Unlike satires that coast on winking self-satisfaction, Anusha Rizvi’s debut is both a heartfelt and a genuinely funny skewering of India’s convoluted caste-consciousness. Brothers Natha (Manikpuri) and Budhia (Yadav)—two hapless, beleagured peasants in the fictional village of Peepli—are on the verge of losing their land because of an unpaid bank loan. Amid a recent trend of farmer suicides (a real-life phenomenon in rural India), they overhear gossip about a government program that pays cash for crops. Crafty Budhia convinces his simpleton brother to make the ultimate sacrifice, but before the latter can follow through, a local reporter (Shenoy) makes him into a poster boy for societal discontent. Within hours the national press follows up, Natha’s impending death turns into a countrywide cliff-hanger, and sleepy Peepli becomes a 24/7 media carnival.
Compared with the paraded bloat of most Bollywood imports, Peepli Live is surprisingly restrained, patiently matching Manikpuri’s slack-jawed deadpan. Rizvi’s disaster pastoral directly recalls Billy Wilder’s accelerated descent into modern hell, Ace in the Hole, but she’s much more of a pragmatist than Hollywood’s legendary cynic. Her film mercifully stops short of sanctifying the poor or fully scorning the privileged, maintaining enough real-world complexity that all sides can recognize the mess.—Eric Hynes
Watch the trailer