“Here we are shitting bricks and you’re singing love songs,” Budhia (Raghubir Yadav) tells his younger brother Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri) as they amble down a dusty road, en route to see their local representative about repaying a government loan on the eve of foreclosure on their farm. It’s not hard to imagine these words might’ve been running through producer Aamir Khan’s head when the famed Bollywood star (“Lagaan”) decided to get behind “Peepli Live,” a small-scale satire that arrives in America on a wave of publicity unusual for a release of an Indian film on U.S. shores.
Much of it is predicated on the daring of Khan to attach his name to journalist-turned-filmmaker Anusha Rizvi’s searing critique of the Indian government and media with a story about the frenzy that surrounds the two brothers, particularly Natha, who reluctantly volunteers to commit suicide when informed that it could pull his family out of debt. (Shortly before the end credits, “Peepli Live” instructs of a real-life government program that compensated the families of farmers that offed themselves as part of the nation’s urbanization efforts; according to the statistics provided by the film, 182,000 poverty-stricken farmers took their own life between 1997 through 2007.)
Rivzi reserves the only real exterior shots of the big city for the film’s final minutes, hovering like the blade of a guillotine over the fictional farming village of Peepli where Natha is thrust into a circus around his impending suicide, which like Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” is signified all too literally when a Ferris wheel shows up. What we do see of modern India is largely restricted to the insides of newsrooms and political war rooms that eagerly debate ways they can use Natha’s “decision” to their advantage.
In that respect, “Peepli Live” functions as an insightful glimpse at the growing pains of a modernized India where the lower classes have been marginalized in the unforgiving drive for progress, yet the unfortunate thing for its filmmakers, who have made it clear they want to broaden their audience for “Peepli” is that the Western audience least averse to foreign films are also the likeliest to have already seen films such as Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” or Alexander Payne’s “Citizen Ruth,” which cover similar ground in a more dynamic way. Then again, it’s unfortunately a theme that always remains ripe for reinterpretation since history keeps repeating itself.
Here, much of the comedy derives from the way Natha’s would-be suicide is commoditized and thrown around in casual conversation like a slightly risky business transaction — by both the villagers and the big city folk — and though “Peepli Live” refrains from Bollywood-style dance numbers, it conveys a lot of the larger themes through song, where inflation is called a “witch” and the villagers’ struggle for survival is celebrated by lyrics like “a molehill is a mountain, a pebble is God.”
It is an undoubtedly bold film, which will serve it well with some audiences and possibly alienate others, but as a first effort from Rivzi, “Peepli Live” is an assured debut, even more impressive when you discover she worked with a cast made up of mostly amateur actors. That we haven’t seen their faces before freshens the film, but it’s the fact that we haven’t seen the side of India they represent that makes it a bit unshakeable.
“Peepli Live” is now open in limited release.