Natha Will Die. Or Maybe Not.

How Peepli Live, a satire on farmer suicides in India, came about

left to right) Omkar Das Manikpuri (Natha), Shalini Vatsa (Dhaniya) and Farukh Jaffer (Amma), in a still from Peepli Live. AKPFILMS.COM
01 August, 2010

IN JUNE 2004, 100 farmers took their lives in Andhra Pradesh. It shocked the nation. The first UPA government had just come to power, riding on a strong pro-poor, pro-farmer electoral wave, and on 1 July Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flew to Andhra Pradesh to visit the suicide-hit villages. A five-year drought, coupled with the collapse of government credit and the resulting indebtedness to private moneylenders had wreaked havoc. Nearly 3,000 farmers in the state had committed suicide since 1998. Seventy percent of the state’s 78 million people were dependent on agriculture in 2004, 90 percent of them small farmers.

On his tour, the prime minister visited, among other districts, the severely drought-stricken Mahabubnagar. In Dharmapur village 13 farmers had committed suicide in the previous six weeks. In neighbouring Pamulapadu, Singh met Sivamma, whose husband, Anjaneyulu, had killed himself in 1998. After the state government acquired their 2.2-hectare plot for the digging of the Telugu Ganga Canal, the family had collected their compensation and moved to the village. They put the money into farming, but before the harvest, a hailstorm ravaged the crop, and Anjaneyulu was forced to take loans from the village moneylenders. After the debt had swollen to 100,000 rupees, and distressed by pressure from the lenders, one November day he consumed a lethal dose of pesticide.


The villages were teeming with such stories, each more tragic than the last, to a point where the prime minister appeared moved. “I also come from a farmer’s family and I have some idea of the suffering and difficulties of the farmers,” he told the villagers. He announced a federal compensation of 50,000 rupees to every family affected by suicide.

On the same day, in New Delhi, Anusha Rizvi, a 27-year-old television editor between jobs, was watching the news and felt she had hit upon a great story. She decided to make a film—a satire on the farmers’ suicides, a story of how an ordinary person’s life gets sucked into the ulterior interests of government, bureaucracy and media. “I neither trained nor ever wished to make films before this story came to me in a flash. Some stories have a tendency to appear in the most unlikely places,” says Rizvi, in the director’s note on the film’s website.

ON THE MORNING OF 5 JULY, I visit Rizvi at her Jamia Nagar house, a day opposition parties called for a nationwide protest in the interest of the aam aadmi, the UPA II government’s move to hike fuel prices.

“In a country where people sell blood for seven rupees, sell their children for seven rupees, a compensation of 50,000 rupees to the family is sure to draw a lot of desperate people into taking their lives,” Rizvi says of the readily available irony of the PM’s relief deal, as her husband, Mahmood Farooqi, a dastango and writer, nods in support. Fifty thousand rupees is a lot of money for agrarians, considering the net average income of a farming family is approximately 6,750 rupees per hectare per year, and the average monthly per capita expenditure is 503 rupees.

Idea in tow, Rizvi set out to find a producer. She was a complete Bollywood outsider, without any contacts or a clue about the ways of the industry, but one day, a friend gave her actor and producer Aamir Khan’s email address. She mailed Khan a synopsis of her story, without expecting a reply. The subject line was ‘Falling,’ which was then meant to be the title of the film.  Khan was just completing a film called The Rising, and on spotting the subject line in his flooded inbox he thought someone had punned on his upcoming movie’s name. He opened the mail.

Rizvi soon got a reply from Khan, asking her to write a full script and send it over. He had agreed to produce the film. “I was drawn into it. I found it to be very funny and at the same time very heartbreaking. Very engaging, entertaining and enlightening, but a very unusual script for Indian cinema. In other words, it was right up my street,” says Khan in the producer’s note.

Mainstream audiences go to movies for an escape from the hard realities of the real India. Even in the rare films based in rural settings, the villages are idyllic, picture-postcard visions with lush fields and flowing streams. Earlier, low profile attempts at dealing with farmers’ issues on celluloid like Kisaan (2009) and Summer 2007 (2008), which focused on the suicides in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, did not attract much of an audience. But Aamir Khan’s endorsment of Rizvi’s project meant there would be no budget and promotion constraints, and the possibility of a good turnout in theatres eventually.

On average, there has been one farmer suicide in India every 30 minutes since 2002. AIJAZ RAHI/AP PHOTO

She was ready with a script in early 2005. The shooting, however, began much later, as Khan was busy with another production, Taare Jameen Par, a film about a dyslexic child’s struggle with a conventional system of education full of homework, marks and neatness.

The shoot began in January 2009, with the title Peepli Live, ‘peepli’ being a common name for villages in central India. The story centres on two poor farming brothers, Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri) and Budhia (Raghubir Yadav), in the small village of Peepli, who are about to lose their land due to outstanding government debt. A village politician suggests they commit suicide, so the family (the mother, Natha’s wife and his two kids) can pay the debt with the 100,000 rupees compensation. Natha and his brother fight over which one will die. While his brother is happy to push him towards this ‘honour,’ Natha is reluctant. A journalist overhears the conversation, and the story becomes an overnight sensation, and Natha, a celebrity. Local elections are looming, and all manner of politicians descend on the village to make electoral gains from the event. Suddenly the issue of rural poverty in India shoots to the top of the national agenda. Everyone wants to know what will happen to Natha.

Raghubir Yadav (Budhia) Omkar Das Manikpuri and Shalini Vatsa, in a still from Peepli Live. AKPFILMS.COM

The film was shot in Barwai village, 60 kilometres from Bhopal, and New Delhi. It stars many members of the Naya Theatre, late playwright and director Habib Tanvir’s repertory of Chhattisgarhi actors. Rizvi wanted authentic-looking faces to play the characters, and the search for Natha was an elaborate one, says Farooqi, the casting director, and casting included him trying to play the part himself at one point. Finally, Omkar Das Manikpuri was discovered. Manikpuri is a Chhattisgarhi theatre actor trained in the local folk theatre called Nacha, set in makeshift and open-air stages. Apart from Raghubir Yadav and Naseeruddin Shah (in a small role), the rest of the actors are fresh faces, some of them local Adivasis from Madhya Pradesh. About the characters, Anusha says, “these are people who I have known and interacted with, laughed with or laughed at, eaten, observed and sang with…I have known in a deeply personal sense and in that sense this film is almost a sum total of my politics, personal and professional.”

THE PLIGHT OF FARMERS first came up for national discussion in India in the 1990s, after journalist P Sainath started reporting on the sections of the Indian population that had been left behind in the IMF-led reforms launched by then finance minister Manmohan Singh. It was a significant decade in Indian economic history as the country transformed into an urban, industrialised society, with increasingly less regard for the concerns of the rural population. With no employment options, many non-farmers in rural India took to cultivation. But the commercialisation of agriculture (corporations taking over seed and fertilizer businesses), and the withdrawal of bank credit didn’t help. Farmers didn’t know how to cope with the changing economy.

In 1993, on a Times of India fellowship, Sainath took to the back roads in the ten poorest districts of five states—Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala. It meant covering close to 100,000 kilometres across India, 5,000 on foot. The subsequent 84 reports across 18 months documented, for the first time, the shocking trail of farmer suicides. The government was alarmed. Official reports initially did not acknowledge the suicides, but as more and more information came to light the government accepted that farmers in India were going through a difficult time.

Sainath kept to his mission relentlessly. He studied data—of the National Crime Record Bureau, National Sample Survey Organisation and other such impartial institutions. He cited figures (166,304 farmer suicides in the decade since 1997; on average, one farmer suicide every 30 minutes since 2002; 46 farmers commit suicide every day) and put them in a perspective (16,632 farmers committed suicide in 2007, the same year the Forbes billionaires list had 53 Indians. Fifty-three individuals in a population of one billion held wealth equal to almost a third of their nation’s GDP at the time, 335 billion dollars.) He remains the strongest voice on farmers’ rights in the Indian media and civil society, and his book, Everybody Loves a Good Drought, is the textbook for understanding India’s rural poor.

Rizvi read the book as research for her script, along with several of Sainath’s other writings. Considering that her film, as she puts it, is a “contemporary Indian story depicting the rural and urban divide told through the subject of farmer suicides,” it’s surprising that Sainath is not involved with any aspect of the production, and hasn’t yet commented on the film.

I ask if the couple reached out to him. They did, says Farooqi, but unsuccessfully. “We wrote many emails to him, telling him about the film’s subject, but never got a reply.” He thinks it has something to do with Aamir Khan’s association with the film.

The association creates other confusions. All my attempts at researching the film led me to either Aamir Khan’s statements about the film/director or the stories of how Rizvi got one of the biggest stars in Bollywood to produce it. I ask her if she is concerned that his name overwhelms the content and merit of the film in the media coverage. “I am happy that people are at least talking about the film. At this stage, what else will people discuss?”

But what if people turn up to see a regular Aamir Khan production and are disappointed by an unglamorous, offbeat film? Rizvi is not thinking about the risk now. The film is scheduled for a 13 August release and the couple is visibly excited. The festival run has been good—it was recently screened at the Sundance Film Festival, the first Indian film to make it into competition, and at the Berlin International Film Festival, both screenings sold out.

Rizvi wants the film to be released only in single-screen theatres, not multiplexes. “It’s only at the single screens where people for whom I have made the film and those who will care about it will come. The urban, metro audience will see the film in the multiplexes and soon forget about it.” But she is not the one distributing the film. UTV Pictures is. “They will release it in multiplexes,” she says, sounding a little disappointed.

Anusha Rizvi and Mahmood Farooqui at their Jamia Nagar home in Delhi. {{name}}

Going by the recently released promos, however, the film seems potent enough to interest urban audiences, too: The scene is set as an army of television crews take over a village; white ambassadors queue up on the gravel road, blowing swirls of dust all over; a politician-like figure tells the brothers, “Even you can give something to the government—your life”; the agriculture minister says to the television host, “Don’t put words into my mouth”; two village women in bridal red saris and flowing tresses whirl violently outside the temple of the Peepli goddess while an excited television anchor screams into the camera, “Mother goddess has signaled. Natha will die, but he will remain alive!”

The film appears to be going all out to mock sensationalist television news channels. And Rizvi should be able to have pulled it off well, having been a television insider for years. But she explains she is only showing the reality, not deciding on what’s right or wrong in the portrayal of all the statesmen—government, bureaucracy, media. “I wanted to capture reality rather than to create it,” she says.