Sunday, August 22, 2010

[Live] but not alive

I saw “Peepli [Live]” two days ago. Here, first, is my head-view of the film.

My head says the film depicts the truth. How do I know that? Because I read stories and statistics about farmers’ deaths in the papers everyday and I hear television newscasters occasionally breaking news about them. It’s like breaking wind, the only way they can remain in good health they say.

My head tells me the film is right about politicians too. We read those stories too in the papers and hear television newscasters and talk show anchors etc etc.

My head tells me the film has its heart in the right place which, as all of us know, is the left place. The conditions of farmers are dire. In our entire 5,000 year cultural history we have not found a way to beat the rain at its game. In Girish Karnad’s “The Fire and the Rain”, highly placed brahmin pundits hold a huge, huge yadnya to bring rain. At the end the rain comes. So does Indra’s voice, from up above. These things happen in plays, stories, novels, myths being used as metaphors etc.

Some of us believe in the science of yadnyas. Our ancients knew things which modern man foolishly discards as blind faith. Yadnyas are performed today for rain and because we love religious shows. Since belief in ancient science is a matter of faith, we believe the yadnyas work. But they are not known to have brought rain, filled our water reservoirs or irrigated parched fields. So the farmers’ basic most serious affliction remains unaddressed. “Peepli [Live]” demonstrates that this is so.

It also demonstrates other things like the absurdity of government schemes that compensate families of farmers who have committed suicide but do nothing to prevent those suicides. While showing us such worthwhile things about our country and the way it is run, the film also entertains us with excellent dialogue, performances and robust though occasionally erratic camerawork.

Despite all of which, the film fails to engage our mind. The reason is plain. It holds up for our attention what we already know; and since we already know, the thing that is satirically displayed in the hope that the overdoing will somehow penetrate our calloused layers of information. The problem with satire is that there can be no hope of progression. Given how the film begins, we know how it will proceed and how it will end. Its predictability puts our minds to sleep.

Satire is anger’s tool and as cathartic as tears. Let us suppose for a moment that a viewer comes in with zero information baggage. He doesn’t read the papers, doesn’t watch television, doesn’t think. The film tells him all the things about farmers that he should know. If he is sympathetic, he goes away thinking, okay, but what can I do about it? If he is not, he says, wasted evening. They said it’s funny, but it’s not.

The people who are supposed to sit up and take notice, the media, politicians and administrators, have never claimed to be better than their portrayal in the film. So again, it tells them nothing that they don’t know.

Raw knowledge of how things are is not in short supply. Film-makers who wish to turn that knowledge into film must find stories that will grip our imagination, allowing us to discover a new way of looking at what we have always known. Stories as demonstrations of “reality” don’t do that.