Peepli Incorporated

While Peepli (Live) is a story set in Madhya Pradesh,
500-odd real Peepli villages exist.

Nandini Chandra

Anoushka Rizvi’s Peepli Live, the satirical film ostensibly on farmer’s suicide is remarkable, predictable and sad. I will start with the remarkable aspects. The film is able to paste the ethos of the nukkad natak on to a cinematic frame. There is wit, sarcasm, morality play symbolism, all played out in the exaggerated decibel of a street performance, such as the media jamboree and the close reading of Natha’s shit. The symbolism comes through in its deliberate allusion to characters named after Premchand’s village epic Godaan. The chief protagonist in Premchand’s novel, the long suffering but ritual- and status-conscious Hori Mahato belonging to a middle caste is transposed here into a marginal character who is resigned to his fate of a wage labourer digging an unending pit, which will turn out to be his grave, thus invoking the longer and more symbolic tradition of farmer suicides as an inevitable fact within the semi-feudal and semi-colonial Indian context. Premchand’s Hori had died not simply as a result of the backbreaking labour under a blistering summer sun, but his death was a direct outcome of his inability to swallow the humiliation of losing his land and being reduced to a pauper. Hori's defiant wife Dhania is retained in the film as Natha's big mouth wife who is unconstrained by the rituals of deference. The stereotypes of the rural idiot and the slick urban lot are well deployed too if we see these stock characters as organized within the explicit language of the street play. The unprecedented commercial popularity of the film however, cannot be justified on the basis of its oppositional folk/street aesthetic, since it recovered its initial cost even before it was released.
The almost cacophonous laughter of the multiplex audiences that greets one every time the tribal looking Natha (played by Omkardas Manikpuri of Habib Tanvir’s Naya Theatre) makes an appearance or whenever familiar North Indian cuss words are uttered points to a different dynamic altogether. It can be partly explained by the Aamir Khan hype surrounding the film’s marketing through several witty promotional trailers. But there is more to it than that. These witty trailers ironically give away the entire plot and meat of the tale. Obviously, these crucial sections are not seen as constituting the real significance of the film. The more important stuff, it indicates, lies in the whole, the political economy that the film seeks to convey. Nevertheless, as the incongruous laughter uncannily reveals, what is at stake is neither the storyline nor the political economy, but the logic of needing to familiarize and prepare the audience for what to expect and how to react to it. Indeed, the audience breaks into laughter on cue, confirming the iron hand of the culture industry in shaping this supposedly radical and independent articulation of the gap between rural and urban India, the peasantry and the bourgeoisie. This for me is remarkable since it points to the extreme terror produced by the very prospect of a social contradiction, which needs to be properly framed so that the terror can be assuaged and dealt with at the very outset. It may be argued that this framing is not integral to the film. It is merely a part of its marketing strategy. But I shall argue that the most radical thing about the film resides in just this, the fact of its subversive subject matter.
The predominantly mythopoeic structure of the film ensures that its narrative unfolding has no major surprises. This predictability derives from the same market requirements to make things acceptable and consolatory. Even as there are references to the neo-liberal regime that has catapulted the question of the farmer’s suicide to the fore, the film ultimately fails to ground itself in the conjunctural moment of the neo-liberal imagination that wreaks havoc within a semi-feudal and semi-colonial society. It is this inability to identify correctly the nature of the Indian state and society which turns the film into a perennial tale of rural-urban exploitation. This story could actually be carried an epoch or two backwards. The reference to Monsanto inc. (Sonmento), multinational seed companies which have inaugurated the new wave of farmers' suicides and  erosion of the autonomy of peasantry as a class can be seen as pitching things in a more contemporary spirit in which capital is all pervasive. But the particular case of Natha belies this neo-liberal emphasis. His indebtedness is not related to any crisis brought about by this new global assault on the traditional small scale farmer. Natha is in debt due to the expenses incurred for his mother’s 'angrezi ilaj' and perhaps owing to the vagaries of monsoons.
Despite being part of the CM’s constituency, the economy of the village is sluggish. The stagnation is captured in the brilliant (albeit problematically gendered) lyrics about the witch of inflation (sakhi saiyyan to khoob hi kamat hain, mehengai dayan khaye jaat hain) which devours the ample income of the hard working husband. What is the reason for this stagnation? If there are no feudal structures tying down the peasant anymore, why is there no growth? Are there really no tenancy or debt obligations vis-à-vis the rich landlords anymore? What about the grabbing of peasants' land, and commons and homestead land and the continued prevalence of usurious credit? Has Hori’s world become totally redundant in 21st century North India? One knows that the prospect of lucrative wage labour could not have made the farmer a free agent since this prospect was available even in the first quarter of the twentieth century. The farmer was not lacking in opportunities for migration back then, but the dependence on land was much more than a functional one. It was tied to his entire way of life.  Consequently, the meaning of land as the sacrosanct inheritance of one’s ancestors entailed the ritual obligation to pay accumulated debt, the pleasure of sharing a smoke with the powerful people in the village and last but not least, the fear of excommunication. This was in a period when at least big manufacturing industries were hiring labour on a grand scale. Now in the context of jobless growth, even that possibility does not exist.
If those caste and feudal linkages have been weakened, then what has taken its place? The rural politicians and other operators are shown to be enmeshed in a caste-religious nexus for sure, but the networks depicted by the film are not necessarily specific to the rural situation. The caste-class nexus invoked here is an abstract ailment afflicting the whole of “dhurandar India” (india sir ye cheez dhurandhar), the mad circus of the Indian Ocean song “des mera”, which forms the signature tune of the film. This simply means that both dalit and upper caste politicians try to use the plight of Natha for their electoral ends. Thus it is corruption and mind-numbing bureaucratic structures that are seen to suppress growth and productivity rather than problems emerging from a specific mode of production. The state, operating through its various administrative emissaries, its police force and village level units, its diverse branches and ministries’ is shown to be the only player in Natha’s village. What is more, it seems to be working autonomously, not doing the bidding of either the capitalist or the landlord class. There is no observable concentration of landholdings that might indicate the workings of an agrarian capitalism. The only manifestation of power is a colonial bureaucracy, still caught up in its Darjeeling second flushes and a time-warped stilted way of speaking English. The urban elite Mallika, the newscaster from the English news channel with her Hindi spoken in an English accent, is an embodiment of this bureaucratic class as well, despite being firmly entrenched in the media industry, the only open avowal of capital in the film. Is this linkage between state and capital probed and explored further or are they seen as necessarily separate spheres of influence, close to each other only by default?
If the state is unable to deliver goods to its most needy citizens, how does capital contribute to this non-delivery? Does the film proffer the critique that people like Natha are suffering because the state has withdrawn or is slowly withdrawing the welfare system in favour of privatization? Or is it that the welfare state itself is the problem for being mired in redtapism and bizarre spending patterns like the distribution of dysfunctional hand pumps which are called Lal Bahadurs, named after Shastri of the Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan fame?
Vidarbha Jan Andolan, a farmer’s rights group in Vidarbha has objected to the film on the grounds that it trivializes the issue of farmers' suicide. It would be useful to examine their particular reservations given that they are located far from the multiplexes in a reality that is part of the milieu of the film. The scene they objected to was the one where Budhiya (Raghubir Yadav) is urging Natha his younger brother to commit suicide in order to get compensation under a government scheme which gives the families of farmers who have committed suicide one lakh rupees. Theoretically, this scenario in which brother instigates brother to commit suicide is not impossible, since the workings of capital have penetrated into the deepest recesses of the human mind, in places where there are no visible signs of capital as such. In such circumstances, it is quite possible for rural people to show signs of reified thinking. However, from the way the scene has been directed, one is not conscious so much of alienated or reified relationships as the supposed 'eternal human desire' to preserve one’s own life over that of the other, even if that other is a loved brother or husband. The film seems to take a non-censorious view of the matter, treating it as a humorous episode rather than a sad statement on capitalist relations. This is in contrast with the alienated behavior of the children who are eagerly awaiting the father’s death. However, the overall equation of different levels of alienation, between the family members, village level politicians, and the media as all reinforcing the exploitation of poor Natha then adds to the narrative of him as the sacrificial goat. This comes out poignantly in the scene where the goat kids are the only ones who want to nuzzle and comfort him underlining the idea that his near and dear including his kids are just as ready to exploit his death as the politicians and the media. 
It is true that the wife, despite her tough and pragmatic exterior sees through the brother’s plan and objects to Natha committing suicide, but unlike her novelistic counterpart in Premchand, she is not shown to demonstrate any visible signs of love. This lack of mutual emotion and solidarity within rural poor families and communities flies in the face of the militant political consciousness that is visible all over the agrarian belts of India, where farmers are protesting land grab by the state and multinational corporations. The film ignores this tradition of protest at its own peril, since this lack of acknowledgement of positive emotions and solidarity is of a tune with capitalist structures of feeling. By ignoring it, the film becomes complicit with the logic of capital as the only progressive one, as bringing development and growth. In fact, the whole rhetoric of compensation packages and the mysterious and mystifying rules that determine who is below poverty line are of a piece with neoliberal rationalizations that question the welfare system as license raj and an inefficient drain of resources. This is not to deny the absurd realities of the governmental packages of compensation such as the distribution of cows or the shocking reality of hundreds of farmer suicide widows’ compensation cheques having bounced in Vidarbha in 2007. But in its treatment of these issues, the film fails to recognize the state as representing the balance of forces between the landlords and the capitalists, and acknowledge that the bank loans fail to reach farmers thanks to their skewed priorities dictated by capital.
If the force of capital is clearly visible anywhere in the film, it is in the depiction of the workings of the media industry, in the desperate and inhuman fight for TRPs. The agents of media are brutally exposed for their parasitical and predatory behavior. Even those rare moments of self-reflexive critique or genuine sympathy, are shown to be part of their professional obligation. In fact, the death of the local hack is in part motivated by an aspirational desire to join the ranks of the CNN reporter he fancies. At the same time, the film also tries to redeem him by showing the glimmers of a conscience, awakening by virtue of him being placed in the weakest link in the chain of the media industry. Typically, his death remains unregistered and unacknowledged within the narrative of the film. But when it does acknowledge his death, the film enters the moral economy it denies its different characters, who are shown in different ways to be determined by forces beyond their control. Most importantly, the film’s overriding interest as has been acknowledged widely, lies in exploring its own class subjectivity, even if it is self-denunciatory. The other is merely narrative grist for the mill of the self. The proof of this lies in the smirks of approval on the most regressive ruling class faces for whom the film was specially screened by Aamir Khan, no less than the Prime Minister, Raj Thackeray and L.K Advani.