Peepli Live producer Aamir Khan is a Bollywood legend, but while writer-director Anusha Rizvi fills the movie with as much music, spectacle, and comic relief as any slick Bollywood production, her tone and content are far grubbier. Omkar Das Manikpuri stars as a pot-smoking farmer on the verge of losing his land when he hears a rumor that the government will pay $2,000 to any farmer who kills himself. After a brief negotiation with his older brother, Manikpuri decides to do himself in, but when word leaks out about his plan, it touches off a media frenzy. The national networks have been hammering away at the government over the rash of farmer-suicides, and with an election coming up, the local party bosses don’t need any publicity that makes them look as corrupt and ineffectual as they actually are. So competing factions descend on the small town of Peepli to monitor Manikpuri’s every move.
Peepli Live has a lot in common with Billy Wilder’s black comedy Ace In The Hole, in that it explores the cynicism of modern life with wit and honesty. The movie’s concerns aren’t abstract; characters talk about the war in Iraq and about the insidious American seed companies, and when a local cop suggests that he could arrest Manikpuri, he catches himself and says, “I mean, put him on the Food For Work program.” Because Rizvi worked as a journalist before turning to film, she throws in some knowing scenes of reporters encouraging the people of Peepli to be more backward for the camera. (In the movie’s funniest shot, a camera roams through Manikpuri’s house and land and finds reporters doing stand-ups at every turn.) Peepli Live sometimes edges too close to over-sentimentalizing the downtrodden—especially in songs with lyrics like “behind tattered pockets lie hearts as deep as the seas”—but Rizvi keeps bringing the story back to the muck. This is a movie that opens with the hero puking, and spends the rest of its running time showing why that may be the only sane response to the state of the world.