HONG KONG — One of the hot topics among India’s chattering classes is when their country will surpass China and become the fastest growing country in the world.
It is getting closer, with India scoring almost 9 percent last year and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saying that 10 percent is within reach.
A budding horse-racing commentator could get quite excited, as the two countries run neck and neck in growth rate. But this game of numbers is a dangerous one.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, who studied economics at Cambridge with Singh, last month described India’s fixation with growing faster than China as “very stupid,” and warned that more attention should be paid to India’s deficit in malnourishment and other social shortcomings.
In the next 10 days when Hollywood announces the Oscar nominations, there may be another black reminder of India’s economic and social deficit if the film “Peepli Live” gets on the list, as it deserves to.
The film, which scored an impressive 83 percent rating on the influential Rotten Tomatoes site, goes beyond India’s glittering cities to a poor village in the fictional state of Mukhya Pradesh to tackle the bleak tragedy of suicides by farmers. It may be hard to imagine that anyone could find humor in suicide, but “Peepli Live” does it brilliantly, without attempting to hide the depressing and oppressive poverty of the village.
It shows two brothers who go to the town to discuss the bank’s plan to foreclose on the loan on their land. We never see the fateful meeting, only the alcohol-charged discussions as to how the brothers can face the family to give them the bad news. In drinking with the village headman a solution is suggested — if younger brother Natha commits suicide, his family can collect the 100,000 rupees subsidy that the government will pay out in compensation for his death.
Talk of suicide is overheard by a local reporter, who passes the news to a big television station in Delhi. The film then pans out from the village to Delhi and back through the state capital as the big media stations descend on the small village with their state-of-the-art equipment and satellite dishes looking for the ultimate scoop. The media circus forces the politicians to take notice.
What follows is sometimes hilariously exaggerated but not inaccurate. The local politicians are concerned only about keeping power in an upcoming election. At one stage the ruling party suggests that unless Natha commits suicide within two days it will promptly repossess his land — until the opposition sees an opportunity to use Natha in its own bid to come to power.
The chief minister then changes tack and tries to sweeten Natha with presents, including a hand pump that comes without the trimmings that might make it work other than as a plaything for local children.
Many scenes paint the contradictions of an India that imagines it can vie with China as an economic superpower: the agriculture minister who believes that the country’s future lies in industrialization; the top bureaucrats and politicians in Delhi who try to wish the problems away by waiting for a judicial ruling; the huddled politicians going through all their garibi-hatao (abolish poverty) schemes to realize that there is no off-the-shelf remedy for an indebted farmer contemplating suicide.
Finally, there is the violence when the desperate state chief minister decides to kidnap Natha and hold him to ransom for money from the opposition. In the ensuing chaos as the TV crews and villagers rush to find Natha, a kerosene lamp spills and sets fire to the barn. . . And here I’ll stop so I don’t give away the ending.
The media in Peepli, sadly, behave like clowns in a circus, rushing everywhere so preoccupied with TRP (television rating points) that they ignore the real drama in front of their noses when a man collapses and dies through overwork. They take over the village but cannot get anyone to talk and, at one point, are driven to examine the stools left behind by the elusive Natha to guess his intentions.
What gives the film its punch is that it seizes a burning issue. Between 2003 and 2008, more than 700,000 Indian farmers committed suicide, even as millions of cultivators quit farming often to search for work in the swelling festering cities. The vulnerability of farmers to new seeds and methods that demand regular expensive inputs of fertilizer and water is also becoming an issue.
“Peepli Live” touches lightly on some of the other abiding problems of rural India, particularly the poverty of the education system and repression of women. Some of the strongest lines come from the two women, the bedridden old grandma constantly carping at her daughter-in-law, who is also the wife frustrated by feckless Natha’s drinking. If only the wife could do the unthinkable and assert herself, her common sense would cut through the postulating of politicians and the feebleness of men in seeking solutions through drink. But that is not the reality of rural India.
Visitors to India who see only its shining metropolitan face, its rich culture and the talented educated people who staff the modern hotels and corporate offices may be surprised but, as Amartya Sen notes, India has severe social deficiencies, and half of its young children suffer from stunted development.
One typical village I have visited regularly for 35 years, only 60 km from the Taj Mahal, still lacks electricity and a school. Most depressing, there are no toys or dolls in the village that might help stimulate young minds.
The best that can be said is that, in India, these issues are aired. The film after all is the country’s entry in the foreign film section of the Academy Awards.
It is hard to imagine such a production seeking to explore the social deficiencies of modern China getting an official blessing and publicity.
The film “Peepli Live” is produced by Aamir Khan and directed by Anusha Rizvi. Kevin Rafferty is editor in chief of PlainWords Media.