Mocking a harsh reality

BY Nishant Upadhyay| IN Opinion | 31/08/2010
Peepli [Live] has ended up trivializing a very grave issue and fails to highlight the real plight of the farmers or the dimensions of the agrarian crisis.
The film hardly talks about the factors that may have led Natha and Budhiya to talk about suicide, says NISHANT UPADHYAY

Over 200,000 farmers have committed suicide across India since 1997. According to some reports, since 2002 a farmer commits suicide every 32 minutes. This is the harsh reality of shinning India that is always kept under the rugs. The state which is trying very hard to industrialize at all costs has declared an open war against agriculture and agrarian society. It is seeking to become a superpower by making cities its economic and political hub and making farmers leave agriculture (so that they can work as surplus cheap labor in the cities). It is this dismal state of agriculture and farmer suicides that Aamir Khan Productions' Peepli [Live] is set against. In my opinion, the film fails miserably in talking about the issues insightfully and critically. I see the agrarian crisis as a complex and mutli-layered web of relationships and processes of financial indebtedness, corporatization of agriculture, massive industrialization, trade liberalization and deprivation in farming communities, which often leads to mass migrations and displacements and suicides in many instances. The Indian state is deeply imbricated in these capitalist processes, often as the violent initiator. Struggles around land and agriculture become intrinsic parts of these processes. In the quest for realism and political satire, the film ends up mocking the harsh realities of the state of Indian agriculture and farmers.


The movie tells the story of 2 brothers, Natha and Budhiya, who are unable to repay a bank loan, are on the verge of losing their ancestral land and (Natha) consider suicide to obtain the Rs 1 lakh compensation the government pays for this act. This "sensational" news of a farmer suicide is soon picked by national news channels. The story is less about Natha but about how he becomes the focal point for a media and politician circus. His plight becomes a tool in the hands of those with power. The film offers an excellent critique of media and politicians. But that is not something very novel. What the film could have done was to give insights into the politics of suicides and agriculture. With less surprise, the film fails to do so.


Aamir Khan is touted as being new liberal, politically conscious and aware of his moral responsibilities. His previous films have to be acknowledged for raising issues like anti-colonial politics (Lagaan), "radical" student politics (Rang De Basanti), competitive pressures faced by middle class children (Taare Zameen Par) and Indian society's obsession with career oriented education (3 Idiots). Despite my strange liking for Aamir Khan and his work, I must say that these movies dealt with the issues in a very superficial way.


Peepli [Live] and its reception collectively present a pseudo liberal aura of political consciousness, intellectuality and morality.  A film that prides itself on being politically and intellectually driven (along with the audiences), and yet fails to go even a nanometer beneath the surface needs to be critiqued.


It would be unfair to say that the media has not covered the issue of farmer suicides. It has, but not enough to understand the issues clearly. Apart from the reports by P. Sainath and Vandana Shiva, there has not been much information available on the agrarian crises. Experts and intellectuals blame these suicides on trade liberalization, corporate globalization and large scale industrialization of agriculture. The beginning of the present agrarian crisis needs to be located to the 1980s when the terms of trade were going against agriculture, urban-biased policies were dominating the capitalist state policies and farming was becoming a losing proposition. The present dismal state of agriculture can be traced back to the Green Revolution and its terrible aftermath in Punjab and production of Bt-Cotton, to large scale land acquisition of agricultural lands for not-so-public projects (like SEZs, malls, sanctuaries, townships etc.), introduction of GM food crops, contract farming, land displacements and many others.


Things are so bad that the farmer can no longer sustain her family and opt for suicide as a final solution. It's not that the state is not aware of this. In fact, it is the neoliberal state that is actively working to undermine agriculture and "move" the country towards "modernity" and capitalism by adopting industries and disowning agriculture. The government's urban-centric policies are forcing farmers and agricultural laborers to move to cities. This is supposed to somehow narrow the gap between rural and urban India and lead towards a "modern and prosperous" nation. There seems to be very little understanding of how important agriculture is to Indian economy and society. How different are these issues from those that the Maoists and adivasis are fighting for? Perhaps not a whole lot. These are also not very different from the issues in Lalgarh and Nandigram. Nor are they different from struggles against dams in Uttarakhand, or against SEZs in Haryana and Maharashtra, or against sanctuaries in Rajasthan, or many other such land and agriculture related struggles across India.


Against this backdrop, Peepli [Live] hardly talks about the factors that may have led to Natha and Budhiya to talk about suicide. Somehow the film ends up trivializing and mocking such a grave issue. I wonder how hard it would have been to throw a line or two about this context in the middle of the whole mocking of individual media persons and politicians? How hard is it to critique state policies, corporate houses, class/caste relations and capitalism? I guess...very! Which class and corporate interests is the film catering to?


In the quest of neo-realism and authenticity, the cast of the film is mostly unknown and new. The village is also quite authentic. The characters are made realistic by making them swear often and speaking aggressively. The film, at moments, is no better than some orientalist images of poor India. The circulation, operation and reception of the film is a testimony to that. Is poverty a 'show' in the show-obsessed fraternity of middle class? I acknowledge that there's a thin line between being realistic and romanticizing, but how hard is it to be a little less superficial? The film attempts to attain a self-reflexive mode through the critique of the power of the camera, and fabricated reality, which, paradoxically the film itself resorts to. The film tries to critique the media portrayals of the issues and village life by shooting through the media's lens. But what is interesting is that the film itself captures the lives through the same frames and lenses. The trivializing and exotifying happens in both frames.


Caste is always downplayed in Bollywood. There's a small reference to a dalit leader hijacking Natha's suicide, but caste relations are not questioned or challenged in the film. Many reports have shown how indebtedness and agrarian failures have affected people from lower castes and class backgrounds more.


The portrayal of the female characters is also very disappointing. The English news channel reporter appears to be chasing leads for personal gain, Natha's bedridden mother is always swearing and complaining and Natha's wife is shown to be a bully. There is not a single positive female portrayal. In the hit song Mahangai, about rising prices, inflation is the husband's other woman who is eating away all the money, wreaking havoc and ruining lives. The song is also performed in an all-male gathering. From a feminist perspective what would be of relevance would be a woman’s position and interests in such crises and what happens to the women who are left behind after the man commits suicide. Many reports, like that by P. Sainath, have shown that women farmers have also committed suicides in large numbers, but the official (and unofficial) records deny these. Since women are not the legal owners of the land they are denied the label of a "farmer" and hence their suicides are not categorized as farmer suicides. Gender discrimination and imbalance is a major issue in rural India and the film is conveniently silent on it.


In the closing scene we see a sorrowful Natha working as a construction worker in Delhi. Though it's a strong moment in the narrative, it fails to provide critical insights into why Natha is there and instead makes one believe that he is there to be away from the intrusive media. This ends up trivializing the massive inflow of migrant workers to urban centers fleeing the complex problems of indebtedness, drought and deprivation. Is he in the city to escape or to survive? Why do we see so many migrant workers in the cities from agricultural areas? The changed Natha with his beard gone and shorter hair is not in the city to take 'sanyas' but find ways to survive. The real-estate and industrial boom in urban India is fuelled by the regular induction of poor migrant workers from the villages. The grand 'development' narratives of the country are realized only through the exploitation of these workers. This is missed by the film.


I must also confess that I saw this film in a posh multiplex and along with the expensive tickets also bought the giant combo deal of popcorn and drinks. I did initially feel guilty but that guilt soon withered away, when the popcorn and the drink became the only way I could sit through 96 minutes of torture. Along with the disappointment at the film, I was also annoyed that for most people the movie was a laugh riot. They laughed every time any of the village characters swore or when the two brothers spoke. In the opening scene, traveling in a tempo, Natha asks his brother what will happen if the land is sold. It is a powerful scene. Yet people around me found it super amusing.


There seemed to be a strange tribute to the protagonist of Munshi Premchand's Godaan, Hori Mahato, in the film. In the novel, Hori is a poor peasant who is desperately longing for a cow. He does get the cow but ends up paying with his life. Similarly in the film, Hori, a landless peasant, makes a living by digging waste land and selling the earth to brick makers. He barely makes a living and dies in the hole he has made. Hori's plight hasn't changed in more than 60 years but the film fails to question the roots of the agrarian crisis. While in the sensitive hands of of Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal and Govind Nilhani, the film probably would have ended with the farmer succumbing to the pressures of the financial crisis, this film turns out to be an epilogue filled with media clowns and political ring masters.


The directors, Anusha Rizvi and Mahmood Farooqui, worked within the theatrical traditions of Habib Tanvir's Naya Theatre which bears a great degree of respect for the poor and the oppressed. In this theatrical space, satire and humor is used extensively to make critiques of the state policies and the capitalist system. In his plays, Tanvir always reserved space for swear words and aggressive language for the most downtrodden, the most oppressed.


Even in the Sanskrit Natya-Shastra (Theatre), Vidhushak played this role. He would comment on contemporary situations and thus transcend the spatial and temporal dimensions of the narrative, and speak in languages other than Sanskrit to underline his class differences and political positioning. This feature is shared by different performance traditions and characters like Shakespearean character Falstaff. Perhaps due to this reason, we hear foul language mostly from Natha and his family. But this tradition becomes humorous and comical. The language loses its anger and critique and for the audiences it becomes comical (more so when the female characters use foul language). This transition from theatre to film is very fractured and weak. Instead of showing respect and solidarity with the oppressed and their problems, it ends up making them humorous. The film would have been much better as a theatrical performance, but as a film it is a dismal rendition of the theatrical traditions and styles.


A farmers’ advocacy group in Vidarbha, the area with the highest suicide rates, Vidarbha Janandolan Samiti (Vidarbha People's Movement Committee) has asked for a ban on the film on the ground that the movie trivializes farmer suicides. They have argued that the film is an insult to the poor farmers who have been victims of globalization and wrong policies of the state. However banning the film can actually be counter productive, since the film will get more attention than it deserves. And within democratic spaces, banning is not the solution.


The storytelling style is different but the film fails to highlight the real issues and concerns of farmers which are camouflaged behind the media and politician circus. The attempt at a satire turns out to be a sad caricature of the rural life. The village life has much more depth and layers than what this film set out to sketch. The agrarian crisis is not a myth but a harsh reality that sooner or later the country will have to face. The film didn't seem to leave people questioning and disappointed with the status quo. It lacks anger and creativity and leaves the audience unaffected.


(The writer is a Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Social and Political Thought, York University, Toronto)

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