By Utpal Borpujari
In Anusha Rizvi’s already much-acclaimed Peepli [Live], a scathing satire on the state of affairs of India’s farmers, there is a character named Hori Mahto, a sinewy man so thin that his ribs are virtually fighting to protrude out of his skin. The character hardly utters a word in the whole film. As the electronic media circus runs after Natha, the protagonist farmer on the verge of losing his small patch of land who is planning to commit suicide so that his family can get some compensation money to survive, Mahto digs up earth from his now-barren piece of land silently to sell it at the nearby brick kiln so that he can earn his daily bread. And every evening as he returns home through the crowd of OB vans parked outside Natha’s house, his puzzled expression seems to ask ‘what all this tamasha is about?’.
Only local reporter Rakesh, who broke the story about Natha’s suicide plans in a small vernacular newspaper that was picked up by the city media for its sensation-causing potential, once asks Mahto why he is digging the land, and later finds that Mahto has died, most likely because of hunger, even as the electronic media are still focusing on Natha’s house. Through this character of Mahto, Rizvi deals a double blow to both the system and the media – because both of them create a fuss only when there is a potential to grab eyeballs for themselves, even as they bypass the needy all the time.
It is not a mere coincidence that Hori Mahto was the name of the immortal character from Munshi Premchand’s Godaan, the classic tale of exploitation of farmers. Rizvi intelligently has depicted through the character that whatever be the time – be it pre-independence India or an India that has been independent for 63 years now, the farmers and the rural folk continue to be the worst off in our country. And also that the system and the media hardly notice the Mahtos of rural India, even when they die of hunger, unless they threaten to do something as drastic as Natha. It is probably also not a coincidence that almost none of the reviews of the expertly-handled debut film has been able to grasp the relevance of presence of the Mahto character in the narrative.
Rizvi, a former producer with a leading news channel, uses the satiric mould of her film with a devastating effect to expose the chinks within the uncaring politic-administrative systems as well as the sensation-seeking sections of electronic media. That she has seen both of them from close quarters herself perhaps aided her in a major way in writing and executing the film, brought alive by an extremely talented bunch of unknown actors from legendary theatre activist, the late Habib Tanvir’s Naya Theatre Group, the only known faces in the cast being Raghuvir Yadav and Naseeruddin Shah.
Peepli [Live] brings to the fore perhaps the biggest crisis hitting our agrarian communities in recent years – that of suicides by farmers across the country because of failure of crops and their resultant inability to repay loans taken from banks and individuals. There has been more than one film on the topic of farmers’ suicide in recent times, particularly in the Marathi language (perhaps because Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region is one of the worst affected by such suicides). Satish Manwar’s Gabhricha Paus (The Damned Rain) is the most well known among them, having travelled to quite a few prestigious film festivals and won a clutch of awards. Hindi film Summer 2007 by Suhail Tatari also touched the topic last year. But Peepli [Live] takes the tragedy forward by referring to a worrisome fact brought out by the 2001 Census – that during 1991-2001, eight million farmers of the country abandoned their traditional livelihood for good. By the time the 2010 Census data is analysed and published, there is a strong likelihood that this figure would show an even worse rate of growth, given that during the 2001-2010 decade, the agricultural crisis most visibly depicted by farmers’ suicides has become acute in states like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and a few other regions.
A reference to the mass migration of failed farmers to urban centres of the country, to become labourers that are building the gigantic structures that have become the touchstones of infrastructure development in a country whose economy is growing fast even while leaving a large section of its populace untouched by it, is how Rizvi has chosen to end her film with. Natha, who has ‘died’ for his family, fellow villagers, politicians and the media, re-emerges in the closing shot as a faceless construction labourer in a metropolis, his dead eyes set deep in a dust-smeared face silently depicting his inner turmoil of having to leave the place where he would have loved to grow old and die naturally. This depiction of the great tragedy of growing rural-urban divide of an economically upwardly mobile India is what perhaps will place Peepli [Live] in the same league as that of Bimal Roy’s classic on a similar theme, Do Bigha Zameen. The credit for this goes not only to the incisive writing and presentation to Rizvi, but also surely to producer Aamir Khan, who has shown that even a top league Bollywood star can back such a realistic project and make it a winning proposition in the market, unlike many other such sincere films on real India that die an unsung – and unseen – death because of lack of adequate marketing and distribution.