The mere cold stats tell us that over last decade or so, approximately 200,000 Indian farmers have committed suicides and around 9 million have left farming profession altogether. Globalization and corporatization of farming, besides the vagaries of weather have been blamed for this disastrous state of affairs. Since Anusha Rizvi’s Oscar-entry Hindi-film Peepli Live and Suresh Manwar’s acclaimed Marathi film- Gabhricha Paus, both deal with this burning issue, it is but natural to compare their cinematic treatment.
Peepli Live tells a story of a poor farmer Natha. When faced with the prospect of losing his family-land to the lending bank, he approaches the local politician for help and is mockingly advised to consider committing suicide, in order to get the Government’s compensation. Natha’s elder brother then convinces him to consider the suicide-option to relieve the family of its economic burden. A local reporter picks up their conversation and writes a sensationalist story, which starts a massive media and political campaign, where everyone else but Natha has an opinion and an underlying agenda about his impending suicide! How does it all end?
Gabhricha Paus begins with a farmer’s suicide in a drought-stricken village in the interiors of Maharashtra. The drought has brought farmers to their knees and one by one, they are either leaving farming or taking the more drastic approach of leaving this world. This particular suicide and the stories behind it serve to put the neighbouring farmer Kisna’s family on high alert. Kisna’ wife now starts interpreting her husband’s silent aloofness as a possible prelude to a potential suicide. She tries her best to keep a constant tight vigil on his whereabouts and also makes every possible attempt to keep him in good spirits. But contrary to her reading, Kisna is actually one of the few farmers who are still harboring optimism about a better harvest in future. Will the damned rain ever come to bring that better harvest?
Peepli Live and Gabhricha Paus, both the movies put a spotlight on Indian farmers’ sorry plight but their overall impact differs a lot thanks to two different directorial approaches. Anusha Rizvi turns Peepli Live into a high-flying socio-political satire full of caricatures. More than the farmers’ problems, the focus here is on the murky media and political circus, where everyone is busy garnering maximum mileage out of a personal tragedy. The emotional tone of story-line is quite loud. The family members of the farmer contemplating suicide - whether it is his wife, mother, brother or children – are shown totally devoid of any kind of sympathy or empathy for him. The farmer himself is portrayed as a silent, sad-face bystander, helplessly witnessing the great drama unfolding around him. Add to that the jump-cuts, dissolves and other typical new-age film-techniques and what we get is an emotionally shallow and hollow dark comedy of a potential farmer suicide, which has turned into a national prime-time TV-drama.
So while watching Peepli Live we just get to know the bullet points about how the high cost of farming, dependence on unreliable monsoon, corrupt administrators, political apathy, callous public and irresponsible media are driving the poor farmers first to unmanageable loans and then to suicides. But the directorial decision to caricaturize the proceedings leave us with no long-lasting sense of shock or sympathy about the social problem the film has unraveled. As a viewer, I was left confused about the aim of the film. Serious, sensitive film it is certainly not and perhaps not even intended to be. But even as a black comedic entertainer, it just succeeds partially because beyond a certain point, it becomes too repetitive. Plus it is hard to enjoy or feel entertained when the screen proceedings are depicting such a serious core-theme. What Peepli Live does is just to provoke thoughts but it doesn’t make any emotional impact.
Satish Manwar’s Gabhricha Paus too employs the dark comedic tone in the way the farmer’s wife keeps tabs through her mother-in-law and son on her husband, so that he shouldn’t end up committing suicide. But all along, there is an underlying sensitivity and emotional warmth adding poignancy to those funny moments. Here too the main protagonist farmer is reticent but his character is well-etched out. There is a spirit within his character, which touches us and when following an unending stream of professional tragedies his spirit breaks from within, we are shattered along with him. The same thing can be said about all the peripheral characters as well. Here even the farmer’s family members and other villagers are not some caricatures; they are genuine characters with ‘character’, whose pain and problems touch us! The film proceeds languidly in the traditional Old World cinematic style, reminiscent of Shyam Benegal-classics in the 80s and that pace allows the viewers to absorb the sheer magnitude and gravity of the social problem it unfolds.
The points raised by both films are similar but cinematically Gabhricha Paus does it a lot better than Peepli Live! If one has to really understand the heart-breaking ground-reality of farmer suicides in India, one has to see Gabhricha Paus but I am afraid I cannot make the same statement about Peepli Live!