So, if “bought the farm” means died, then what does “is about to have the farm confiscated” mean?
Natha Das Manekpuri and his brother Budhia take a long journey from the village of Peepli in the fictional state of Mukhya Pradesh to the city to talk with people at the bank. After…all day, they return to their farm with bad news. They could not repay the loan and the bank will auction the farm. A farm that their forefathers owned. Their elderly mother, Amma, sinks even deeper into the misery that she was already going through. Natha’s wife, Dhania, chases both men out of the house, accusing them of drinking the money away. This makes their two children cry, along with Amma.
The next day, Natha and Budhia go into the village talk to local leader Bhai Thakur, in hopes that he might help them out. Budhia starts out by offering to help with the Samman Party election campaign, which Thakur and his people laugh off. So, Budhia tells them about the unpaid loan. Thakur tells them to go to the government, since they had gone to the government for the loan in the first place and not to him.
One of Thakur’s associates, Gudda Babu, mentions a government program in the South where farmers who commit suicide due to debt can get 100,000 Rupees (1364.82 USD) compensation. He jokes that farmer suicide is becoming a fashion trend. Thakur cannot help but laugh as he suggests that Natha and Budhia give that a try. Then the political clique leaves, shouting out slogans in support of Bhai Thakur and Chief Minister Ram Yadav.
They walk back home, stopping to talk with a few friends smoking under a tree. They mention the suicide compensation, which strikes the others as ridiculous. One of the friends says that the government should just buy up the farms and the farmers can move to the city. Although, one starts to think…what if someone is really ill and unable to provide? Perhaps the compensation will help the family.
The brothers walk some more when they come across someone who tells them that a man from another village was run over by a train. They walk further through the village only to be stopped by a guy who tells them that a woman jumped into a well and died.
They finally return home and are moving Amma’s…cot…out of the shade when Dhania asks what Bhai Thakur said. Budhia tells her about the suicide suggestion. When Dhania assumes that he must have provoked Thakur, that leads to a shouting match between them, with Budhia slamming down the cot (doubtlessly causing pain to his mother’s head) and storming off. Unable to scold her son after he left, Amma turns her anger on Dhania, who throws it right back.
Budhia goes to see Gudda Babu and asks him how he learned about the suicide compensation program. Babu says that it was published in the Daily Jan Morcha newspaper. Budhia finds someone who can read to read the relevant article to him.
Budhia goes back to Natha and discusses the deal some more, telling Natha that the compensation is guaranteed. Budhia offers to do the deed, since Natha is the one with kids. But Natha says that he will do it. After some back and forth, Budhia lets Natha take it.
And now for something slightly different.
Nandita Malik, a reporter for English news show in Delhi is conducting a somewhat testy interview with Union Minister of Agriculture Salim Kidwai about the 79 farmer suicides in the past week as well as his feud with Chief Minister Ram Yadev in the leadup to the elections.
A rival Hindi news program manages to snag some soundbites from Ram Yadev when he comes to visit, in return for 15 positive news stories before the election.
Budhia goes to tell Dhania about the agreement. She doesn’t get it. Budhia doesn’t have a wife or kids; why should he get to live and not Natha? That’s the point, Budhia responds; his own death would bring nothing. Dhania does not accept that, and goes to ask Natha if Budhia has brainwashed him. But then Amma interjects, leading to another back and forth between her and Dhania. Budhia chooses to interpret Dhania’s anger for concern for her husband.
The power is out at the Daily Jan Morcha office, so Rakesh and his coworkers are just hanging out. Their boss returns and tells Rakesh to cover the Magistrate’s visit to announce a program. Rakesh does not see the point, as nothing has changed in Peepli since forever. But the power comes back on, so they have to get back to work anyways. Rakesh is too transfixed by Nandita Malik on the television to do much, but it does not matter much, since the power goes out again.
Nandita, however, is not that happy with how her job is going, having just lost an argument with her boss over puff pieces and sensationalism for the sake of the sponsors.
Rakesh arrives at the medical center to report on the magistrate’s visit, only to be told that the visit is the next day. He and his photographer go to get some tea, and overhear Natha and Budhia tell the teaseller about the suicide plan. Already annoyed at what he sees as a non-story regarding the magistrate, Rakesh decides to talk to Natha.
We do not see the interaction between Rakesh and Natha, but the subsequent publishing of the article gets both Rakesh and his boss in trouble. Government Collector Avinash Nimade call them to his office, who is in the middle of a phone call with his own angry boss. Rakesh’s boss tries to throw him under the bus, but Nimade says that the newspaper license is cancelled.
Of course, it is a bit late for that. The news article gets to Bhai Thakur and Gudda Babu, who worry that this will make them look bad. They have the cops forcibly escort Nath and Budhia to their compound. Of course, suicide is illegal, so Thakur and Babu have to deny Budhia’s assertion in front of the cops that they suggested it to the brothers. Babu starts hitting them, which leads to the cops hitting them as well. Thakur warns them against even thinking of dying…or he will skin them alive. I am sure that that is illegal as well, but whatever.
The two return home and find themselves approached by Rakesh and a few members of the magistrate’s office. Still shaken by Thakur’s threats and the assault, Natha denies being Natha or ever having spoken with Rakesh. Budhia, however, is not on the same page, and gives up Natha. The magistrate representative gives him what he calls a Lal Bahadur, one of the government’s compensation programs. Natha gives his thumbprint to a document that he cannot read and the workers bring out Lal Bahadur. It is a water pump. And they…uh…just set it down on the ground. And with that, the representative tells Natha that he can no longer commit suicide. Budhia asks about getting money to install the water pump, but the representative dismisses him. Then they leave…having…saved Natha’s life? How? Natha worries that Thakur will punish them for having said anything, but Budhia reasons that if not dying got them a water pump, then surely dying will bring more. A group of village men gather around the water pump, which of course, does not pump water.
Nandita receives a phone call at work. It is unclear who is calling or what that person is saying, but one can assume that it is someone trying to leak the story about Natha’s plans for suicide. Is it Rakesh or someone trying to get her in touch with Rakesh? In any case, Nandita asks what the big deal is, and says that farmer stories are not really her forte. But she agrees to take down the information. She calls up Rakesh and agrees to a meeting.
Natha wakes up to see…a video camera in his face. Oh! Nandita and her crew are already here and are preparing to interview him. Natha was terrified of Thakur, and he is terrified of these strangers from Delhi who ENTERED HIS HOUSE WHILE HE WAS ASLEEP! Both Budhia and Nandita try to reassure him, only to have Amma start yelling.
It takes a little while, but Nandita is finally able to interview Natha. Or maybe not, but she is able to make a report, painting Natha as a martyr to disaster and a condemnation of the government.
Everyone at the rival news organization seems to be watching this report and the boss is upset that they are not covering it. He tells Deepak to have this story on prime time with a live feed. After tossing an aside about how women reporters should be banned (!), Deepak calls this a non-story. His boss disagrees: a live suicide will have political implications. And even if it does not happen, it will be a ratings smash. He has Deepak go with a team to Peepli. Deepak gets ready to leave, but states once again to his boss that no other channel will do the story.
Well, Deepak was wrong. Nandita is in the middle of manufacturing a shot of Natha and Budhia leading a goat toward the camera when Deepak’s news van arrives, accompanied by maybe a dozen other news vans from different channels. Well, Nandita no longer has an exclusive. Reporters and camera crews flood into Natha’s property, swarming around Natha, yelling questions. Around a dozen police officers arrive and attempt to maintain some form of order. But all that does is disperse the news teams to various parts of the village, interviewing utter randos about their relationship to Natha. Now Peepli itself is in the national spotlight.
Apparently, this movie had been kicking around for years. Back in 2004, journalist (for what, I am not sure) Anusha Rizvi asked superduperstar Aamir Khan to look at the script and help make the film. It took some time for him to come around, but he did agree to produce it, and Rizvi directed it with her husband, Mahmood Farooqui, acting as associate-director.
The film had great success in India and was well received overseas, being the first Indian film to compete at Sundance. That said, it was obviously not without controversy. For one thing, Rizvi seemed to believe that Khan getting too much attention compared to his involvement, and she did little to promote the film. Several of the actors sided with Khan, by the way. This may have discouraged Rizvi from attempting to make movies after this…along with…erm…perhaps more recent controversies. Additionally, a farmer advocacy group based somewhat close to where the movie was supposedly located called Vidarbha Janandolan Samiti said that the movie was an unrealistic insult to the poor farmers. I suppose that a farmer advocacy group would take offense that the movie did not really show there being an advocacy group for the farmers…at least not a sincere one. And, given the recent farmer protests in India, it at least seems as if the conversation has shifted during the past decade. There are a few other controversies, but those were the ones that I found most interesting.
It is notable that I did not really find anything about the treatment of suicide itself being controversial. Whether the suicide actually takes place, I will not say here. In terms of the overall story, though, it is not really what is important. Being that this is a satire, it is treated kind of like a joke. A cruel joke, but a joke nonetheless. Suicide, and death, seem to be treated as an everyday thing by the people in the movie, more of an inconvenience than anything else. The greater discussion surrounding the farmer suicides focuses more on whether they reflect badly on the government or not, as opposed to what the farmers are experiencing and what they need. And the media circus is…well…a circus.
Peepli Live supposedly shares similarities with his 2006 Malayam-language film Pakal. And, maybe; I could not find that movie with English subtitles. It seems like that movie is about a heroic reporter who braves the odds to become an advocate for farmers in a village. This movie…is not that. I guess that Rakesh is kind of heroic…maybe…but only because he tries to avoid being cynical professionally, even if he may be one in real life. To be honest in his reporting. As a journalist, though, he is just one person in a sea of liars, and his fight against the tide is not exactly unwavering.
Director Rizvi seems to have had few qualms about portraying her profession in a thoroughly negative light. Natha’s suicide is a big deal only because it has not happened yet and might be avoided. The phrase “live suicide” gets thrown around a bit. If his story did not get picked up, then the news organizations would just run with some minor non-scandal about a celebrity or some nonsense about a sacred pumpkin. The reporters pretend to care deeply in their reporting, but it is obvious that they are all just jerking tears for ratings. Sheer misery porn. And if they can pretend that their reporting had an effect on the upcoming elections, then even better. Nandita may truly desire to cover real news stories in a substantive way, but when it comes to outcomes, she can be as bad as the rest of them.
This is not exactly new ground, no. When he heard about this movie, John Travolta seemed to say that it must have been inspired by his movie Mad City. What? Right. As if Network did not exist. I mean, Network WAS about a possible live suicide for TV ratings.
And Natha sees none of the results of this. There is a scene around halfway through the movie where Natha receives a television, perhaps so he can watch all of the news reports about his upcoming suicide. Except, I am pretty sure that he has no way of setting up that TV to watch anything if he cannot afford to keep his farm…and finding someone to buy it would probably be impractical. I did not actually think of that when I first watched the scene because of another…element of the scene that was so jaw-dropping that I could think of nothing else.
Oh, right. Natha. As the central figure in this movie, he is…erm…well, not really a protagonist. He is kind of pathetic. He is cowardly and almost always as curled up into a ball as possible. He does not really do things so much as reluctantly endure things that happen to him. He is super passive except for a few times, and only a couple of those times have any significant effect on anything. In that sense, I guess that I can relate. It is unclear how he could bring himself to do anything major, let alone something permanent to himself like commit suicide. He is kind of pathetic and, I would not really judge a viewer for not sympathizing with him. Like, sure, one can sympathize with his predicament, but…he is not so much a bad person as much as he is a nobody. He has friends, sort of. But it appears that his brother is the only one who deeply cares enough for him to sacrifice for him, even if Natha does not want it. That includes talking back to Natha’s wife and mother when they yell at him until they inevitably turn their anger against each other. Natha is probably the worst person to be subjected to such media scrutiny or political pandering…at least on his end. His cowardly passivity probably makes him the perfect subject for them.
And, the frigging politicians. I admit that I sometimes got lost in regards to who was partnered with whom and against whom, but I don’t feel like it really mattered. Again, like with the news media, this is a tale as old as The Times. From local leaders to national, from ruling to opposition, they were all in it for themselves. Their constant strategizing and maneuvering, their media soundbites, all of it was for power. Their firm stance in regards to Natha was always that his situation was their opponent’s fault. And their firm stance on whether he should go through with his suicide or not changes when their tactics do. There was one amusing scene where a couple of government workers were going through the various programs that might help Natha, only to find out that they were meant only for people who had already lost something, and not simply in immediate danger of losing. Of course, by the time Natha lost his farm, he would probably have already killed himself, rending the program useless to him.
This movie is…well, no, not for everyone. But, if you can accept the subject matter, then it can be quite funny…in a bleak sort of way.
WTF ASIA 163: Pecoross’ Mother and Her Days (Japan: 2013, approx. 113 minutes)
WTF ASIA 164: Your Name Engraved Herein (Taiwan: 2020, approx. 115 minutes)