Anusha Rizvi was a journalist before she ventured into filmmaking. Peepli Live marks her debut as a director. The movie won the best first film award at the Durban Film Festival.
Smita Maitra and Amrita Ghosh speak with Rizvi on her debut film and forthcoming projects.
Smita Maitra: Although I really enjoyed the film, I came out of it slightly confused about what had been foregrounded - was this a film about mainstream media's encounter with rural hunger and indebtedness, or was the story about the media the background for telling a story about rural destitution?
Anusha Rizvi: Smita, when a film is out or for that matter a book or any other form of art, it is better to leave it to the audience or the reader to decide what they want to take out of it. The audience then becomes the authors of the film, the book and so on so forth. Now if the film leaves you confused than it can be the failing of the film or perhaps that is what it wants. Why should I as the storyteller be put in a position where I have to tell you what to look out for? Also, what if I put this question to you - let me say that the film is on rural indebtedness, will that suffice? You as the viewer have an agency to also see what else is there in it. Which is what is called layering, and it is that that will stand the test of time.
Amrita Ghosh: Can you tell us about the genesis of Peepli Live? What made you think of making a film on the issue of farmer suicides, especially focusing on how the media has handled/represented the whole issue?
Anusha Rizvi: To begin with I would like to clarify that Peepli Live is not on farmer suicides. If you have watched the film you'll realize that it does NOT discuss the suicide issue at all. All that we have done is to use a device to bring out a certain point that we wanted discussed. And the genesis really lies in Dr Manmohan Singh's visit to Andhra Pradesh in 2004. I had already quit NDTV and was looking out for some funding for a documentary I wanted to do. The idea of Peepli Live came while watching a news segment about Dr. Manmohan Singh's visit to a district where 100 people had committed suicide. A package was announced by the government as compensation for the families of the dead; however, no compensation or packages were announced that would make sure that these situations do not arise again. For instance, the government agencies will continue to have low procurement prices for the agricultural products but will pay compensation for the crisis arising out of that. This has been the story of this nation.
Smita Maitra: Most of the people I know who watched the movie actually remembered it for its extremely accurate portrayal of the process of television news-gathering. Very few remembered much about your commentary on farmers' suicides, except for its comic aspects. Do you consider that a failure of the film or is it a failure of today's urban viewer?
Anusha Rizvi: As I have said, it is for the audience to take home what they can or want to. For a lot of people what remains most strongly is Hori and not Natha or the media. For others it was the small time reporter Rakesh. I have shown what I have, but I can’t force people to react to one thing and not to the other.
Amrita Ghosh: There is obviously a lot of satire and dark humor in the film. As an audience reception, many I hear call the film “hilarious” too. In an interview elsewhere, you mention that “The content of the film has not been made comical by effort…It’s an extremely serious movie.” Would you agree that it was an intentional rhetorical strategy to present the issue in such a way as to bring out black humor in the satire? And if so, do you think the ‘entertainment’ value of the film is valorized by merging such a grave issue with humor, even if it is such a scathing critique?
Anusha Rizvi: There are all sorts of humor around everyday lives and social encounters in India. The film looks at a situation, which is both serious and farcical, and one did not want to miss out on either aspects of it.
Smita Maitra: For me, one of the highlights of Peepli Live was that it was not preachy. It seemed like that it was a conscious decision on your part not to turn this into political propaganda. Yet, you ended the film by making almost a documentary style statement -- giving some statistics to drive home your point. As a viewer I felt it was a bit heavy handed ending to an otherwise subtle, understated narrative. What made you do that?
Anusha Rizvi: The placard at the end of the film was the Producer’s decision, taken against our will. We did not want it that way and also felt it was introducing a sort of dishonesty to what was otherwise a very heart felt venture.
Amrita Ghosh: My next question is about subaltern agency of the farmers in Peepli Live, especially when not so much media attention is garnered to the issue of farmer suicides. What kind of subaltern agency do you think the film provides as a visual space of representation for the farmers? Do you think the film sheds light on their agency in any way, or would you say the shift of the film was primarily a critique of media and the political scenario of the country?
Anusha Rizvi: In a sense the ploy to announce a suicide by Budhia is a means to take control of their lives. Even Natha running away and not succumbing is a form of resistance and agency. But they operate in a realm where everything is not in their control. So, there is agency with limits. Same for Rakesh, agency yes but with limits to its reach and influence.
Amrita Ghosh: As a debutant director, do you think filmmaking is a pedagogic exercise; in that, what does Peepli Live set out to do as its goal?
Anusha Rizvi: To make you laugh and reflect and to make you realize that there is a vast India out there which will keep landing in your cities and your doorsteps if you don't do something about it.
Smita Maitra: Did it irritate you that the mainstream media treated Peepli Live as an Aamir Khan film, as if a part of his 'oeuvre'? In hindsight would you agree that Peepli Live would have been better off being distributed and marketed on its own steam, perhaps like a Tere Bin Laden, which had decent success without any 'Star' backer?
Anusha Rizvi: Perhaps. There are lots of small films, which have done well without stars, Dev D, Ishqiya, LSD, Tere Bin Laden. So, if the content is good you can do well without backing, but you can’t wish away the importance of promotion and marketing either.
Amrita Ghosh: What made you transition into filmmaking from a media background?
Anusha Rizvi: I had an idea and a subject, which could only be dealt with as a film. So I went ahead and made it; it was as simple as that.
Amrita Ghosh: Finally, are there any future film projects that you are already working on?
Anusha Rizvi: Yes, a couple of them; let us see when they are ready.
Web Graphics and design by Smita Maitra * Background graphic by Kabir Kashyap* concept by Amrita Ghosh * Please read the disclaimer
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