Sunday, April 27, 2014

Watching Peepli Live- A country's practiced apathy

Published in City Mirrors- May 2013


Everybody knows the story of Peepli Live. A farmer decides to commit suicide when he learns that the government pays one lakh to farmers who take their own lives; with which his family would be able to waive off a loan. This news leaks out and in an unexpected turn of events captures the attention of major media houses and he is cast into the spotlight. The political class joins the bandwagon seeking a part of the action and inadvertently, tamasha ensues. Sounds more like a slice of our everyday lives, doesn’t it? The film, intended as a satire, soon turns into a black comedy and ends as a tragedy.

Those exact words can be used to describe how this country’s fate played out since the day Dr. Manmohan Singh decided to liberalize the economy. Markets opened up, money started pouring in at a ridiculous pace and the country’s economy began growing so fast that we thought it was some sort of a joke, a satire against the forty years of Nehruvian socialist reforms and the Hindu rate of growth. But then these days, after coming to terms with the disparity in this country, in the agreement of the existence of two Indias, in the pride with which we proclaim to the world that Antilia is built next to Dharavi, our lives have turned into some sort of a tragicomedy. Like the protagonist of the movie, who was initially amused by it all but now wants to escape the hullabaloo. He has gotten himself into a situation he has no idea how to get out of and in a hilarious scene, begs his kidnappers not to let him go. And then the film gets into its final act, where it steps out of its lighthearted approach and plunges deep into the tragedy of human existence. And the fact that we are thrown into the last scene unwarned, despite it being what we see everyday, is what hits us so hard. The protagonist migrates to the city, a dead man to his family, archival material to the news channels, yet another construction worker among the millions who come to cities to build our “Paradise Townships”. What should be going through the minds of all those men, who have been cheated by the people they elected into giving up their lands, who have been forced into leaving their families behind, their traditions and livelihoods and come to cities searching for money and prospects of a better life.

But this movie is not about those men. And though, on the surface, it seems to be taking a jib at the media and the state, it’s too blatant to have an effect. What the filmmaker seems to do is mock us for finding the plight of the farmers funny. And it works brilliantly because moments after we laugh at a genuinely funny sequence, we find ourselves ashamed for doing so. There is no sense of alarm or realization. We know this, we see it everyday. Near our houses, in our office, near traffic signals and in malls. What we don’t do everyday is reflect at our lack of attention. We have so gotten used to farmers committing suicides, women being raped, people dying of curable diseases, our politicians blatant corruption that those details do not even affect us. Those things which were once an aberration are now the norm. Funnily enough, like my 70-year old grandmother was telling a relative who lives in Boston, “The matter that there was a bomb blast and two people died might be news for you. For us, in India, we have gotten used to terrorist attacks so much that we don’t even pay attention”. Like they say, there is a very fine line between tragedy and farce.

It is not that things like these do not affect us anymore. We worry about them. There is a sense of pity, resentment when we hear of avoidable deaths. Rage when hear of callousness of Police when dealing with rape victims. Anger when we find idiots, with absolutely no civic sense, who park cars on a busy road, or those who occupy half the street with bricks and sand when constructing their houses. But we do not act on it. We choose to move on. To ignore plastic covers being thrown into lakes, of illegal drilling of bore wells, of faulty auto rickshaw meters. And that the tragedy of this country. Not its corruption, not its injustice, not its oligarchy. But quite simply, the practiced apathy of its middle class citizens.

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