To claim that a movie is underrated is a daunting and bold move to say the least and I take on this task as I hope to convince you, the reader, that Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live is, generally speaking, an underrated film.
A poor farmer considers suicide to get compensation from the government so that his family can pay back a loan and not lose his ancestral land, which was offered as collateral to the bank. This accurate description of the premise of the movie brings with it bleak images of a malnourished farmer in the gloom of poverty making heroic sacrifices just to keep his family alive. I asked two of my friends to guess which movie I was describing when I read to them this premise. Friend one guessed Lagaan and friend two, after saying with an air of confidence that she knew which movie it was, stated that it had Shahid Kapoor in it. Amused by the answers so far, I asked them which genre they thought the movie is in, to which their answers were “drama” and “since it’s Bollywood, I think they must’ve given it a romantic angle”. Hidden in these answers are two of my arguments. Firstly, these answers re-establish that Peepli Live is indeed not talked about enough and secondly that credit must be given to the writer of the film to even begin to think of this story as a satirical comedy.
Satire has existed since ancient times. Yet, satirical films have not perfected the art and they often make the mistake of coming off as preachy. This is where Peepli Live excels, as it comments on important topics purely through the philosophy of ‘show, don’t tell’ and it does so without a sense of haughtiness or superiority. Natha, the farmer who has committed to killing himself, finds himself alienated by a lack of empathy or personal connection as every entity around him sees him as a means to the end of their own needs. The media is shown having an absolute lack of respect for the privacy of Natha or any of his family members. The politicians only pretend to care for Natha as they put up a show in front of the media so that they can garner support for themselves to ensure a win in the upcoming elections. Even his own elder brother casually dismisses him and manipulates him to do otherwise when Natha speaks of not wanting to die. This is why it leaves a lasting effect when Natha, upon finding comfort in no one else, hugs a domestic goat, pets him and stares off into the distance for what seems like an eternity.
Apart from the obvious comment on how local politicians aggressively politicise an issue for their own agenda, the commentary on media is profound. The experienced journalists know what they’re there for: a sensational headline. These journalists compete to get the most dramatic statement from the family members or friends. It’s comical how unmoved Natha’s family members are by the whole pandemonium and they can’t give the journalists the emotional, sensational headline they’re looking for. The journalists try to dramatise even the blandest of statements by these family members by rephrasing whatever they say to mean something completely different. All the media seems to focus on for that period of time is Natha and how his death (or the lack of it) will influence the elections in Mukhya Pradesh, ignoring and abandoning any other events of equal or more importance. This portrayal of the media, apart from being apt, is all the more relevant to the Indian society today, considering how the death of a famous personality can overshadow other news of considerable gravity for months simply because the former would place the channel higher on the TRP list.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s character, Rajesh, is a small-time journalist working for a local paper hoping to make it big and influence the world with his sense of righteousness. Rajesh’s naïveté and simplicity are explicit in his introduction scene, where he is seen reciting his poems on politics and corruption. It’s this same naïveté that seems to end on a bitter note when he notices how the media system he wants to get into won’t care for another farmer, Hori Mahto, a friend he made, who died from overworking and starvation while digging the same ditch he used to dig every day. The fundamental issue here is the same: the sad plight of farmers in our country. But can you guess if Hori Mahto’s death is covered by the media while the Natha agenda is going on? I know the answer won’t comfort you.
Peepli Live is an underrated film we need to take about more. It made me respect true journalism.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.