In the United States, India’s image is that of an increasingly modern nation on the path to prosperity. It supports a glamorous movie industry. A well-educated, English-speaking workforce makes India an attractive place for American companies to outsource customer service jobs. South Asians living in the States are, on average, one of the most financially successful demographic groups.
With so many positive examples, it’s easy to overlook the fact that a large portion of Indians still live in poverty. Slumdog Millionaire exposed Americans to the plight of the poor in large cities, but some of India’s poorest citizens live in rural areas that tourists never see and that get little news coverage.
Peepli Live — a movie produced by Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan — presents international audiences with a vivid depiction of rural life. The farmers in the movie live in a kind of destitution unimaginable in America. Homes with no running water or electricity, food cooked over fires fueled by cow dung, not even a private place to relieve oneself.
Such conditions prompt Peepli Live‘s lead characters, brothers Bhudia (Raghubir Yadav) and Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri), to consider drastic measures. A local money-lender refuses to give them a loan but recommends a government program for impoverished farmers. If a farmer commits suicide, the government allegedly will pay his family $2000 — enough money for Bhudia and Natha to pay back the bank loan they took out to buy seeds and fertilizer from the large, American agricultural firm, “Sonmanto.”
Elder brother Bhudia initiates a conversation in which both he and Natha politely offer to kill themselves for the sake of the family, which includes their ancient mother and Natha’s wife and three kids. The conversation ends when Bhudia calls Natha’s bluff (“I’ll kill myself.” “No, I’ll kill myself.” “Okay, you kill yourself!”). While it makes no sense for Natha to kill himself — he’s the one with the wife and kids, after all — he’s reluctant to challenge his big brother.
A freelance reporter overhears Natha speaking about his planned suicide and prints a story in the local newspaper. The story catches the eye of a large TV news channel. Reluctant to miss out on the story, dozens of news crews descend on Natha’s house, spawning a figurative (and, eventually, literal) circus.
Local politicians try to turn Natha’s suicide to their advantage. The politicians in power are desperate to change Natha’s mind so that they look like they care about poor farmers. Their opponents want Natha to kill himself. No one cares that Natha doesn’t actually want to die.
When the plot focuses on the farmers, Peepli Live is a great movie. There’s a hilarious enmity between Natha’s mother and his wife, Dhaniya (Shalini Vatsa), who runs the household under a barrage of vulgar insults from her mother-in-law. Though by no means a tender woman, she doesn’t want her husband to die. Yet their situation is so dire, there don’t seem to be many alternatives.
The movie slows down shortly after the news vans roll in to town. The newscasters aren’t nearly as compelling as the farmers, but they dominate screentime in the second half of the movie. Bhudia seems to disappear altogether, and his lippy mother is relegated to lying silently on her cot.
Part of the point of the movie is the disconnect between urban and rural life: the way big city broadcasters promote sensational stories about farmers’ struggles for only as long as the stories earn ratings and without offering a solution to the problem. By shifting the focus from Natha and his family and onto the news crews covering them, Peepli Live is guilty of the same surface treatment of the issue that it’s criticizing.
The movie ends with a card that explains that, from 1991-2001, eight million farmers in India quit farming. And? Is that a bad thing, given how hard it is to make a living in agriculture? If so, what should the government do about it? Like the news channels it criticizes, Peepli Live entertains and asks questions, but doesn’t offer any solutions.