A farmer family in the fictional—but actually very real—village of Peepli is in trouble when they find out that they are going to lose the only thing they own: a piece of land, owing to a failure to repay a loan. The men of the family, Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri) and his brother, Budhia (Raghubir Yadav), go to the local politician Bhai Thakur (Sitaram Panchal) for help, where instead they are treated with such apathy and condescension that one of the politicians actually suggests that maybe they should consider suicide. A new Government scheme pays a sum of one lakh to the family of a farmer who has committed suicide as compensation. It’s meant as a joke—a cruel one—but Natha’s situation is so dire that it actually starts seeming like the only solution for his miseries.
Rakesh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a local stringer with a nose for news, chances upon the story. It leads to a small report in a vernacular newspaper and before long, it has snowballed into something else entirely, moving further and further from the real issue at hand. If it sounds familiar—you are welcome to read into its present-day echoes with the way the Sushant Singh Rajput case has played out, if you want to—it only goes to prove that the the film’s sharp satirical edges haven’t blunted 10 years after its release. Peepli Live becomes a story about how a tragedy is mined for political gains and the media helps amplify it.
Even in otherwise well-made films and series–the recent Paatal Lok calls to mind–the depiction of the TRP-hungry Indian news media is cartoonish and too on-the-nose. Peepli Live’s observations on the media are incisive, which it shows missing out on other stories because it focusses all its energies on one that’s well past its expiry date.
We get that angle from the story of Hori Mahato, an old farmer with a wiry body from the same village who toils all day in the field, digging the ground with his hoe non stop until one day he is dead. We also see the media using up its resources for a story that shouldn’t be a story at all, like one about Saif Ali Khan kissing a girl when he was in 8th standard in school, which is discussed with hilarious seriousness in a Hindi TV newsroom in the early stages of the film.
The writer and co-director (along with Mahmood Farooqui) of the film, Anusha Rizvi, a former NDTV journalist herself, doesn’t spare anyone. In her film the haughty jeans and kurti wearing TV journalist (an aptly cast Malaika Shenoy) close to Delhi’s political elite isn’t any better than the sensationalistic Kumar Deepak (Vishal Omprakash), the star reporter of the Hindi channel, who finds a story even in Natha going to the field to defecate in the morning, and ultimately analyses the faeces to find out more about his state of mind.
Part of the reason why the film hasn’t lost its sting is because it doesn’t preach. No one’s a saint. Even Raghubir Yadav’s character despite his fraternal affection would rather his brother take his life than he–in a delightful scene, they debate over which among the two should commit suicide. Natha is a bit of a bum, getting scolded by his wife Dhaniya (Shalini Vatsa) at home for not being useful. Peepli Live doesn’t want your crocodile tears. It expects you have a conscience, a value embodied by the character played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui. In what is now seen as one of his pre-stardom roles, Siddiqui does wonderful things with his eyes, especially in a scene where the hotshot TV journalist he used to look up to has a fall from grace.
In the end, the character dies, unnoticed to all. Everybody thinks it was Natha who was killed in the explosion that’s caused by an accident (but we know he has escaped). In the last scene, we see him among the rubble of the big city, in a construction site with other labourers, his face whitened by the dust. It’s the final image of the film and it haunts you.
Peepli Live is streaming on Netflix