Indian Films Can Be Indie, Too

Indian Films Can Be Indie, Too

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When I told an American friend that the new film Peepli Live is a black comedy about farmer suicides in India, he said, “Oh my god, are there song and dance numbers?”

There are songs, but if anyone goes expecting lavish skirt-swirling, bosom-heaving numbers set to a rousing Jai Ho score, they’ll come away disappointed. 

Peepli Live is really a scathing critique of India’s ruthless scoop-hungry media and the huge gap between urban India and its vast rural hinterlands. When Natha, the debt-ridden farmer, decides he will commit suicide so his family can get government compensation, a media circus erupts as journalists and politicians descend on his village. One anchorman tells his cameraman that it would be sensational: Most of India’s villagers go to the bathroom in the great outdoors, and now we can bring raw shocking images of that to living rooms in New Delhi.

Peepli Live is produced by one of India’s biggest Bollywood stars, Aamir Khan, but it’s a film that has little to do with Bollywood. The problem is, contemporary Indian cinema—at least in the West—has been defined by Bollywood. Peepli Live doesn’t live up to the three-hour, six-song formula. It’s less than two hours long, it doesn’t have an intermission, and it doesn’t star icons like Shah Rukh Khan or Aishwariya Rai.

It is instead one of the smartest, most biting films to come out of India recently, despite its cursory review in the New York Times. “Fitfully amusing,” said the Times dismissively.

The film, ironically, is a victim by the growing Western cognoscenti appreciation of Bollywood. Long the Technicolor over-the-top laughing stock of world cinema, Bollywood has been getting a lot more respect these days. Whereas it once was a lowest common denominator of popular entertainment, what Indians called “time pass,” it’s now attained a sort of retro-appeal, as if it’s the newly discovered lost tribe of the Cecil B. DeMille school of filmmaking. But its success has meant that Indian films just get boxed into a “Bollywood formula” to the detriment of films like Peepli Live.

In fact the main reason Peepli Live has gotten as much publicity as it has is because Aamir Khan, its producer, came to the United States and turned on his star power to push it. Morning Edition interviewed Khan and the San Francisco Chronicle profiled him.

But indie films coming out of India that don’t have Bollywood star power behind them could very well be missed by American movie-goers. That is, unless they are lucky enough to portray America’s number one enemy.

The new film Tere Bin Laden does just that. Abhishek Sharma’s black comedy landed in political hot water because the Pakistani government didn’t find anything funny about the war on terror. Now the film is playing in theaters with an “Officially Banned in Pakistan” sticker emblazoned across its posters.

“I don’t think the ban has helped us commercially,” Sharma said. “In fact, we have lost crores of rupees we would have made in Pakistan. However once (we realized) there was nothing we could do about this farcical and mindless ban, we thought about using it in a farcical way in our advertising.”

It sort of goes with the spirit of the film. In it, Ali Hassan, a young Pakistani journalist with dreams of going to America, comes up with a get-rich-quick scheme. He notices that a rather dim-witted chicken farmer bears an uncanny resemblance to the elusive Osama bin Laden and decides to create an Osama video message and sell it to a scoop-hungry media outlet.

In a way, Tere Bin Laden is as much a sardonic take on the “broadcast first, ask questions later” media culture in South Asia as Peepli Live.

Sharma said the idea of the film came literally from a headache. “It was around five years back when I returned home from my office with a throbbing pain in my head. I wrapped around a towel over my head to reduce the pain much like a turban, and my wife jokingly commented that I looked like Bin Laden!” he said.

Tere Bin Laden is not as polished as Peepli Live. But it too casts a sardonic eye on contemporary society and politics: In the film, the travel agency Lashkar-e-Amreeka, with the tagline “invading America since 2002,” advises Ali Hassan on a cheap way to get to America -- sign up to be a Mujahedeen, travel to Iraq, surrender your AK-47 to the Americans. Teams of “experts” analyze the fake bin Laden videos with deadly seriousness – he looks healthier, they say, so he must be near a city, maybe with access to Botox. Not all the gags work, but Sharma rushes in where few American satirists dare to tread.

Peepli Live takes on a dark topic that India does not like to talk about – the epidemic of farmers committing suicide in a country that prides itself on its rising GDP. And the Ground Zero mosque hoopla shows Tere Bin Laden is taking on topics that are still hot button issues in America today.

Both films are testing the waters in American theaters right now.

“I think after nine years of the September attacks, now we can look back and give our perspective on America’s role in the post 9/11 world,” said Sharma. “There is always a place for satire in a free world.”

The success of these films will determine if that’s true.