PEEPLI [LIVE]. Director: Anusha Rizvi, Mahmood Farooqui. Players: Omkar Das, Raghuvir Yadav, Nowazuddin, Shalini Vatsa, Naseerudin Shah. Music: Indian Ocean. Theatrical Release (Aug 13). UTV.
ad3fb87cd0b9134a6c176a0d3f62a09d-2Aamir Khan’s mastery of the art and business of films is by now well documented (Lagaan, 3 Idiots, Taare Zameen Par). Khan is only a handful of power players in Hindi films with enough chutzpah to even attempt transforming a tiny, off-beat home production into a Big Tent event, something worthy of screening at, say, the Sundance Film Festival where, incidentally, his production Peepli [Live] was well received. Peepli Live, with good help from newbie filmmakers Rizvi and Farooqui, successfully shepherds an astounding camel of a black comedy through the pinhole of a powerful social agenda.

Set in the namesake poor farming hamlet of Peepli, the plot features destitute brothers Nathia (Das) and Budhia (Yadav), who settle on a highly unusual way to enrich themselves so they can reclaim their land schemed away by a robber land baron. Learning of half-baked rural legend about the Indian government paying a mini fortune to the families of farmers who commit suicide, the two brothers, utterly desperate, decide that one of them, Nathia to be precise, should do himself in so the surviving family, including his wife Dhaniya (Vatsa), can inherit the reward. Nathia’s morbid plan leaks out and soon ignites a media firestorm. Every media outlet wants to capture Nathia’s demise on live TV. Suddenly, the sleepy village of Peepli becomes Peepli [Live] and Nathia and Budhia’s lives are turned upside down.

ad3fb87cd0b9134a6c176a0d3f62a09d-1While the outline of Peepli is very much high farce that scores equally well as black comedy, the film also carries a strong bittersweet undertone. In India, recent reports of alarmingly high numbers of farmer suicides triggered by changes in government subsidies and falling commodity prices has been viewed as the dystopian result of a disproportionate share of New India’s prosperity benefiting urban populations at the expense of the rural poor.  Well-acted by stage actor Das and veteran character actor Yadav (Bawander, Earth), Peepli is much more than the sum of its parts.

Peepli’s mature outlook is simultaneously preposterous and enticing because the filmmakers play havoc with social and filmmaking convention.  Prepare for an extremely colorful upcountry vernacular—you will thank the gods of sub-titling—and what amounts to the onscreen uttering of those choice Hindi cusswords you last heard from your potty-mouthed uncle. A horde of satellite TV camera crews following Nathia’s routine minutely, including some bawdy private moments best left to the imagination, grabs artistic license most Hindi films shy away from. Khan draws attention to a very serious social illness with this funny, bittersweet, yet hard-to-dismiss movie. Amitabh Bachchan condemned Slumdog Millionaire as “poverty pornography” primarily intended for Western audiences. The wonderfully structured Peepli is the Slumdog Millionarefor, of, and by Indians. Standing ovation, please!

EQ: A

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