gaping divide between the haves and have-nots, in a society where the haves are increasingly becoming have-mores and no attention is paid to the have-nots.
Giving the film an authentic edge is its terrific cast that slips naturally into the parts Rizvi envisioned. Nawazuddin Siddiqui channels pathos and disillusionment into the role of Rakesh, the local journo whose story sets off the pandemonium. As Nandita, the abrasive English newsperson who first descends on Peepli to exploit Natha's story, Malaika Shenoy brings out the media's unhealthy over-competitive edge with precision. Vishal Sharma is disturbingly familiar as the smarmy Hindi reporter Kumar Deepak, for whom no detail is too small to spin into a melodramatic story. Of the leads, Raghubir Yadav effortlessly displays both the helplessness of the cornered farmer and the cunning of an elder brother manipulating Natha like a puppeteer. And finally, Omkar Das Manikpuri suffuses Natha with child-like emotions; there's an innocence to him that's immediately endearing to the viewer. Watch how he unsuccessfully tries to shoo away a goat that's nibbling at his hair while he sleeps, finally giving in to his instinct and comforting the animal tenderly. The actor has barely any dialogue in the film, but says so much through the resigned slump of his shoulders and his bewildered expressions.
Helped enormously by a rousing soundtrack, armed with a tight, intuitive script and a confident directorial approach, Rizvi turns 'Peepli Live' into a simplistic yet engaging picture of a sad reality. I'm going with three-and-a-half out of five for writer-director Anusha Rizvi's 'Peepli Live'. It's an unusual story told in a bittersweet voice. Watch it because it's an important story and because it's made with heart.
Rating: 3.5 / 5