In 2004 the Indian government announced a program to provide cash payments to the family of farmers who had committed suicide because of crippling debt. The federal government would provide 50,000 rupees ($1,136), in addition to the 150,000 rupees ($3,400) compensation provided by the state government.
This bit of recent history provides the plot for “Peepli Live”, an Indian movie that was an official selection at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival (a Bollywood first) and that opens in NYC on August 13th.
Natha (Onkar Das) and Budhia (Raghuvir Yadav) are two lower-caste (dalit) brothers who have been eking out a living as farmers on the outskirts of Peepli, a village in Uttar Pradesh. When debt overtakes them–mostly a function of being forced to buy seeds from an imperialist agribusiness–they trudge off to the center of town to throw themselves at the mercy of a local politician surrounded by his entourage. They tell him that unless he lends them the necessary funds, they will lose their land. He and his henchmen find this quite amusing. Just before sending them on their way, he tells them that they should kill themselves and take advantage of the government program.
Afterwards, Budhia and Natha sit down to talk about the feasibility of cashing in on the government program. Since Budhia, the older brother, is a bachelor, it only makes sense for Natha to kill himself. Once they return to the house they share, you can almost understand why Natha would carry out such a desperate act. His wife is a harridan who yells at him constantly, when she is not beating him. Their aged and bed-ridden mother is also a miserable wretch who has as little use for Natha’s wife as she has for him. You are not dealing with the mutually supportive and loving Joad family of “Grapes of Wrath”, to say the least.
Meanwhile, Indian television and newspapers have begun to take notice of the suicide epidemic. When a newspaper reporter (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a job that can almost be described as lower-caste in relationship to television reporting, overhears the two brothers discussing their plans, he writes an article that is picked up by a glamorous and cynical TV reporter (Malaika Shenoy), who is a female version of Anderson Cooper. She, the print journalist, and just about every other news outlet swoop in on Peepli to provide ongoing coverage of the first farmer to kill himself just to collect a cash award.
Once the movie takes this turn, it is much less about the plight of impoverished farmers and much more about the chicanery of the news media and politicians. The TV cameramen follow Natha relentlessly even when he goes out into the field to take a crap. Of course, the big question is when he will finally do it. Committing suicide becomes as compelling a story as winning the jackpot in “Slumdog Millionaire”. As such, the movie’s closest relative is Frank Capra’s “Meet John Doe”, a 1941 movie about a newspaper columnist who prints a fake letter from an unemployed “John Doe,” threatening suicide in protest of society’s ills. The letter generates a national John Doe movement that the paper’s publisher uses as a catapult for his own political ambitions, just as transpires in “Peepli Live”.
While it is of some significance that such a film has been produced, given the urgency of the peasant suicide phenomenon in India, it is hobbled by a lack of strong and sympathetic characters. The two brothers are depicted as inarticulate pot-smoking slackers who almost seem responsible for their own financial ruin, while the media people are as repulsive as the film makers intended. All in all, you feel alienated from the entire world they live in. In some ways, there is a misanthropic streak in this movie that reminds me a bit of Billy Wilder’s work, especially “The Big Carnival”, a 1951 work that stars Kirk Douglas as a newspaper reporter about as repulsive as the television personalities in “Peepli Live”. IMDB summarizes “The Big Carnival” as follows:
Ex-New York reporter Charles Tatum lands a job on a Albuquerque newspaper in hopes that a sensational story will return him to the big time. When a man is trapped in an Indian cave, Tatum conspires with an unscrupulous sheriff to keep him there until the story can build to national proportions, which it does.
The cynical, unethical and unscrupulous journalist Chuck Tatum arrives at a small New Mexico newspaper asking for a chance. He was fired from famous newspapers because of drinking, lying and even for having an affair with the wife of one of his bosses. His real intention is to use the small newspaper as a platform to reach a bigger one. After one year without any sensational news and totally bored, Chuck travels with a younger reporter to cover a story about rattlesnakes. When they arrive at an isolated gas station, he is informed that a man called Leo Minosa is trapped alive in an old Indian mine in a nearby place called the Mountain of the Seven Vultures. Chuck manipulates the local corrupt sheriff, the engineer responsible for the rescue operation and Leo’s wife Lorraine Minosa, so that a rescue that could have been made in twelve hours lasts six days using a sophisticated drilling system. Chuck Tatum uses the time to create a media circus. Everybody profits from the accident – everybody except the victim.
“Peepli Live” was produced by Aamir Khan, the star of “Lagaan“, the likeable movie about Indians challenging the British colonizers to a cricket match. If the Indians win, they will not have to pay an onerous land tax (lagaan). Obviously Mr. Khan has his heart in the right place when it comes to struggles by poor peasants. He also starred in “The Rising“, a thrilling epic about the Sepoy rebellion. “The Rising” is available from Netflix, but not “Lagaan”. Fortunately, you can buy a copy for very little money on amazon.com. Both are highly recommended.