There’s something about Aamir Khan, isn’t there? Whatever he’s touched in the last few years has turned to gold. And given where gold prices are at these days, that’s a rich haul, at least metaphorically. Be it ‘Lagaan’s’ dream run at the Oscars in 2001, the massive critical and commercial successes of ‘Taare Zameen Par’, ‘Ghajini’ and ‘3 Idiots’, or the backing of first time director Anusha Razvi’s indie vehicle ‘Peepli Live’. Most observers are convinced he’s mastered the balance between content and commerce. It is perhaps no coincidence that his latest production, the dark yet enjoyable ‘Peepli Live’ is India’s official entry to the 83rd Academy Awards to be held in 2011, the fourth Aamir Khan film to represent India in the last nine years (including ‘Rang De Basanti’ where his contribution was only in the capacity of actor. Speaking of actors, this is Raghubir Yadav’s sixth film to be sent to the Oscars, second only to Kamal Hassan’s seven. Yadav, however has had two of his films ‘Lagaan’ and ‘Water’, make the final five). But is it a convenient choice? Or one simply made given Khan’s prior Oscar experience? India’s entry to the Oscars cannot be about pandering to certain egos or Bollywood cliques and cabals. The best film must represent the country and all other criteria must be cast aside. But given India’s failure to bag a single statuette thus far might prompt a thinking based not entirely on merit alone.
With these questions being raised, the film’s selection as India’s entry in the Best Foreign Film category has not been beyond controversy. This has once again been seen by some quarters as an attempt to play the poverty card, to showcase the worst of India to a gloating western audience. BJP’s LK Advani, no less, has expressed regret at this tendency of filmmakers to repeatedly serve up the worst kind of poverty porn for commercial and critical benefit. As if ‘Slumdog Millionaire’s insensitive dignity-denying portrayals of the poor weren’t enough, we now have a homegrown version to pander to the same exploitative and voyeuristic urban nouveau riche, who have no connect whatsoever with the devastatingly deprived and unfortunate heartlands. Perhaps a mockery was being made of the farmers’ genuine plight. Cinema is a powerful representative of country’s image and questions are being asked if a resurgent and growing India needs to continue to be represented by films such as these. Other allegations include favoritism shown to the film’s powerful and savvy producers and the consistent overlooking of regional cinema, come Oscar time.
While it is indeed true that the three Indian films that ever made the final nominations in the Best Foreign Film category (‘Mother India’, ‘Salaam Bombay!’ and ‘Lagaan’) were films that were decidedly set amongst poverty (rural and urban) and deprivation, but pronouncing judgment that similarly themed films have the best bet at getting noticed at the Oscars is perhaps too simplistic a conclusion. One must understand that the Oscars are an embodiment of an essentially a western perspective on cinema. To win there, you have to play it by their rules. One has to present cinema with universal appeal, with real stories – make believe is one thing, but singing and dancing, melodramatic monstrosities such as ‘Henna’, ‘Saagar’, ‘Jeans’ and ‘Devdas’ as entries have been a waste of time and energy. A western audience finds no connect whatsoever with this particular brand of cinema and our collective rancour at a trophy-less cabinet only finds likeness to the forlorn countenance of the sourpuss at the birthday party, stubbornly spoiling it for everyone.
‘Peepli’ is in this regard a smart and confident film, a story succinctly and poignantly told to devastating impact. It has an appeal which transcends boundaries and lack of typical Bollywood treatment will only enhance its chances. ‘Lagaan’ probably lost out due to it being at its core, a big Bollywood musical. Rizvi’s film has no such trappings. Many point to ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ as an example of the westerner’s love for all things poor in India. Indeed, while the film reaped a huge haul of statuettes, it was more because of the quirky and gimmicky screenplay and the freshness of the story rather than the supposed interest it generated on account of it laying bare Mumbai’s dark and deprived underbelly. The film also offered hope in a difficult time, and with the world reeling from the aftershocks of a depressing economic crisis, this small film’s roaring success mirroring its rags-to riches plot captured the popular imagination. It all came together nicely. As far as Mr. Advani is concerned, it is perhaps pertinent to remind him that ‘Peepli Live’ does nothing to mock the farmers' pitiable conditions; it mocks our indifferent and voyeuristic response to it. Perhaps the purpose of satire is a concept lost on him. Cinema and other forms of art, as a medium of comment, are possibly at their most penetrating when the reality is so pitiable that it defies belief. Years ago, Satyajit Ray's ‘Apu’ trilogy was widely criticised in several quarters for exploiting poverty. Nonetheless posterity has shown why his films have outlived him. They are timeless because of a certain enduring and rich human quality which is beyond an immediate setting of destitution and paucity. For if impecunity and deprivation were the only criteria then ‘Bandit Queen’ had no business losing out in 1994.
Sure there will always be talk of other contenders. Makers of the edgy ‘LSD’, the inspiring ‘Udaan’ and the heart wrenching ‘Angadi Theru’ might feel shortchanged. But in the end it is the incredibly smart ‘Peepli Live’ that will perhaps connect best with a universal audience for its intelligence and incisiveness, for it being simultaneously entertaining and serving as a powerful human document. Poverty has nothing to do with it. India is country where extremes of wealth and deprivation coexist. Our cinema has reflected both these realities. And both kinds of films have been sent to the Oscars. For those of you who are overly sensitive about India’s image, the film does not reinforce the ‘poverty’ stereotype. It just tells a novel story well. So let’s wish Mr. Khan well; one never knows, it could well be a case of being third time lucky.
This article first appeared in the November issue of 'KINDLE'