Urban audiences may be toasting the film but Vidarbha farmers strike a different note
Before we plunge into Peepli [Live], imagine a Taare Zameen Par that made fun of dyslexic children. One may object to the sentimentality of Taare but its narrative structure cannot be faulted for effectiveness. The vision of a bright little kid struggling would have reminded most adults of childhood slights and neglect. Without doubt, one of the reasons the film worked was because dyslexia had not yet become the staple of sympathy-seeking, selffashioning celebrities as it has in the US. The jokes by parents that their children were faking dyslexia before exams were still in the future. A few years from now the time will be ripe for a filmmaker to turn her satirical eye at the self-pitying, urban schoolkid.
Bollywood rarely (unlike in Taare) introduces ideas that are not in pop culture already. Farmer suicides have been with us long enough even by Bollywood standards to be a ‘common man’s issue’. But no one imagined the common man — the urban viewer who can afford to go to a multiplex — would watch a film about it. Peepli [Live] was publicised well and long enough for this viewer to be reconciled to liking an ‘off-beat’ film.
But here lies two problems. One, it is arguable that the film was not about farmer suicides at all, but the deeper tragedy that to India’s well-fed few, the rural poor are so alien, they can only be spectacle. Two, the filmmaker Anusha Rizvi bravely deployed black comedy where India prefers piousness. But luckily urban audiences watched Peepli [Live] (and as Jonathan Swift said about satire) and ‘recognised everybody’s faces but their own’. We felt mild discomfort when we emerged out of the movie and saw construction sites much like the one Nathu was last seen at. But largely we left content because we had got the ‘message’ that farmers are desperate, poor things. When we hear that the farmers in Vidarbha have protested against the film, why be surprised that they don’t recognise their faces in it either?
WHEN WILL you commit suicide so that I can become a Thekedar,” asks Natha’s son in Peepli [Live]. The scene, along with many of its satirical moments, has given the audience a reason to chuckle and its producers a reason to smile. But for those whose lives it sought to mirror, the film is a mockery of the reality they are a part of. This was evident when TEHELKA organised a screening of the film recently for Vidarbha farmers in the Pandhar Kawada village.
Labelled as the ‘suicide belt of India’, it is believed that 7,160 farmers have committed suicide in Vidarbha since 2004. Yet, when we invited the families, the very prospect of watching a film had them excited. The audience included farmers, their families and widows of those who had committed suicide.
Sitting in a corner, Indubai Balakrishna Ashtekar, searches for a chapter from her life. As she finds it missing in the film, Indu begins to tell her story. Her husband Balakrishna was a farmer in Sakra and took a loan of Rs.60,000 from local moneylender Vijay Badkulvar. After paying the interest, the loan amount rose to Rs. 84,000. Having paid Rs. 65,000, he was hoping that the moneylender would waive off Rs. 19,000. It turned out to be wishful thinking. He mortgaged his land amid preparations for his daughter’s wedding while Badkulvar went to court. Unable to keep up, Balakrishna committed suicide in January this year. His suicide note held Badkulvar responsible for his death. Even though investigations followed, the police favoured Badkulvar. “Farmers do commit suicide, but not because of any compensation that their families can receive after their death,” says Balakrishna’s widow.
A similar view is echoed by Aparna Sanjay Malikar who lives in Barakathva village Her husband met with a similar fate after failing to repay a bank loan of Rs. 1.5 lakh.
The farmers often take loans from banks to buy seeds. But after a disappointing harvest, they find themselves unable to repay. Last year, the rainfall was below expectations while this year it has surpassed all. In both cases, the profits are affected and, consequently, the debt remains unpaid. Some of the farmers who also take loans for their children’s education, marriage and health are left in the lurch. While Peepli [Live] has been lauded for its unique theme and entertainment quotient, no one in the audience seemed to believe that the film even came close to mirroring their dilemmas.
‘The film insults the wives and children of such families,’ says Bharti, the widow of a deceased farmer
Some of them even lament that as the number of people committing suicides rose in Vidarbha, cases were filed against the moneylenders. “As a result, most moneylenders have stopped giving loans to the farmers,” says Devdutt Anandrao Jadhav, a farmer from Ghatanji taluka. This state of affairs, like several others, does not find a mention in the film. No wonder then that most audience members found it making a “mockery of our situation”. “No farmer would like to die hoping to get compensation for his family after his death. In fact, most families do not even get money,” says Bharti, widow of a deceased farmer. “The film insults the wives and kids of such farmers.”
MOST VILLAGERS seemed to believe that theirs is a peripheral reality that can only make for a black comedy — nothing more, nothing less. Kishor Tiwari, president of Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, an organisation working for the welfare of farmers, saysPeepli [Live] did well in urban centres because the audience there is far removed from reality. “Thank god, it did not come to villages,” he says. Mohan Yadav, who also works for the Samiti, says, “The film shows how media and politicians get involved when Natha announces that he’d commit suicide. In reality, when farmers commit suicide, even the Tehsildar does not bother to check.”
More voices come up as the screening reaches its final scene and the farmers sense a disconnect from the film’s social milieu. Bheemebai Takaam, an Adivasi woman from Yavatmal, throws light on a recent incident that ended in dozens of farmers being arrested in Dharmagota. Their crime? They had been using government-owned land for farming.
Commercial success, great acting, superb direction, Peepli [Live] has had several feathers in its cap. For these farmers, however, the film is little more than a fable.