Aamir Khan’s Peepli [Live] is now on its way to the Oscars. Poverty porn redux.
The press is full of praise, and everyone suddenly wants to discuss the film. This is the irony of the Indian creative and performing arts; it fails to find critical or aesthetic appreciation by the masses, but swoons over what the white man says. It was the same with Rajneeti some months earlier. It is almost a week since the Oscars announcement came out, so my guess is that no one is going to be interested in a review, a critique or a retelling of the plot. If you haven’t seen it yet, go do so. You can always come back and read this later.
We happened to watch the film maybe two weeks after it released, it was playing two screenings only at a multiplex, and it was a weekend, so we were worried that we might not get tickets. I am not very familiar with the ways of the box office and popular cinema, so I was unable to answer a query raised by a friend later about whether there were any other big releases around when we watched it. There were less than 20 people in the theater. The movie begins by setting its signature style, that of dark satire borrowing heavily from nautanki interpreted by state of the art filmography and cinematic storytelling techniques. Like Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, the film picks up its pace slowly and intensely. As the dialog, the dialect, and the dilemma roll out, the audience in the theater starts laughing and giggling. Was it an endorsement of the resilient Indian spirit that can live through the most sordid reality without being affected? I am perhaps not qualified to comment, and would leave it to the authorities who felt nothing was wrong in the mismanagement of the commonwealth games arrangements.
There are several threads expertly woven together by Anusha Rizvi in this debut of her’s. First is the issue of economic development, which instead of building lives, is snuffing them out. The poignancy of the closing sequence of the film played out on the "land scape" of Gurgaon bears it out better than any news story. The second is the irony of poverty which creates a perspective and a value system that most of us would be unable to identify with. The very things we hold precious, life, respect, trust, love, and other such “sentimentalities,” lose their meaning when seen from this perspective. The third thread is that of the media. The film captures perfectly how “poverty struck” the media really is, and that the mediaperson with a sense of social responsibility (a brilliantly underplayed role by Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is as good as a dead man. The sad truth that in this digital age when the power to initiate change is so easily given to the hands of media groups, instead of using it to enhance life, they are more focused on ratings, sensationalism, and being there first, even if it is a piece of turd that the viewer gets to see. The fourth thread is that of politics as we know it in India where the idealism that one (I hope) associates with names like Lal Bahadur Shastri and Jawaharlal Nehru are reduced to tokenisms in the vote bank game. It is pointless to dwell on the portrayal of the state of politics and politicians in India since we as a people have chosen to be governed by the corrupt and the incompetent. We are a perfect example of what democracy does to an uncaring populace.
The film is relevant for a number of reason, and it addresses issues that are in urgent need of correction. But will it change things? All a poet can do is warn. Will we heed the warning? Time will tell us. I have experienced with my own life that almost nobody learns by listening, and that the lessons best learned are those learned by suffering. Have we as a people suffered enough? Do farmer suicides bother us? Does the wiping out of indigenous culture bother us? Are we affected by the devious machinations of the media? Does the fact that the candidates in fray for elections are almost always people with criminal pasts and an excellent track record in corruption stop us from getting them elected? The truth is out there for all of us to see.
What this film also conveys is the need to assess how the morality of modern India is being forged by the changing ethos of rural India and tier 3, tier 4 cities. Modern India, and especially the India of tomorrow is not in the metros, but in the 95% of the population that lives outside them. With limited if any access to basic needs and without recourse to redress, they are evolving an attitude of anything goes. Be it in the field of basic amenities, education, vocational training, healthcare, or the justice system, the larger India is shortchanged at every turn by the very system it elects and endorses. One cringes at the thought that retribution for this is forthcoming, not just for the perpetrators of this crime, but for all of us who stand silently by.
While filmmaking is a profession for those who have made this film, it is worthy to note the effort that has gone into promoting this film worldwide, especially by Amir Khan himself, since the film is everything that a bollywood film is not meant to be, no stars, a host of new faces and names, and a theme that even Satyajit Ray got bad parliament for. The film also showcases the brilliant work by Indian Ocean, a band that has stuck to its guns and produced world class indigenous music consistently for close to 20 years. A popular reviewer lamented that the greatness of this band has been unrecognized and wished that they did more films.
The truth is that they have not only scored music for several other film projects, most of which were shelved or poorly promoted or sometimes deliberately unpromoted for reasons best known to the powers that be, but they are also the first band in India to make a full length documentary on their work, called Leaving Home, a must watch for all music lovers. The cinematography by Shankar Rehman is as vital as the story with probing pans and tilts, and a colorists fantasy, using the brightness of costumes, auto rickshaws, billboard and landscape as a perfect foil to the grimness and pointlessness of the lives of all the characters.
Like in the movie, once the story is over and the OB vans roll out and leave the village littered with urban debris, I too resumed my mundane life, the prick of conscience fleeting, and the thrill of being ahead in the rat-race momentarily much more rewarding. A group of Kashmiri students stopped us on our way back from the theater (we live across the road from it) asking for help for the Kashmiri victims, I patted them on the shoulder and said, not now, no time. I spent a while justifying that I had no way of knowing what my “help” would be used for. As I read about the CWG farce, and the Oscars list, I wonder if my taxes are worth paying any more than supporting those who stand up against this ridiculous political system of ours.
Update: You might also like my review of Kahaani, the film where Nawazuddin Siddiqui really got noticed by mainstream cinema before going on to star in Gangs of Wasseypur. It is likely that you would have already read my more popular post on Aamir Khan's TV Show, Satyameva Jayate.