is set in India, where the media is perhaps even more narcissistic and self-obsessed than our own, it is very easy to draw parallels with the Pakistani electronic media. "]
If art imitates life, then its safe to say that at least these days, media mirrors society. What we see on TV is literally what we get in real life, with live images distorting our reality into a near fantasy.
The constant tussle between the politics of poverty and governance in South Asia is a reality of life and one of media's favourite topics. Aamir Khan Productions' Peepli [Live] is one of the rare films to address this topic with such aplomb, that the viewer is bound to be both repulsed and in awe of the psyche of global media as it stands today.
A relatively off-the-beaten track venture which Indians are so adept at releasing every now and then, the film tells the story of a overly desensitised, overtly sensationalistic Indian media, juxtaposed against the uber reality of a poverty stricken nation. Natha (Omkar Das) is a poor farmer who is about to loose his lands to a bank foreclosure. Fuelled by rumors that the state will pay Rs. 100,000 to the family of any farmer who commits suicide, Natha decides to take his own life. As if that weren't bad enough, he is overheard by an over-zealous local reporter, who uses the sound-byte as a story for the local paper.
What transpires thereafter, is every media channels, dream “exclusive”, as Natha's village turns into a literal media circus overnight. Candy sellers and acrobats, jostle for space outside Natha's humble abode, alongside media vans and their over-the-top anchors. The characterisations are spot-on and remind us of many on our own television screens in Pakistan.
This makes for a bizarre mix of events, drawing in the local and state politicians, each in a tug of war determined for Natha to both commit suicide and not to, depending on who stands to gain. Natha and his family meanwhile, have to put up with television cameras following their every move, including the building of a high platform above their house, lest the viewfinder miss Natha's call to nature out in the vast open fields.
Peepli (Live] in one word, is brilliant. Though fairly exaggerated in parts - it is after all a searing satire on the society we have become, which admittedly, is not a pleasant one. While set in India, where the media is perhaps even more narcissistic and self-obsessed than our own, it is very easy to draw parallels with the Pakistani electronic media. How many times have we witnessed mikes being thrust into the faces of victimised families, be it those of the doomed Airblue crash, or of a suicide bombing. How many times have we seen “friends” of victims, basking in the glory of television cameras exuding the characteristics of the deceased, be it the innocent victims of the Sialkot lynching, or the murdered wife of an enraged husband. And how many times have we seen the camera's unabashedly orchestrate the loss of a family's livelihood, into a prime-time television event.
Out of the many issues that Peepli [Live] attempts to grapple with, is the irony that it is not only media that shapes society, but that our society is also shaping the media. But it also shows the psyche of a breed of journalists, who actually view journalism more as a birthright than as a profession. One character (perhaps loosely based on NDTV's fiery Barkha Dutt), responds to the misgivings of another local journalist about their insensitive attitude to the story. She responds; “Some people become doctors and engineers. We are journalists and this is what we do. If you cant handle this, then you're in the wrong profession”.
That, in a nutshell, expertly sums up what journalism the world over is today. Peepli [Live] pulls no punches about this. The sympathy lies clearly with Natha and his family. As the end nears, an ironic twist in the tale only pushes the chaotic events towards deeper introspection. What is the actual purpose of media in society? To expose the ills of a flawed system and its impact on the weak, or to prey off these ills like live flesh for their own amusement. Writer and director Anusha Rizvi makes the answer very clear for her viewers. It is obviously for the latter.
Peepli [Live] is bound to raise many questions within the Indian media, but it is unlikely to come up with any immediate answers. Such is the thirst for “a good story”. But whatever questions it does raise, we in Pakistan (media and politicians) should be intelligent enough to preempt them by reversing our own attitudes towards society, lest we all turn into unsuspecting Natha's, staring helplessly into the eye of the camera.
Themrise Khan is a freelance social development consultant based in Karachi who occasionally dares to venture into the Pakistani media.