Kishor Tiwari, President of Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti is an engineer by profession. He has been able to take premature retirement and commit himself to fighting for the rights of the farmers in Vidarbha and the plight of the suicide widows, because of the support of his family, particularly his lawyer brother who takes care of the family’s financial needs.

Like most committed people, he can overwhelm you with his intensity and his touchiness when it comes to the issue close to his heart, as he has shown recently in his reaction to ‘Peepli Live‘. He has a special disdain for journalists who come seeking for interesting angles to a real story.

In the few days I spent in the villages around Nagpur in 2008, researching for a story, a lot of farmers in the 4-5 villages I visited, admitted that a lot of the suicides were ‘fake’, natural deaths which had been reported as suicides to claim the compensation money offered by the government. When I expressed my confusion to Kishor-ji, he only said, “Forget what anyone tells you. Forget what I tell you. Just go and visit a few farmers in their homes, and see for yourself, how they live, what they have, how much grain they have stocked up, and come to your own conclusions.”

His theory is that the suicides are a malfunction of social engineering. Dowry and ill health are the two main reasons farmers fall off the tracks of a well-being that is precarious anyway. To add to their woes, he says that banks and private companies now offer a lot of easy loans. This tempts the farmers to buy motorbikes or television sets in a good year, and increase their debt liabilities.

Madhukar in Bhambraja, shares 32 acres of land with 3 brothers and his father. Because their land is not divided, and they have a large family working on it, they are better off than a lot of their neighbors. Even so, Madhukar’s annual income from the farm in a good year, is around 20,000 rupees. He supplements it a little by working as a local representative of ITC, which has set up a community computer in his house, in exchange for his selling or pushing their products, insurance, biscuits, seeds, and various other products designed specially for villagers. ITC has also opened up a grain market where the farmers can sell their produce, and a supermarket where they can spend their money, a few kilometers away from Madhukar’s village.

Madhukar at first denied that anybody he knew had committed suicide. But when we persisted, Madhukar went around the village, conducting his own research. A few days later, he handed a list to us with 11 names, and tears in his eyes. “I didn’t know how much these families were suffering, and they live in my own village.”

With Madhukar, we visited 3 homes with suicide widows. One woman had a blind father-in-law, an old mother-in-law, and 3 obviously malnourished children to look after. She pointed to a heap of stale rice and chapatis in the middle of a room. She said they were leftovers from a village festivity, and if she kept them from spoiling, the family could use the food for the next 2-3 days.

A close friend of Madhukar’s had been doing reasonably fine, until he developed a cancerous tumor on his leg. One operation had left him in debt to the tune of 20,000 rupees, which he was unsure whether he could ever repay. And the tumor had come back. His mother and he worked the land, though he got tired easily. His mother said she had to help him even though she was old. Their land is not very fertile, and close to the forest, so it has to be guarded constantly from invasions by wild pigs and other animals.

We spent 2-3 days shooting in the village with Madhukar, his family and his neighbors. Each night we would go back to our hotel rooms in our minivans, the hire of each of which could have taken care of one family in the village for a few months.

To watch ‘Peepli Live‘ we spent 540 rupees on multiplex tickets, 155 on popcorn, 325 on Subways for lunch, 30 for parking, and 65 for gas. A total of 1115 rupees. This could have taken care of a farmer’s family for 15 days.

Of course, Aamir Khan the producer says the film is not about farmers’ suicides. But a satire on the media and the government. The story of media cynicism and government corruption has been told before. But what makes this film stand out is the authenticity of detail. Costumes (Maxima Basu) and art direction (Sumon Roy) create a milieu that is fictional, yet very real. But what makes it all come together is the casting (Mahmood Farooqi and Dan Husain). Most of the artistes are from the late Habib Tanvir’s theatre group, and their rootedness to the folk traditions helps them to play their roles to perfection. Raghuvir Yadav plays the wily older brother Budhia with such consummate ease that we feel sorry at how little he has been used by our industry.

Natha (played brilliantly by Omkar Das Manikpuri) who is set up by his older brother Budhia to commit suicide is the quintessential voiceless, helpless farmer, a victim of circumstances, badgered by his brother, mother, wife, the landlord, the politician and then the journalists, the police and his own children.

But Natha who is an individual in the first half of the film with a particular story is reduced to a statistic in the second half as he gets submerged under the onslaught of the media and politicians. This is where the film falters a little. In its pursuit of satire, it loses the chance to allow us to actually empathize with the plight of Natha and his family. The games that the media and the politicians play became too repetitive and too over emphasized.

In fact, it is the smaller track of the malnourished farmer who loses his land and becomes a laborer, and who now ekes out an existence by digging and selling earth that brings home the plight of the farmers. Poverty, ill health and hard labour kill him, and he is found dead in the hole he has been digging through the film. But of course, his death is of no interest to the journalists as the TRPs are being ruled by Natha.

Shanker Raman has shot the film like a documentary, without losing cinematic elegance. The play of light and shade is subdued and yet makes the film more interesting viewing. The faces in the background seem to be captured in moments of unawareness of the camera. It’s a fine job to execute such simplicity amidst a huge cast, and a huge crowd for a large part of the film.

Hemanti Sarkar without gimmicks, or the use of in-your-face special effects takes us effortlessly from scene to scene, creating a sense of a new chapter unfolding with every scene. Sound recordist Hari Kumar Pillai like the other technicians, proves how the best technicians are usually those who aren’t noticed, but add to the director’s vision.

Indian Ocean and Mathias Duplessy create a music track which borrows from theatre and folk traditions and is catchy and authentic at the same time, something that one would like to own.

‘Peepli Live’ is a good example of what can be achieved with a good producer and a script that is written with conviction. It is clear that Anusha Rizvi knows her subject closely.

I’m waiting now to see how Aamir Khan and Kishor Tiwari come to terms with each other.