Peepli Live is a satirical film that takes place in a fictional rural village in India named Peepli. A poor family is about to lose their farm. After hearing about a government program which offers a compensation of 100,000 rupees ($2000) to the family of any farmer committing suicide, the savvier brother, Budhia (Raghubir Yadav), convinces the more gullible brother, Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri), to kill himself for the sake of his family and the farm. An up-and-coming journalist overhears their plan and leaks the story to the mainstream media. Soon, all aspects of civil society collide, and the film shows us how one small incident in a tiny village can cause chaos in the national broadcast media, compel local and state government officials to use this breaking news as a platform to manipulate public perception during election time, and dramatically affect all these characters' social spheres, both public and private. This unique film was written and directed by former TV producer Anusha Rizvi, co-directed by her husband, writer/historian Mahmood Farooqui, and produced by Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan.
A veteran in the industry who has been acting in films for over two decades, Aamir Khan started his own film production company, Aamir Khan Productions, in 2001 in order to produce Lagaan, the film that would first earn him international acclaim. Directed by Ashutosh Gowariker and starring Khan as Bhuvan, Lagaan not only swept the FilmFare Awards, the Star Screen Awards, and the Zee Cine Awards in India but also earned an Oscar nomination in the US for Best Foreign Language Film -- only the third Indian film to do so after 1957's Mother India and 1989's Salaam Bombay!.
In the last five years, Khan has solidified his status as an entertainer who is able to successfully pursue socially and politically conscious film projects without diminishing his immense mainstream appeal or breaking his box office streak. His 2006 hit Rang De Basanti gave birth to what the media called a "Rang De Basanti" effect, which described instances where India's youth were empowered to engage in public activism after seeing the film. With 2007's Taare Zamin Paar, Khan's directorial debut (and the second film produced by Aamir Khan Productions), Khan shed light on children's learning disabilities. And with 2009's 3 Idiots, the highest grossing film ever in India (Aamir Khan also holds the number two slot with his 2008 film Ghajini), Khan tackles the dangerous pressures and ill-advised priorities of higher education in India.
Peepli Live is the fourth Aamir Khan Productions project, after 2008's Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, a youthful romantic comedy that launched the career of Khan's nephew, Imran Khan. During his promotional visit in Los Angeles, Aamir Khan talks to Asia Pacific Arts about the challenges of marketing Indian films to a global audience, the humor and structure of the satire genre, and the cinematic power of hope.
Interview with Aamir Khan
July 27, 2010
Interviewed by Ada Tseng
Camera by Craig Stubing and Lu Lu
Edited by Lu Lu
APA: Can you start by telling us what attracted you to the Peepli Live script?
Aamir Khan: When I read the script for the first time, I really loved it. Actually, I heard the script for the first time; I love hearing narrations, so the director and writer Anusha Rizvi read it out loud to me. I thought it was very engaging and very funny. It makes you laugh, but it is also very heart-breaking. It's a very unusual topic for a film coming out of India. We don't usually make satires or films about social and political issues. I just found it was an amazing story that needed to be told, and I really liked Anusha's energy as a writer-director.
APA: Were you familiar with Anusha's work beforehand?
AK: No, I wasn't. I knew she was a journalist, but I had never seen her work. So it was good that she wrote the script so well, but to figure out if she could actually direct the film, I asked her to shoot four or five scenes from the film, as a test. I picked up the funds to see if she could execute that, and she did a really good job. She shot the scenes, cut them, and showed them to me, and that gave me the confidence that she could shoot the movie.
APA: Were you involved in naming the film Peepli Live?
AK: The working title of the film was actually The Falling, an English title name. When we were looking for the right title before we began the publicity and promotions of the film, we came up with Peepli Live. Peepli is the village that film is set in, the "live" part is meant to indicate: here is a story that is happening in Peepli that the filmmaker is bringing to you live. That's why it's Peepli Live.
APA: Part of the humor of the film comes from the dynamics between the core family members in the film: the two brothers, the wife, and the mother. How was that written on the page, and how does that compare to how it comes across on screen?
AK: It was very funny on the page, because the characters are very colorful and very vibrant. And though the situation is not very happy, as characters, they are very full-blooded and passionate. I have to say that Anusha has really managed to bring it out onscreen. Amma's character, the mother [played by Farrukh Jaffer], is quite an amazing character. She's so full of fire, this crotchety old lady who is constantly complaining and throwing abuses and curses at people. It was tough to cast for that part.
APA: And the wife was great too. She just throws the fire right back at her mother-in-law.
AK: Yea, the wife [Dhaniya, played by Shalini Vatsa] fights right back. Anusha is a very strong woman herself, and in her film, all the women characters are very strong. The mother, the wife, and then there's the journalist [played by Malaika Shenoy]. And that's very good to see.
APA: There have been interviews where you talk about how your films have “universal appeal.” Can you talk about how this film fits into that?
AK: Well, I'm not sure this film fits into that actually. [laughs] When I read the script first and loved it, I wanted to make it, but I was aware that it was a film that is not mainstream, so it's not a film that, on the face of it, is universal. But I believe in it. I just love it. So I want to make it [universal]. I want to use what I have as a star, use that as a platform to try and reach out to a large amount of people. I believe that this film has the potential to engage a very large audience. For example, in India, the distribution thought that we should initially release the film in 150 screens, which is a fairly small release, and then with the publicity starting three weeks back, and the amazing response we've gotten to the trailers and promos, the buzz we've had is so amazing that they've actually upped the number of screens to 550. So that's very encouraging for all of us. And I actually believe that this film has the potential to engage a world audience, people who are not the traditional audience for Indian films.
APA: Do you think that has something to do with the structure of Peepli Live? No intermission, no dance sequences...
AK: It's not a typical Bollywood film in many ways. Bollywood films are usually not satires, usually not about social and political issues, and they're usually 2 ½ to 3 hours long. This film is about an hour and a half, a little over. I think it has to do with the structure of it and the fact that this is a human story, so it reaches across cultures, countries and physical boundaries. The film was screened in Berlin, it was in competition at Sundance, we got some amazing responses from audiences there, and predominantly all these audience members were non-Indian.
APA: Recently, there's been a lot of experimentation with making Indian films reach a more global audience. Kites released two versions; My Name is Khan released an American version. But actually, it was a few years ago that Rang De Basanti was cut down for American audiences as well. Were you involved in that, and did you guys learn anything from that process?
AK: Actually, I was not really part of the attempt to make Rang De Basanti into a different version. I was not part of it. I have not seen My Name is Khan or Kites, so I cannot comment about those, but I personally believe that a filmmaker has one vision. And that one vision, when he's done with it or comes close to reaching it, is what he should show to people no matter where they live. That's what I feel.
I think that traditional Bollywood appeals to people once in a while. It's something new for people to experience. But I don't actually think that all of Bollywood would appeal to a world audience. Some of it would: a film like Lagaan really traveled across the world, and everyone who saw it, no matter which part of the world they were in, really liked the film. And that's a mainstream Indian film. It's 3 hours and 42 minutes long! [laughs] It's unusually long, even for an Indian film. But films have a language of their own, and if it's a story that touches you as a human being, then it will connect with people across cultures. I've watched stories from Japan, China, Italy, France. I saw Life is Beautiful, and I've never been to Italy or been part of that history, but it still touched me very deeply.
Director Anusha Rizvi
APA: A friend of mine was commenting about how clever the English subtitles in Peepli Live were. There are instances where, for example, translating an Indian saying word for word might not make sense in English, but she noticed there were moments where the subtitles in Peepli Live were cleverly tweaked in a way that really translated to English-language viewers. Was that something you were involved in?
AK: Actually, the final version of the subtitles is something that I worked on extensively. For me, the subtitles of my films are very important. In this case, I worked on the subtitles myself, very extensively, to get it right. I think that's true. If you just translate literally, often it doesn't make sense. The point is to give an accurate impression of what is being spoken.
APA: Do you think it's the technical things like this that are important for allowing the film to translate to a global audience? Maybe even more than cutting it or editing it a certain way?
AK: It is. I think it's very important. Because I really believe that this film has the potential to engage a world audience, I'm trying to do all that I can to reach out to them. I'm trying to make sure that everything is as good as it can be. As a producer, I'm trying to give it the best platform that I can. I think Anusha as a filmmaker is an important voice from India, and I want to support her as much as I can.
APA: You talked about how the film is a satire. One of the things the film satires is the journalism industry and how it can sensationalize the news. As someone who is written about a lot, did you find the film's portrayal of broadcast journalism to be an exaggeration or eerily true to life?
AK: There are two aspects to this question. I think that what the film portrays is actually very accurate. All of this actually does happen back home in India. Politicians, certain sections of the media, and the administration do react like this. So it's very real, and you can see that it's very bizarre.
Having said that, I want to also point out that a satire always takes one point of view. It's never a 360 degree view of any section of society. So, is all media like this? No. Are all politicians like this? No. Are all people in the administration like this? No. There are a lot of journalists that are doing great work back home in India. And in fact, because the media is as strong as it is today, a lot of people in public life are now answerable for their actions. That's because the media is so strong and questions them. So there isn't any one truth, if you know what I mean. I think the film is very accurate, but it's a satire. It's shedding light on one aspect of civil society, and that brings out the humor as well.
APA: You also mentioned earlier that there haven't been a lot of films in India that tackle social and political issues, but you seem to be an actor and director who deliberately tries to tackle some of these issues. What are the challenges of balancing this with entertainment?
AK: For me, the primary responsibility of film is to entertain. And when I say entertain, I'm using the word loosely -- to engage and entertain. So I may not make you laugh, but I'll still give you a great time or I'll give you something of value. But every now and then, when we can shed light on social issues or political issues and make stories that are thought-provoking, that's great as well. And that's what I'd like to do.
When I pick a film as an actor, producer, or director, it's because I love the script, and I love it for the dramatic quality. For example, the film I directed and acted in a few years before, Taare Zamin Paar, is a film about primary education and learning disabilities in children, and that was a very important film for audiences back home in India because very little is known about learning disabilities. No one thought it would be as successful as it finally was. The market was viewing it very suspiciously. But most importantly, it's a film that actually changed lives -- parents, kids, teachers, and educators have come up to me and told me how important it was to them. And I feel so privileged to be part of a film that has contributed to people's lives in a positive way.
3 Idiots is also on the educational system, this time higher education. That's another film that has touched lives very deeply and has changed how a lot of parents look at their kids and changed how kids feel about themselves. So I want to entertain, and whenever I can, I'd like to be part of a film that makes you think.
APA: A lot of films you've done recently tackle issues that are very serious and important. But because you talk about wanting to entertain, I'm wondering -- do you still enjoy doing those big elaborate musical numbers?
AK: I do! [laughs] I really enjoy that. I think good mainstream Indian cinema is quite amazing when it turns out well. Mainstream Indian film is very larger-than-life, very vibrant and colorful, the emotional key of these films is on a high level. I guess because as Indians, we are emotionally on a higher key, a bit melodramatic [smiles]. But there's a lot of hope. Mainstream Indian cinema has a lot of hope, and that's one of the distinguishing characteristics of mainstream Indian cinema. A certain flair of storytelling, a certain sweep in the storytelling, a sense of hope. And I quite like that. When it turns out well, it's great.
As an actor, I get attracted to scripts for different reasons. It could be a really mushy romantic story like Fanaa. I’m a sucker for mushy romantic stories as well. No matter what genre you’re dealing in, it has to be something that connects with you. I like to make stuff that makes me happy, that move me, that excite me. Those are the films that I want to be part of.
For more information on Peepli Live, go to their official website.