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IFFLA 2011 Diary: Peepli Live (2010)

By Shekhar Deshpande • Published on April 14, 2011

The Guardian called this film Slumdog’s arthouse cousin (which is why it doesn’t have much prospects at the box office). By all accounts, the film has won wide acclaim and is now available in this country as a DVD as well. It is a complex work, requiring much more extended attention but a brief note in a running film festival will have to do.

Watching this film on its own, separating it from its publicity (hard as it is), including Amir Khan’s fairly successful blitz giving interviews on public radio in this country, the film begins hesitantly on the terrain of satire. It begins as a narrative with a setting that is not usual for Bollywood but has become familiar in the alternative, independent films of late. There are two dimensions here. First, there have been quite a few films, mostly tragic, about the farmers’ suicides, both documentaries and narrative films. Then there is the perpetual problem of designing a narrative and an aesthetic for an audience that gives international awards. This is not a small task, to navigate in a minefield that has been defined. Former journalist, now a film maker Anusha Rizvi begins this film and cannot escape precisely this dilemma. Although later in its progression the narrative moves into the realm of satire, it begins with signs of being yet another dramatic narrative about the crisis. Given the idiotic dimensions of bureaucracy and the corruption of politicians, the switch to the mode of satire does not seem convincing at the beginning. Many of the conventions for the populist satires have been set up already, including for films like Wag the Dog (1997) or The Truman Show (1998), not to speak of the Naked Gun series.  These films make no bones about setting up the satire in a convincing way. This transition, the setting up of the genre for the narrative is important. To this end, the film comes short. This difficulty could well be a testament to its courage in handling an issue that is too real to be taken lightly or made fun of.

From that point on, the film is on a territory of boldness. The rapid and intrusive expansion of “media-think” has become so pernicious and its alignment with the politicians so inextricable that Peepli Live (2010) is a courageous film. If Slumdog is going to have more cousins like these, let the procreation begin. This is a mature film that is not just handling something that is explosive and tragic but one that also begets questions and thinking long after the lights have come on. This maturity invites us to watch more from Anusha Rizvi and patrons like Amir Khan. Speaking of which, this ethic of putting your money where your mouth is, by catering to the populist taste to fund meaningful projects, which is what Amir Khan seems to be doing lately, is altogether commendable. We ought to encourage him to dance and prance his looks around in popular films so he can bring all that income to projects like this.

Does the film become excessive at times, including a scene where a reporter goes to the feces of a character to pontificate about how it tells us of the state-of-mind of the creator? It is unfair to ask questions of such attempts when we overlook the excesses in other quarters of our public life. That includes the excesses of media institutions and brutal cold heartedness of a system that lets farmers kill themselves because we cannot come up with a comprehensive plan to find remedies for their financial, agricultural and psychological conditions. We ought to sharpen our tools of satire and comedy, our sense of inquiry and our sense of indignation and welcome more statements like these.

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