Film Review: Peepli Live

Directed by: Anusha Rizvi

Starring: Omkar Das, Raghuvir Yadav, Shalini Vatsa, Farrukh Jaffar, Nasseruddin Shah

“Hi everyone…” – the auditorium immediately goes quiet as Aamir Khan comes on the screen – not in any filmi guise but as himself, dressed in a simple grey crew neck top, in a medium close up. I was lucky enough to be attending the London premiere of Peepli Live which was opening the first Indian Film Festival of London (IFFL) at the Riverside Studios (and incidentally the first time I have been to the cinema at the Riverside). Despite battling against persistent rain and wardrobe dilemmas galore in the hours leading up to the premiere, as soon as Aamir came on screen, all was forgotten. In the short bespoke message, Aamir apologised for not being at the screening personally (the feeling of disappointment could be felt around the cinema – how awesome it would have been if Aamir had been there!) and gave a short foreword about how the script of the film impressed him and how Peepli Live is a relevant tale to be told for today’s audiences. Signing off by wishing the festival organisers well and hoping we enjoy the film, I realise the ephithet given to Aamir by Salman Khan via Twitter – “the man with the midas touch” – is very true. When Aamir tells you the script impressed him, you know you are in for a quality film.

Interestingly, on a totally random tangent, it is nice to see Hindi films in venues outside the usual mainstream film premiere venue in London (ie Leicester Square). For instance, the world premiere for Raavan was at the British Film Institute on the Southbank and now with Peepli Live at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, if ever there was an indication of change in Hindi cinema, this is certainly a very small but significant one. Normally, these venues have shown Hindi films in the past as part of festivals or retrospectives on directors but to host premieres sends out a clear message to the UK audiences at least that Bollywood is not entirely the song and dance fare they may assume it to be.

Peepli Live is the perfect film to champion this cause – the film tells the story of Natha, a farmer who is saddled with debt he cannot pay after mortgaging his land to make ends meet. With a wife, 3 kids and an elderly mother to support, Natha is stuck in a desperate situation with no apparent way out. His elder brother Budhia convinces him to commit suicide so that the government will pay compensation to the family and thus settle the debt. When a small time newspaper reporter writes about Natha’s story, which in turn is picked up by a bigger TV network, suddenly Natha is thrust into the middle of a media and political circus as forces he never knew existed and his threatened suicide takes on more significance than he could have ever known…

Peepli Live is a compelling film that immediately draws the viewer in and tells its story in a simple but convincing manner and makes many relevant points about the role of the media in today’s Indian society. The film doesn’t hold back from making fun of the media which is a brave thing to do but at the same time, remains an entertaining film with strong characters and tight direction to ensure every frame contributes to the story (something which sounds obvious but is harder to execute in reality). The editing is crisp and I liked the how the camera work told the story in a very news like fashion with all the interesting camera angles saved for emotional impact (note when the gaunt farmer [whose name I have forgotten -shame on me!] who is shown quietly getting on with his work through the film suddenly dies – the camera looks into the land he has been digging in order to make money- a poignant shot that lingers in the mind long after the film is over).

I also liked the little touches of cheekiness in the film – the politicians have Pappu Can’t Dance from Aamir’s first home production Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na as their ringtone, Natha has a dream of riding a horse (also similar to JTYJN) and the various posters in the barber shop of Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawala reminded me of Aamir’s films from the early 90’s (though I may be looking too closely into this). I thought one of the strongest points of the film was the relationship between Natha’s wife and her mother in law which provides amusement and tension in equal measure – I liked how each gave as good as they got and made the film feel more real and accessible to the viewer – whether in a rural or urban setting, everyone could understand and in some cases identify with the on screen action.

The only criticism I have of Peepli Live was the resolution which I felt happened a tad too quickly – whilst I appreciate the film has more impact with a shorter running time, I still felt there was a bit more of the story to tell, especially as to how Natha gets to the city and how the family deal with the news of his apparent death. Perhaps a repeat viewing may prove me wrong but initially I think because we really come to care for most of the characters, a more drawn out conclusion to the film, (perhaps from Budhia’s point of view) would have made me feel more satisfied about the resolution.

Performance wise, the cast are all top notch, each playing their roles with a understated touch and working well as an ensemble as well as individuals. Omkar Das is fantastic as Natha, conveying the naive nature of his character perfectly and endearing the audience towards him. Raghuvir Yadav is perfectly sombre as the older brother whilst Shalini Vatsa and Farrukh Jaffar shine as the warring daughter in law and mother in law. I liked all the news reporters who have fun with their roles and I also liked Naserrudin Shah’s short cameo which is short and sweet but pitch perfect as always.

I really enjoyed Peepli Live and am pleased that it has done well in India (thanks to the man with the Midas Touch!) and also that it is being marketed to an international audience – not because Indian cinema needs to cater or pander to these viewers but to demonstrate how Hindi cinema has always made films which appeal to people everywhere and that the Indian film industry is more than capable of making smart, entertaining films that appeal both in a domestic setting and abroad. Peepli Live uses the language of world cinema with impressive fluency and deserves the plaudits it has received thus far.

After the film finished, I wondered what I would ask Aamir Khan if he had been present at the screening and had carried out the Q & A session that he intended to. Apart from probably gushing like a Twilight crazy fan who has just met R-Patz (why does our rationale go out the window when we are face to face with our screen idols? [BTW – I haven’t met R-Patz and I wouldn’t gush – I would recommend Vitamin D and tell him to eat some fried food]) I think I would ask Aamir to keep making more films like this and to keep pushing the industry boundaries as far as he can. With Love, Sex Aur Dhoka and Tere Bin Laden doing well at the box office and now Peepli Live, 2010 really is the year of the alternative film in Bollywood and it is heartening to see Aamir using his star power to get worthy films the audiences they deserve. Small quality films championed by mainstream superstars? Is this a glimpse of the future of Bollywood? Let’s hope so…

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