By Casey Cooney
Aug. 16, 2010 8:04 p.m.
A small village in India erupts into chaos, the streets filled with journalists and news vans, cameras swarming like flies into the shack of a poor South Indian farmer. The outsiders wait in this foreign surrounding with anticipation, and only one question remains: When will this farmer commit suicide?
This question is the central issue in Anusha Rizvi and Mahmood Farooqui’s “Peepli Live,” a Hindi comedy about the clash of culture in modern-day India. The narrative is based on the reports from the late 1990s that documented increasing suicide rates among small farmers in the Indian countryside, and the problems with government response and organization.
The story focuses on Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri), a bumbling Indian farmer who is struggling between providing for his family and coping with his laziness and irresponsibility. Natha finds his solution in a legislative loophole that provides welfare assistance for struggling farm families, that is, if the farmer commits suicide.
The humor is derived mainly from exploiting the increasingly bizarre circumstances that arise with a decision to commit suicide for profit. Slowly, the government and media learn that farmers are beginning to kill themselves in droves to collect on the welfare, with Natha becoming the poster child for the struggling agricultural economy.
Natha quickly begins to realize that the threat of suicide may be more lucrative than actually going through with it. The government’s attention has resulted in local families receiving aid to prevent any further public relations nightmares. The central problem is that Natha has backed into a corner in which he might actually have to kill himself to justify the spotlight.
“Peepli Live” manages to create a humorous but insightful take on the wealth gap between urban and rural life in modern-day India. Throughout the story, the juxtaposition of farm and urban life makes clear the wealth divide that actually pushed some farmers to go through with suicide as a way out.
The city life is depicted as senseless and too preoccupied with re-election smear campaigns and increased ratings rather than the welfare of its citizens. Everyone in the film tries to take advantage of the country bumpkin stereotype in Natha, but in the end he manages to outwit even the most cunning politicians.
The weakness of the film stems from the way the characters develop. Natha is likable when he is the butt of a slapstick gag, but his character never fully develops. Even at the end of the story, he’s still a bumbling idiot running away from his responsibilities. Natha is depicted as a victim in the final moments of the film, but the somberness seems lost on a character that seemed genuinely unconcerned with political consequences.
One of the main problems is in the presentation of some of the serious political statements in relation to the comedy. The ending attempts to make a statement about farmers’ rights in Indian society. Unfortunately, the film never really makes a strong case for the farmers’ situation to begin with, choosing to use the farm community as one of the bigger comedic sources.
The visual aspect of the film, however, is one of the film’s strong points. Cinematographer Shanker Raman carefully juxtaposes the open fields and earthy charm of the village with the confined nature of the urban sprawl. The visual technique helps to highlight the director’s intent on analyzing the spectrum of urban and rural life in India.
But the film’s charm may be partly lost on a Western audience. Some of the cultural elements are uniquely Indian, like the specific political parties and the strict class divisions that some of the humor plays upon. Natha’s suicide plot is approached as an oddly lighthearted situation, which could likely turn some viewers off from the central message of the film.