I thought Anusha Rizvi’s film was a really good black comedy. Very irreverent and caustic about many things while remaining basically sympathetic towards the tragedy of the people at the centre of the storm (the unfathomably helpless villagers who find a media circus descending on them after word gets around that one of them has decided to commit suicide in protest). This is a difficult balance to get right. When I spoke with Jaane bhi do Yaaro's dialogue-writer Ranjit Kapoor last year, he pointed out that throughout the creation of the many lunatic scenes in that script, he was careful to preserve the essential integrity of Vinod and Sudhir, the movie’s idealistic photographers/fall guys. The audience could laugh all they liked at the situations that these two guys find themselves in, but it was important that they took Vinod and Sudhir seriously.
- Peepli [Live]’s beleaguered protagonist Natha spends most of the film dazed by all the attention he is getting, uncomprehending of the fact that he has been turned into a Cause and a Symbol, perpetually fearful that having made an offhand statement during a private conversation with his brother, he will now be forced to follow through on his promise to kill himself. (Once his story get publicised, his life is no longer his own anyway: he's a pawn in a game that he can't begin to understand.) A little something to chew on: try comparing this reluctant Everyman with the rabble-rousing messiah figure played by Amitabh Bachchan in Main Azaad Hoon (itself a remake of Capra’s Meet John Doe). Consider that Main Azaad Hoon was hailed as a courageous, non-mainstream (or semi-non-mainstream) attempt to address the plight of the common man.
- I disagree with the common reaction that the film was too over-the-top in its satirising of TV journalism. A couple of the gags might have been obvious (such as the scene where a round-up of national news prioritises an item about Shilpa Shetty and Prince William, with farmer suicides coming third on the list) but try sitting down to watch our real news channels – Hindi and English – for a couple of days and you’ll find that the blackest satire is inadequate as a lampooning force; real life is always a few steps ahead. The many good vignettes in this film include throwaway shots of city journos brandishing the villagers' possessions in front of their cameras like spoilt brats who have found an artillery of new toys to play with, or milking every moment for its potential emotional impact, even when the villagers themselves are being stoical and dignified. (Something I’ve been wondering generally after watching this and other depictions of electronic media in our recent films: are there young journalists who have quit their jobs and opted for alternate careers, out of sheer embarrassment if nothing else? Or do skins in this profession get rhino-thick at a very early age?)
- In our media-saturated age, films like Peepli [Live] are begging to be made, but for an uncannily prescient portrayal of a personal tragedy being turned into a carnival by cynical journalists, do watch Billy Wilder’s 1951 masterpiece Ace in the Hole. Nearly six decades old, and that film looks fresher each year.
P.S. Here's a feature story done by the wife for Mint newspaper, about one of the country's many Peepli villages - this one in Aligarh on the UP-Haryana border.