Thursday 23 September 2010

Buying the farm: "Peepli [Live]"

Peepli [Live], produced by the Bollywood megastar Aamir Khan, takes the real-life phenomenon of growing suicide rates among Indian farmers as the basis for a droll - sometimes strained - black comedy: part Dead Man's Curve, part Ace in the Hole. Two brothers who've seen their agricultural efforts bested by an American multinational ("Senmonto") learn a) their bank is all set to foreclose on them, and b) the Indian government pays out 100,000 rupees in compensation to relatives of those farmers who've taken their own lives. Realising this leaves them worth more dead than alive, the younger sibling announces his plans for imminent self-sacrifice - a bold statement that results in first local, then national headlines.

The government's immediate response is to send the farmers a water pump, but no means to plumb it in - a development that assumes extra resonance in light of the current Commonwealth Games debacle, not to mention a neat symbol of the disconnection between India's rural and urban centres. With the incumbent local MP - fearing public humiliation - vowing to kill anyone who even thinks of dying, and an opposition candidate from the Backward Caste Party entering the fray, it's left to the mainstream media to fill the void with their usual tact and diplomacy, flocking en masse to a village few of their number had previously heard of, and driven by the demands of rolling news to provide full analysis of the farmer's poop, and how exactly it relates to his troubled state of mind.

It's an appealingly passive, rather bovine performance from Omkar Das in the lead role, and Peepli [Live] proves mildly hobbled by sympathy for its protagonist: the script, for one, can't even bring itself to think about how the farmer might top himself. A weird tension creeps in as we wonder whether the film is going to negotiate a happy ending unimaginable to those the scenario has been inspired by; in the end, it finds a way of unifying country and city that's both neat and not entirely in synch with what's gone before. Generally, writer/director Anusha Rizvi offsets the raucousness - chiefly care of a bedridden mother-in-law who spends most of the film out of her box on the local dope - with more tragic elements, like the painfully thin figure we observe from afar digging a hole that turns out to be his own grave. It's a little overstretched, and the comedy could do with a bit more oomph, but it absolutely underlines Khan's commitment to pressing social themes: even the big mid-film musical number is about the damaging effects of inflation.

Peepli [Live] opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

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