I return briefly to my post on “Peepli [Live]”. I’ve just come across an interview with Peter Brook done a few years ago, in which he was fed questions by several theatre people and critics about his work and his ideas about theatre. The very first question put to him by a theatre director was, “Given the state of political unrest in Africa, is there an appropriate theatrical response?”
I’d like to quote part of his answer to this question because he it says succinctly about plays what I was struggling to say about the film’s approach to the problem of agrarian distress. He says, “It is quite clear that when one takes any political subject straight on the nose, one is in enormous danger of simplifying what everyone knows by heart from television and newspapers. Suppose we do a play about Iraq or genocide or Aids in Africa, it is very hard not to produce stereotype reactions. The only thing political theatre can do is open up contradictions by exposing the other side of an issue. And sometimes, by taking a subject from the past, we can awaken current concerns. Every real political play contains not only vibrant criticism of a ghastly situation. It's only complete if, at the same time, it evokes the possibility of something worth living for. Otherwise grumbling simply produces grumbling.”
I may not go with the last sentiment, because grumbling has a place in a society such as ours. But when the grumble ends once again with the obvious it doesn’t get us anywhere at all. In “Peepli [Live]” the end shows Natha as a construction worker in Mumbai. The contrast between where he once belonged and where he finds himself now is underlined in bold. Tall buildings go up before him as he sits disconsolately on a heap of rubble covered in the white dust of their construction. A caption tells us that X million farmers have migrated to the cities in the last Y decades. That’s sleight of hand. All those millions didn’t come because they’d lost their lands. They came and continue to come because that’s what industrialisation is all about and also because family holdings cannot sustain growing families for ever. Even if Natha had managed to keep his land, one of his sons would have had to migrate to the city. Are we trying to turn the clock back or should we be saying there will always be people who will choose to migrate to cities and that’s fine, but there should also be an assurance of survival for those who choose to stay back and till their land.
Circumstances being what they are, Natha might be allowed to see a silver lining in his present situation; to see that working hard and sending money home for the family was a better alternative to dying so they could live. It’s not the best life but it is work. Work is dignity. It is also an escape from the clutches of the local goonda politicians.
Of the many lovely touches in the film, one is the brief dream Natha has sleeping in the hut where he’s been dumped by his tormentors. He sees himself dressed in yellow silk riding a caparisoned horse. Perhaps a more realistic waking dream about having work and being productive could have put a little light in his eyes at the end of the film. Such an end would not have destroyed the “messages” the film-makers had already communicated about our cynical media and politicians and anti-poor systems of governance. But it would have given us a less maudlin view of migrants. They are poor, sure. They are exploited, sure. But on both counts less so than in the villages they come from. They are tough, these men and women who come to work in the cities. They have clear goals in life. They don’t sit around on rubble heaps inviting people to feel sorry for them.