The best political satires, like Jaane bhi do yaaro, handle challenging subjects with wry humor, and yet manage to leave the audience feeling sad and aware. Anusha Rizvi's debut film Peepli Live treads a similar delicate ground, offering a successful farce that nevertheless packs a meaningful punch.
Brothers Budhiya (Raghuvir Yadav) and Natha (Omkar Das) are struggling to stay afloat; the bank is about to foreclose on their farm. They learn of a government program that pays a substantial sum to the families of farmers who commit suicide due to debt, and Budhiya convinces the hapless, melancholy Natha that taking advantage of this program is the best way forward. A local newspaper reporter Rakesh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) publishes a small piece about Natha's intentions, and before long the story is picked up by a star television reporter Nandita (Malaika Shenoy). A vast media circus follows Nandita into Natha's remote little village as hundreds of reporters descend hoping for a piece of the sensational "live suicider" story. But reporters aren't the only ones hoping to make hay out of Natha's plight - state politicians fighting a bitter election and even the national Minister of Agriculture, Salim (Naseeruddin Shah), all leap on the opportunity to spin the Natha story to advance their own agendas. Meanwhile, Natha is bewildered by the flurry of attention - and doesn't want to die.
A subject like the problem of farmer suicides almost has to be handled with a satirical edge, or the film would be unbearably depressing. And really Peepli Live is more about the press's sensationalist mentality and the government's fundamental insincerity than it is about farmer suicides or the plight of poor rural Indians. Budhiya and Natha, while sympathetic, seem rather indolent; they are never once shown working a field, but are often shown smoking and gabbing with their neighbors. Meanwhile the circus swarms around them. The press are so desperate for an angle that reporters shoot film of Natha's clothesline and analyze his excrement. The politicians scramble to one-up each other in disingenuous concern, showering Natha with useless gifts. Everyone capitalizes on Natha's plight - reporters grabbing ratings, electioneers grabbing votes, and even Natha's fellow villagers who pitch vendor stalls and carnival rides to entertain the visiting throngs. Peepli Live presents all of these maneuverings with a healthy dose of humor, and the movie does offer quite a few wry smiles and even genuine laughs among them.
Another of the movie's themes is the great gulf that exists between India's urban, urbane middle class and its rural poor. On this theme Peepli Live's exploration is most layered - it relies not only upon the obvious clashes of culture, but also on subtleties of casting, costuming, and performance that make the audience's experience of this disconnect almost visceral. In one scene the flawless line of trimmed whiskers of the Chief Minister's moustache presents a stark contrast to Budhiya's grizzled face and Natha's wild unkempt curls and beard. The farmers stand rooted and hunched while the slick, tall Nandita strides around them. Even the putative leader of the backward castes wears slick aviator sunglasses as he presents Natha with a gift of a television that Natha's hut lacks electricity to run. The politicians wear neat, high-quality, expensive clothes; the reporters wear slick modern-style shirts and designer jeans; the villagers wear moth-eaten sweaters and rags. In one scene, Natha slips and falls in a pile of dung, and then just gets up and keeps on walking. It reminded me of the exchange in Monty Python and the Holy Grail - "How do you know he's a king?" "He hasn't got shit all over 'im."
Among the outsiders, only Rakesh begins to see across this great gulf, and to recognize the depth of the villagers' poverty not just as a vehicle for political advancement or ratings, but as a deep injustice and a real national crisis. He takes an interest in the story of another Peepli farmer who lost his land to foreclosure, and now digs ditches just to sell the dirt - but, Nandita tells him, marketing research says the only bankable story is Natha's threatened suicide. Peepli Live deals Rakesh an unutterably cruel blow that is both sucker-punch and wake-up call to the audience. The abrupt change of tone is jarring, and yet it would be disingenuous of Peepli Live not to end with a dark and serious turn. After all, if the audience gets to laugh all the way through the story and leave feeling cheerful, we've exploited Natha's misery just as surely as Nandita, Salim, and their ilk do.