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Omkar Das Manikpuri (left) plays Natha, a down-on-his-luck farmer who considers committing suicide, in the film Peepli Live — just so that his family can take advantage of a government-sponsored compensation program. Raghubir Yadav plays Budhia, Natha's older brother.
Omkar Das Manikpuri (left) plays Natha, a down-on-his-luck farmer who considers committing suicide, in the film Peepli Live — just so that his family can take advantage of a government-sponsored compensation program. Raghubir Yadav plays Budhia, Natha's older brother. Falco Ink Publicity
Natha, a farmer in central India, is in danger of losing his land because he can't repay a loan. But all of his problems could be solved through a government program that would award his relatives with a staggering 100,000 rupees — about $2,000.
The catch? Natha will have to commit suicide for his family to get the money.
This is the premise of Peepli Live, a Bollywood satire that had its American premiere in mid-August. The movie's story is fictional — as is the village, Peepli, where it takes place — but the phenomenon it examines is all too real: In recent years, hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers have killed themselves because they're unable to pay their debts. And India's government really does compensate their families.
"It's like an epidemic," says Aamir Khan, the Bollywood veteran who produced Peepli Live. Between 1991 and 2001 alone, 200,000 farmers took their own lives, he says. "That's really a scary and heartbreaking thought."
Despite the widespread nature of the phenomenon, farmer suicide isn't the sort of thing that a Bollywood movie would normally depict.
"Mainstream films in India don't usually tackle such serious topics," Khan — one of the biggest names in that business — tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "But I just loved it, so I wanted to do it."
A Media Circus, And A Song About Inflation
The subject matter isn't the only thing that makes Peepli Live unusual. The film's satirical tone also sets it apart from the bulk of what the Hindi-film industry produces. And it's not light satire: Natha's family members, Khan notes, are impatient for him to go ahead and close the deal.
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Bollywood celebrity Aamir Khan (left) produced the satire, a project that's well outside the mainstream in the Hindi-film world.
Bollywood celebrity Aamir Khan (left) produced the satire, a project that's well outside the mainstream in the Hindi-film world. Falco Ink Publicity
"His son asks him, 'Dad, when are you committing suicide? Because Uncle says when you're dead, I'll become a contractor.' And stuff like that."
Local politicians and the media come in for a merciless skewering. "There's a local election happening at that point in time, which is why things completely spiral out of control," Khan says. Meanwhile, ruthless TV news crews jockey to film Natha's imminent suicide live.
"There's been a sudden growth of the media," Khan says, "and as a result a lot of the reporting is extremely sensational, with an eye on just getting the [ratings]."
To Khan, the film's take on politics and the media is "reflective on all of us as a society, and how we do in fact move toward stories which are sensational." What plays out in the village of Peepli is "very funny when you watch it," he continues, "but the sad fact is that it's actually not very far from the truth."
In fact, some elements in Peepli Live blur the line between truth and fiction. One of the film's featured songs is a tune that director Anusha Rizvi first heard being played by a local group of musicians when she was shooting on location at a small village. Not an upbeat, Bollywood-style extravaganza about romance or rivalry; it's a song about the ravages of inflation, with lyrics like "My husband earns a lot of money / but inflation, that witch, eats it all away every month."
"This is a song they had written for themselves, all the villagers, and they were singing it. And she really loved it," recalls Khan.
Khan knows that he's taking a risk by producing such an explicitly political film in a country where reasonable expectations say it'll find a niche audience, at best. But he's come to believe it's his job to make movies with a message.
"I don't know who else will do it," he says. "When I come across material which excites me — which not only is engaging and entertaining, but also has something to say, or hopefully sensitizes people or makes you think — I'd like to be a part of that."