We all know that there’s nothing the American media loves more than a human interest story, a scoop that finds an individual not only in dire circumstances, but in such a unique set of dire circumstances that the public takes a rabid interest in a stratum of the social order with which they normally couldn’t be bothered. And when the individual being profiled can be made to carry the weight of a national symbol, then all the better. Needless to say, the actual person’s welfare is of secondary concern. It’s as an angry black subject tells Robert Forster’s reporter in Haskell Wexler’s 1969 film Medium Cool, “When you come here and say you are going to do something of human interest, it makes a person wonder if you’re going to do something of interest to other humans, or whether you consider the person human in whom you’re interested.”
In Peepli Live, writer-director Anusha Rizvi proves that the Indian media is no different from its Western counterparts. A satire that shades over into tragedy, Rizvi’s film makes sure to hit all the obvious points about the cruel nature of the news game, but in nearly two hours, she scarcely offers any insights into the workings of the media that aren’t summed up in the above quotation. Set against the declining profitability of Indian agricultural life, as farmers are forced to accept the terms of American multinationals like Monsanto and the country invests more heavily in urban industrialization, the film follows desperate villager and unhappy family man Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri) as he announces his intention to commit suicide in order to secure government compensation for his family and save his mortgaged farm. As the story is picked up by the local news and then the national media, a feeding frenzy descends on the tiny village of Peepli as the whole country tunes in to follow Natha’s suicide watch.
Reporters film the man’s every move, politicians use the occasion to promote themselves in the upcoming election and the village becomes a literal carnival complete with Ferris wheel, food vendors, and a tightrope walker. (This last turn of events is both a nod to the film’s most obvious model, Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole and a chance for Rizvi to film a series of appealingly fast-paced montages of kids enjoying the rides, vividly amplifying the reds and blues of the Ferris wheel and the varied colors of the people’s wardrobe.) Still, most of the satire has a secondhand feel to it, the sense that we’ve seen this all before. Worse, it often turns to an unnecessary didacticism to hammer home its points, as when a veteran reporter lectures a younger colleague on the reasons why this particular would-be suicide is news, but the plight of all the country’s other farmers who die every day is not. Still, Rizvi occasionally hits on an inspired bit by amping up the absurdity factor. In one scene, a reporter examines Natha’s “droppings,” musing on the ways in which the colors of a man’s feces reflect his mental state.
More successful than the film’s limp media satire is its jaundiced look at the wider world of Indian politics. As Natha wanders around like a zombie, dazed by the cameras, government officials and election candidates from both the local and national level arrive, attempting to work the situation and increase their public profile. In a pair of humorous scenes, two politicians present Natha with a water pump and a television—gifts worthless to a man desperate to save his land—while one tells him he cannot commit suicide and the second informs him that he must go through with the deed for the good of the nation. But comedy soon turns to tragedy when the Chief Minister of the region finally presents Natha with the money needed to save his property, only to be immediately reprimanded by the national agriculture minister who forces him to retract the gift.
So, what began as a darkly absurdist tale of a curious situation metaphorically invoking the plight of India’s dispossessed becomes an obvious satire of the impulse to turn this very story into just such a symbol. Natha becomes all things to all people, an object of speculation for the public (will he kill himself or won’t he?) and a career advancer for everyone else. But if all the characters in the movie treat the impoverished man as an object to manipulate for their own ends, so does Rizvi, crafting a cipher of a main character who spends most of the film wandering around in a silent stupor as her own stand-in for the rural poor and a springboard for satire. The human cost only becomes clear in the penultimate scene, as Natha’s family, worse off than when they started, resignedly discuss the bureaucracy that has kept them from receiving their expected compensation despite all the momentary national attention their story had attracted. This sequence exudes a genuine anguish, but too often the viewer, like the disaffected young man in Medium Cool, is left to wonder whether Rizvi, amid all her zeal for crafting cheap laughs at easy targets, has forgotten to “consider the person” in whom she’s allegedly interested.