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Bollywood meets arthouse

Peepli [Live], the first Bollywood film to be accepted on the international film circuit, is a stinging social satire.

Felix Holmgren

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‘[A] penchant for convolutions of plot and counter-plot rather than the strong, simple unidirectional narrative; the practice of sandwiching musical numbers in the most unlyrical situations; the habit of shooting indoors in a country which is all landscape… all these stand in the way of the evolution of a distinctive style.’

This verdict over commercial Indian cinema was passed in 1948 by the Bengali art-film maestro Satyajit Ray in his essay What is Wrong with Indian Films. It still sums up many of the objections commonly raised against India’s dream-factory, Bollywood, and explains why its products are consistently ignored by both mainstream and art-house audiences in the West. Peepli [Live], Anusha Rizvi’s directorial debut, is a bit of a sensation, therefore, as the first Bollywood film to be accepted on the international film festival circuit.

The film, a comic satire, tells the story of Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri), a poor farmer in the fictional state of Mukhya Pradesh. Faced with the prospect of losing his ancestral land, Natha is convinced by his brother to commit suicide so that his family will receive a compensatory 100,000 rupees from the state government. As Mukhya Pradesh is preparing for elections, Natha’s story is picked up by the media and quickly becomes the focus of political debate and of competing media outfits. Eventually, the humble farmer, his family and their goats are virtually imprisoned in their shabby house, surrounded by raving flocks of TV reporters, while politicians show up bearing gifts of hand pumps and TVs for which there is no well or electricity.

In my eyes, Bollywood films deserve their reputation as shallow and yawn-inducing, not because of their overwrought melodrama or the hammy acting, and certainly not because of the singing and dancing (although the quality of the musical scores has deteriorated in recent decades). Instead, it is the extreme moral conservatism that is most off-putting, along with the plots, which manage simultaneously to be entirely predictable and, as Ray observed, convoluted to the point of seeming random (the latter characteristic supposedly a result of influence from the great Indian epics like the Mahabharata).

Bollywood films – in which, to this day, kisses are banned, but romantic dance numbers show the smuttiest scenes you will see in a non-rated movie – perfectly convey stifling Indian middle-class values. At the same time, there is a certain folksy quality in Indian commercial cinema, although it is more easily discernible in the country’s many regional film cultures (which can be more fun, if more unpolished, than Bollywood’s fare). Ray denigratingly explained that the dismal state of Bengali cinema was due to the ‘deliberate and sustained playing down to a vast body of unsophisticated audience brought up on the simple tradition of the Jatra, a form of rural drama whose broad gestures, loud rhetoric and simple emotional patterns have been retained in the films’.

Unlike the few other Indian films that have achieved any circulation in the West (mostly bores like Monsoon Wedding), Peepli [Live] manages to make good use of the folk drama buried somewhere in the Bollywood conventions, but is also much edgier than the usual bland works. Several of the actors are members of the Naya Theatre, a group formed five decades ago by Habib Tanvir, who was influenced by Bertolt Brecht and folk theatre.

Having set up its rich mix of rustic farmers, hypocritical politicians and frenzied media hacks, the film goes on to have fun with the surreal disconnect between the world of media and politics on the one hand, and the rural commoners on the other. The tendency of mass media to turn reality into a spectacle is given a literal illustration, as TV teams arrive to the village of Peepli in clouds of dust. The village finds itself turned into the site of an impromptu festival, with street vendors, acrobats and merry-go-rounds gathering around the unlikely centre of public attention.

The film takes rather easy swings at the hypocrisy and insularity of the urban ruling class and its cohort of middle-class media lackeys. There is little here to suggest the real brutality of caste oppression and unreformed patriarchy still reigning in many an Indian village, that nucleus of social and spiritual life memorably described as ‘a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness, and communalism’ by BR Ambedkar, the Dalit (‘untouchable’) jurist who drafted India’s constitution.

But although the film’s burlesque of Indian media and politics grows more predictable as the plot progresses, Rizvi is right to stay within the confines of satire rather than trying to elevate the film to a social critique. The punch packed by Peepli [Live] lies not so much in the story as in the places and faces it brings to the cinema screen.

Pier Paolo Pasolini once maintained that there is nothing to unsettle a bourgeois audience more than ‘the face of a black, or the smell of a poor person, or the bewilderment of a Jew, or the provocation of a homosexual’.

I watched Peepli [Live] on a Saturday afternoon at a packed Kathmandu cinema. Here, the audience’s visceral reaction to the opening sequence brought home just why the film is a welcome novelty in Hindi cinema. It shows a close-up of Natha’s dark, flat-nosed face and tangled hair. This is a type of face that is rarely seen in the universe of Hindi cinema, or that shows up only for comic relief, and here it belongs to the film’s protagonist! Next, the brute leans out of the bus he’s travelling on and, for no clear reason, vomits.

More than its lampooning of glib TV-hosts, that kind of brashness makes Peepli [Live] worth watching.

Felix Holmgren is a freelance writer based in Sweden and Nepal.

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