05 Sep 2010 10:12:00 AM IST
Peepli Live is one of the most offensive films of our times and in many ways is symptomatic of what can be called the Aamir Khan School of Thought (whether this be an Aamir Khan Productions film, as Peepli Live is, or a film with Aamir in it which, as we all know, becomes, more or less, an Aamir Khan production), one of the most dangerous schools of thought in the contemporary cinematic moment. Peepli Live came to us with the careful media orchestration that we know Aamir Khan manages for all his films and has been hailed, a little too hastily, as a great film, a dark satire, an intellectual and critical comedy and whatever else by our dumbed down cronies who pass as film critics.
A closer examination of the film will expose that it is a shallow and exploitative film and will also delineate the salient characteristics of what I have called the Aamir Khan School of Thought (henceforth AKSOT). Peepli Live opens with two farmer brothers returning from a negotiation with the state (which we do not see) over the fact that their land which had to be put on sale to pay for their mother’s medical bills is now lost as they cannot afford to buy it back. We do not ever see this farm nor, through the film, do the brothers ever work on it. We have no sense of the political economy of these men’s lives (we see only the younger brother’s wife do any work in the film) as the film takes an
improbable segue into the farmer suicide issue when the local politician/landlord asks them to commit suicide when his henchman informs him that in Tamil Nadu farmers are getting compensation for a lakh if they do so.
The film further derails into one of the most clichéd and overdone attacks on the electronic media (Dibakar Bannerjee did it so much more subtly in LSD) with them being accused of being unethical shallow, mindless yawn yawn. The critique stretches tiresomely and seemingly endlessly as does the critique of a multitude of others — the government (central and state), the opposition (indeed all political parties, including the communists), urban activists (through the much-maligned candlelight vigil), the villagers (they perform witchcraft, smoke ganja, gossip and talk nonsense to the media and do anything but work, which is as far from rural reality as possible), women (who are screaming shrews or heartless (of course) English-educated journos). Indeed almost everyone comes
under the bulldozer (with as much nuance as a bulldozer) critique.
The few heroes are an old man who digs and sells mud (based on Premchand’s Hori from Godaan), the Hindi stringer journalist from the village and, perhaps, the hapless Natha (the live suicide) but most definitely the holier-than-thou film-makers, speaking from on high, commenting on the rangrez des they are so spotlessly and miraculously above. This is the first and main characteristic of the AKSOT. It is above all politics and can make fun of Left and Right, rich and poor, urban and rural with equally (and level) deft strokes.
The second is the reinvention of rurality as chic. Peepli Live ends with a series of snapshots of urban migrant construction workers worthy of Raghu Rai. Remember Taare Zameen Par, which fetishised street labourers and vendors in Mumbai in a similar fashion shot from the eye-level of the gifted child? Poverty shot well looks good. Bronzed, perspiring, labouring, lower caste bodies make for breathtaking visuals. In Peepli Live, this is also effected by a shameful use of Habib Tanvir’s Naya Theatre, its actors, its style, with none of Tanvir’s sustained politics or engagement.
The third is the seeming ease with which the AKSOT accesses the pulse of the ‘real’ India. Conspicuously avoiding the pious sentimentality of an earlier cinematic moment (the poor are made fun of here constantly — remember the poor family in 3 Idiots, made fun of through the film), these films nevertheless claim to have their hearts in the right place, know who the heroes are. In Aamir’s own films, it is of course he himself who is the only hero. In his production house’s films, it is the disabled (Taare Zameen Par), anti-colonial, casteist cricket-playing villagers (Lagaan), teeny boppers (Jaane Tu...) and now the rural poor/suicide-level farmers (Peepli Live).
The fourth characteristic of the AKSOT is what is common between all these unlikely ‘real Indians.’ They all seem really happy with neoliberal India. Aamir has played the Hindu cop beating Muslim bad guys with aplomb for some time now, his newer avatars include an engineering school rebel who claims to think outside the box yet makes the most money in the end (3 Idiots), a school teacher whose triumph, while pontificating about how every child is special, is to mainstream a dyslexic child (Taare Zameen Par) and a college drop-out whose heart beats for poor middle-class uppercaste ‘real’ Indians (Rang De Basanti) who die in inferior Indian government aircraft (it is indicative that Rang De Basanti was corralled by the anti-reservation upper and middle castes and classes in attacking the second Arjun Singh-led Mandal reservations and that NDTV had a rightwing show on the Rang De Basanti generation).
Aamir Khan is indeed the pulse of this nation but not of any of the pseudo-progressive and ‘real’ issues he claims to be dealing with. He is the sugar coating of the sick, anti-poor, anti-farmer, anti-woman (Kareena Kapoor winning the IIFA award for Best Actress in 3 Idiots is surely the biggest joke of our time — she barely had a scene in that homosocial drama of three 40-year-olds-playing-18-year-olds who really want to get it on with each other and almost do), anti-Dalit (remember Kachra in Lagaan? S Anand did a good critique of it), anti-tribal (the racism of 3 Idiots about tribals in Leh) pill we are all made to swallow that render us immune to what’s really going on in this country. If we have slick, suave, technically savvy, superbly marketed, booming images to lull us into the belief that we can plunder these marginalised groups, laugh at them and assuage our conscience while we are at it, why do we need anything more? And Aamir Khan can go to Leh and pronounce that ‘All Izz Not Well,’ sit with Medha Patkar in dharnas (which no doubt Anusha Rizvi and Mahmood Farooqui can airbrush into what they think is humour and satire), do Coke, Samsung and a million other ads and laugh all the way to the bank. All izz definitely very well.
— The author is an academic.