Peepli Live isn't a satire - a term that implies exaggeration of the truth or irony employed to shame society into self-improvement - and it isn't a parody. It's being marketed as such, but the true genius of the film lies not in using humour to approve of the very thing they wish to attack - it lies is taking a very clear mirror and making us face it.
Neither Horatian nor Juvenalian in its nature, Peepli dons a poker face and neither professes to nor purports to make exaggerated caricatures of the things it wishes to shame. Directors Anusha Rizvi and Mahmood Farooqui instead are interested in telling a story that truly reflects how India works, and populate that story with characters that drive home that sense of the real.
Each detail is pitch perfect, each nuance carefully constructed to tear apart the veneer that fake Bollywood has built all these years. As the film travels between villages, towns and cities (the only concession to classic tropes of Satire being the state - Mukhya Pradesh, literally the Main State, makes it all the more topical), each character, mannerism, costume and dialogue is hand-crafted to feel real and immediate.
As the story of Natha (Omkar Das) and his brother Budhiya (Raghuvir Yadav) unfolds, we learn of the loan they can no longer repay the bank, and the epidemic of farmer suicides in South India that have prompted the government to announce a cash compensation to the survivors. As Budhiya learns of this and convinces the younger Natha to commit suicide, a throwaway comment brings in a slew of media, and, it being election year, political attention, to Peepli, and these two hapless brothers see more strange things in the resulting few weeks than they have ever seen.
There's an innate sense of balance that the filmmakers have imbibed in their film. This isn't a good versus bad story, it's a story about real people trying to live their lives. Everyone is stuck in their chosen lives, simply reacting to whatever happens, so much so that you cannot find fault with the media hawks or the politicians or the policemen. Natha and Budhiya, too, come across as completely emasculated men who are habitual drunks and pot fiends, and not just a little bit lazy.
Casting actors instead of stars has also ensured each character on screen gives a sense of a story untold, a richer history behind the frames. Throwaway lines flesh out little facets of each character. I could have watched an entire film on the workings of the agricultural ministry with its old school but ineffectual secretary to a small but brilliant turn by Naseer as the cabinet minister who believes himself simply too suave to be the agricultural minister. Paying attention is necessary as these small bits of detail are crammed into every frame.
Each frame is full of rich detail and unspoken glances that tell as much of the story as the spoken words and shots that take the story forward. The rivalry between the Hindi newscaster and the NDTV-like English reporter is etched out less in confrontations and more in the difference that makes them each other's complete opposite.
For a film about death, Peepli is fascinated with life, and everyone chooses to fill it with their own focus, forgetting to actually step out of the cocoon and see it for what it is. There is an ugly truth to our lives, that we must face to truly understand it, it seems to imply. A nice homage to Godaan (a farmer called Hori Mahato is incessantly digging a hole in his land) enables the one awakened conscience in the film, also the only death.
Get too close to the truth without finding a way to wrap it into your narcissistic life, and your enlightenment might cost you dearly in the land of the blind, the films seems to say. It's a beautiful little sub-plot, and the only concession to anger and disdain that the filmmakers give. Peepli Live is a very angry film, but it chooses to show rather than preach, even apologizing about being voyeuristic when a seasoned journalist explains away the attention on one particular story as 'something we do'.
This also means Peepli is often very funny, with some big laugh-out-loud moments. The humour doesn't come from exaggeration, though - it comes from familiarity. It's a major indictment of the film-making of commercial Bollywood that a man abusing another in modern expletives comes across as refreshing. Rizvi and Farooqui are well aware of this, and keep on bringing moments of pure genius - each time you laugh hard in the film, you will realize it isn't an exaggeration, it's that close to being real that you laugh as a way of coping.
As the media circus in the village comes to an end, everyone is packing up to leave. Each little means of entertainment is systematically dismantled, leaving the village in a worse despair. As the firebrand English channel reporter Nandita (Malaika Shenoy) gets in her car, she gives a wistful smile - the realization that this has been an interesting touch with the real India, amusing even, and her life goes on. As we laugh and smile and walk out of the theatres, we have a similar smile on our faces.
For Peepli Live to work, the anger that the film shows, and the injustice it makes us realize, must not get wasted. If it spurs society into action, a film like this serves its purpose. Cinema's power is redeemed. If all it does is make us smile wistfully and wait for the next masala film we wait to watch to forget this, the film becomes an angry cry that went unheard. Ultimately, it might not be the strongest satire, or the funniest film - it might also have some structural problems with the anger coming in too little too late - but it's an important film that you must watch to make up your own mind about life. A film about death that wants you to open your eyes to life, then, while imperfect, deserves almost the perfect score.