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PARK CITY — Anyone who has ever seen a Frank Capra movie would recognize the comic strategy employed by first-time Indian filmmaker Anusha Rizvi in “Peepli Live.” Take a serious social problem, subject it to satirical scrutiny, appeal to populist sentiment and enjoy a greater impact than making a solemn documentary on the subject. Both funny and sobering, this film, produced by Bollywood icon Aamir Khan (the Oscar-nominated “Lagaan”), aims beyond Indian audiences. It should certainly make headway in festivals — Berlin is next after Sundance — but it’s unlikely to penetrate North American cinemas other than those dedicated to Indian films unless a plucky distributor takes a chance.
Rizvi’s subject is this: As India moves to an industrialized economy, farmers are committing suicide by tens of thousands. Self-serving politicians at all government levels — federal, state and local — have been unwilling or unable to do anything about this.
So in a story that imitates Capra’s own “Meet John Doe” — although the filmmaker may never have heard of that 1941 film — a poor farming family faces the loss of their land due to an unpaid loan. A local politician could care less so he derisively suggests that one of the brothers commit suicide to take advantage of a government program to pay surviving family members.
Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri) takes the jest seriously and volunteers. His brother Budhia (Raghubir Yadav) all too easily agrees. A reporter (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) happens to overhear enough of the conversation to turn it into a news story. A glamorous TV reporter and presenter (Malaika Shenoy) rushes to the scene and soon the whole country is caught up in the saga of the farmer who vows to kill himself.
This, of course, upsets various politicos all the way to a top minister, whose blanket response to all policy questions is that “we must wait for High Court orders.” An election is about to take place so the news story threatens the ruling party’s lead in the polls.
Local and state politicians fall out, resulting in one trying to save Natha while others threaten the brother if Natha doesn’t kill himself. One even delivers a new water pump to the family. No one installs it, mind you, but it makes a nice decoration in the family compound.
Soon an army of journalists surrounds Natha’s modest home in the village of Peepli. His addled mother (Farrukh Jaffer) screams at his shrewish wife (Shalini Vatsa) while his young son urges papa to go through with the suicide so he can use the money to become a policeman. One TV journalist, in a desperate search for a new angle, tries to examine Natha’s feces to determine his emotional state.
In every situation and scene, Rizvi, who wrote and directed, firmly skewers the limited perspective of government officials and the media along public gullibility. For instance, a poll shows that at least a certain percentage of the population is willing to blame Natha’s predicament on Muslim terrorists.
Interestingly, Capra never solved the problem of how to end a story about a threatened suicide — he reportedly shot five endings — and neither does Rizvi. She goes for an open ending, which was probably her only choice. But the important thing is she creates much laughter out of a desperate social crisis and brings wider attention to problems in India’s rural communities.
The cast is largely drawn from a troupe of rural folk actors although Shenoy has worked as a TV presenter, just like her character, and is part of the English theater movement in Mumbai. Most of the actors are stage rather than film actors so accents, idioms and attitudes ring true to Indian audiences.
Manikpuri is perfect as a hapless everyman, a figure to whom bad things just seem to happen. Even the family goat bothers him while he tries to rest. It’s a great comic performance, akin to silent-movie acting since he is a man of few words and infinite number of expressions to portray dismay and misery.
Yadav, as the elder brother, is quite funny in his matter-of-fact reactions to the potential upside of his sibling’s impending suicide. Other actors tend to hit the same character notes over and over, although in the case of Jaffer as the mother this only becomes increasingly hilarious as most of her scorn settles on her daughter-in-law.
The production is fairly large — with many actors, extras and locations as the media firestorm takes on a life of its own — but things go smoothly for the first-time moviemaker. Situations build credibly and laughs mount as absurdity takes hold.
All aspects to the production from the mobile 35mm camera to the realistic sets and costumes make ‘Peepli Live” a satisfying comic gem.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival
Production companies: UTV Motion Pictures presents an Aamir Khan production
Cast: Omkar Das, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Raghubir Yadav, Malaika Shenoy, Shalini Vatsa, Farukh Jaffer
Director/screenwriter: Anusha Rizvi
Producers: Aamir Khan, Kiran Rao
Executive producer: B. Shrinivas Raophy
Director of photography: Shankar Raman
Production designer: Suman Roy Mahapatra
Music: Mathias Duplessy
Song composer: Indian Ocean
Costume designer: Maxima Basu
Editor: Hemanti Sarkar
Sales: Match Factory
No rating, 104 minutes
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