Thursday, August 12, 2010

Feeding Frenzy: Peepli Live

Technically, the Indian media appears to be slightly better than their American brethren. Though surely bottom-feeders, everything they report is at least technically the truth in a new Hindi satire. They simply have a reckless disregard for the consequences of their reporting in Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live (trailer here), the first Hindi film in competition at the Sundance Film Festival, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Natha is not much of a farmer, but his land is his family’s only means of support. Unfortunately, the state will soon assume his farm unless he can repay his debts. Though it sounds like an urban legend, like those straight A’s you reportedly get if your college roommate commits suicide, it turns out the Indian government will pay 100,000 rupees as compensation to the families of farmers who kill themselves. Not a princely sum, but it would still be sufficient to save the farm.

Out of options, Natha reluctantly agrees (with the strong encouragement of his supposedly loving brother Budhia). Peepli is a small village, so word quickly spreads of his desperate decision. Sensing a good sob story, an ambitious local reporter feeds it to a national network, and before you know it, the Indian media is camped out in front of Natha’s farm, like it’s the Neverland Ranch.

One would think all the attention would be good for Natha’s cause, but not so. True, the politicians get wind of it, but his case gets caught up in a conflict between the local minister and the national agricultural secretary, who are clearly aligned with opposing political parties. Frankly, none of this rings remotely true. Certainly, partisanship is intractable, but with so many television cameras pointed at them, one would expect the rivals to be outbidding each other in their attempts to save the stolid Natha.

Still, veteran Hindi actor Naseeruddin Shah is perfectly cast as Secretary Salim Kidwai, the old smoothie (check out Shah in the thoughtful terrorist drama A Wednesday, if you can find it). Malaika Shenov also projects the right levels of ruthlessness and self-absorption to be credible as journalist Nadita Mallik. However, Natha’s personal dramas are rather boring and uninvolving. Yes, the miserable farmer is supposed to be weak, an innocent babe unprepared for the media’s shameless manipulations. Yet, he still ought to occasional say or something interesting. Instead, he is just an unsubtle symbol of exploitation.

Peepli is essentially a one note film: the media and the government do not care about the common man. Once you get that, you’ve got the film. While there are a few nice supporting turns, the angry film is not particularly engaging. It does have a catchy Bollywood soundtrack though, with a number of pleasing songs from the jazz and folk influenced band Indian Ocean. It opens tomorrow (8/13) in New York at the AMC Empire and the Big Cinemas Manhattan (formerly the ImaginAsian).