Bollywood Superstar Aamir Khan Shines the Spotlight on What's Caused an Estimated 150,000 Farmer Suicides in India
A tangible consequence of India's shift to a neo-liberal economic model has been the flood of suicides among farmers. The vast majority of the world's second most populated country still farms for a living, but are caught between deep debt and the erratic nature of seasonal change. Lured by the promise of greater production, farmers are pressured into mortgaging their farms to purchase genetically modified seeds, pesticides, and fertilizer from American companies like Monsanto. Since GM seeds are patented by Monsanto, their repeated use each year requires constant licensing fees that keep farmers impoverished. One bad yield due to drought or other reasons, plunges farmers so deep into debt that they resort to suicide. One study estimates that 150,000 farmers have killed themselves in the past ten years.
A new feature film written and directed by Anusha Rizwi and produced by Bollywood megastar Aamir Khan, called Peepli Live, tackles head on this grim topic. The story is set in an Indian village named Peepli where one young debt-burdened farmer named Natha is talked into taking his own life after he learns that his family will be financially compensated through a government program created to alleviate the loss of farmers taking their own lives. What unfolds is a dark comedy of errors when a media circus descends on the tiny village, followed by corrupt politicians wanting to make use of the planned tragedy. Khan's credits as an actor and producer include Lagaan, the 2001 Oscar-nominated film about Indian resistance to the British occupation. His latest film 3 Idiots released last year became the highest grossing film in Indian film history.
Text of Sonali Kolhatkar's interview follows (with video and more information about Khan's film at the bottom of the article):
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Sonali Kolhatkar: The film Peepli Live tackles a number of issues in rural India which aren't always portrayed in Bollywood films. How important was it for you to make such a film about an issue that's not very well known especially outside India?
Aamir Khan: I feel that Peepli Live is not really a film about farmer suicides [but] that farmer suicides are a backdrop because the film doesn't really go into the issues that farmers are facing or why this epidemic really has been spreading for so many years now. It's a film that's more about the growing divide between urban and rural India and how as a society we are concentrating all of our energies, our resources, our wealth towards cities and are ignoring our villages and the rural parts of India which is where the bulk of our population lives. As a result our villages are not life-sustaining in a healthy manner. And that in turn results in a lot of migration from villages to cities. So in villages we don't have schools often, medical facilities, even basic stuff like water and electricity. I think this is what the issue in the film really is.
On a certain level it's also a film about survival. While it's a satire about civil society today and takes a humorous view of the administration, the political scenario, the media, or civil society in general, it's also on a certain level a story about survival. Each one of us: politician, journalist, civil servant, or a district magistrate, or even Budhia (a character in Peepli Live), who's a farmer, a villager - each one of us in our own environment, in our own situation, is doing what he or she thinks needs to be done in order to survive.
Kolhatkar: How is Peepli Live different from mainstream Bollywood fare?
Khan: It's not a mainstream Bollywood film. It's just a story that I loved and a script that I read which Anusha Rizwi has written and directed and I just loved what she wrote. I found it very funny and moving and also heartbreaking. And also sensitizing in a lot of ways because I have lived all my life in a city. Often I'm not aware of how life in rural India is. So I just loved the script and I wanted to be part of it. I could see straight up that this is not a film that is going to be easy to market or even to convince the market to accept as a film. But it's something that excited me, moved me, and engaged me.
So I just went ahead and produced it. I was aware of the challenges I have in front of me. And it's also a film that I believe has the potential to engage a world audience. It's a film that I think would connect with audiences from different cultures. And that's what we're trying to do - we're trying not only to reach out to our traditional audiences for Indian film but to audiences who may have never watched an Indian film before. Or may have just watched Slumdog Millionaire (laughs). Actually Indian film, or Bollywood, as it's popularly known, doesn't make any one kind of film. Yes, the bulk of them are musicals, and the bulk of them have larger-than-life story-telling and have a lot of hope and romance in them. But a number of them now for the last few years have been films which are really off-beat and don't fall into that category.
Kolhatkar: So Bollywood is evolving in your opinion?
Khan: Well I think everything is changing constantly. So I think cinema in India is also changing. I think audiences are changing. I think younger film makers are coming in who have different voices and have different things to say. And over the last ten years if you look at the films that have really succeeded and have gone down well with audiences, a number of them have been films which don't fall into that description of what is conventionally known as mainstream Bollywood.
Kolhatkar: Farmer suicides are a huge issue in India and even though it's a backdrop for your film, it's a very grim subject. But Peepli Live addresses this is an almost comedic or satirical manner. Why was this approach effective?
Khan: This is a question more for Anusha (Rizwi) who's written the film. I don't know why she chose a satirical view of what is happening. But I think it's more engaging that way. Anusha was a journalist before she made this film and she, I guess, through her experiences in the field, has come up with a lot of what is in the film and a lot of what is in the script. So I think her choice of it being a satire is because it connects more easily with people. But while you're laughing you're also feeling bad. You're thinking, "should I be laughing at this," you know? "I don't think I should be laughing at this, but it's funny." And, it's also very thought-provoking on a lot of levels. So personally I really like what she wrote and I think when I saw the film after its first cut - because I was not there when they were shooting it and I was only involved after the first cut stage - I was really happy to see what she has done.
It's not an easy film to execute. And she hasn't been to film school and she hasn't really assisted any film makers to learn from them. It's so amazing to see someone like her execute so well on screen what she has written. It's a very layered script with a lot of characters. There's a lot of chaos in the film at many times and while there often is a lot of chaos in a film shoot it's usually behind the camera. And to create chaos in front of the camera and make it look natural is not easy. So when I saw the film I felt that what you're watching is actually happening and she's has hidden cameras capturing what is happening. So I thought she's done a wonderful job - I'm really happy with her work.
Kolhatkar: The film most skewers Indian politicians and Indian media. How realistic are the caricatures presented in Peepli Live of the corrupt politicians and overzealous media?
Khan: In my opinion it's a fairly accurate portrayal of what happens. Having said that I'd like to point out as well that it's not the only point of view. A satire takes one point of view - it's not a 360 degree view of politics or the people in media, or the people in administration (civil servants). There are a lot of civil servants, politicians, and those in the media who are trying to do a lot of good work and are very positive in their approach.
Kolhatkar: One of them is the young journalist, Rakesh, a character in Peepli Live, who is very hopeful. I'm wondering if he is a symbol of India's young journalists.
Khan: He is the only character in the film that really has a conscience as it turns out. As I was saying earlier that while what is shown in the film is fairly accurate and happens everyday in India - it's a fairly good window into rural life in India - but at the same time, I'd like to add that a satire takes one point of view. Of course there are journalists who are doing great work, and there are some politicians who are doing good work and are really sincere. But that point of view is not shown in this film. This film takes a satirical point of view. While what is shown is accurate, it is one aspect and not the whole.
Kolhatkar: There are no big-name stars in Peepli Live and I understand many of them are theater actors. How were they recruited? Were non-actors also recruited to play the roles of villagers?
Khan: I'm really happy with the casting that Anusha and her husband Mehmood, the casting director and co-director, have done. They really chose to go real with the casting which I thoroughly supported. A lot of the actors are actually villagers and tribals (indigenous people) who are from central India. And a lot of them are part of a theater group called Naya Theater. This is a group that was started by Habib Tanvir, a really amazing theater personality who has worked in Indian theater all his life. Unfortunately he passed away six months ago. But he was running this theater group in which he worked only with villagers and Adivasis (tribal or indigenous people) from Central India. And they did all kinds of things like adapting Shakespeare into their local languages and dialects. So a lot of them are very well trained actors. They may have never acted in a film before but they come from a strong theater background. I think the directors of the film, Anusha and Mehmood, also wanted there to be no known faces so that it looks real. So most of the cast is from a rural background.
Kolhatkar: One of the characters in the film is an elderly farmer who silently toils throughout the story. Is he a metaphor for the typical Indian farmer who is ignored and silenced in the mainstream media?
Khan: Yes you're right. He really stands for a whole lot of people who in a very sincere and uncomplaining manner try to deal with what is dealt out to them in life and don't really have a voice in what's happening around them and are almost invisible to us. That's how he's treated in most of the film. So he represents that entire section of people.
Kolhatkar: Let's talk about the film's music. One particular song in the film called 'Mahangai Dayain' is played by the villagers of Peepli and recently was the center of some controversy after real-life local Indian politicians requested to use the song in their campaigning?
Khan: Well what is shown in the film is happening in real life I guess (laughs). The words to the song are: "my husband earns a lot of money but inflation eats it all away." And it's actually wasn't in the film to begin with. But when Anusha was shooting in the village in Bidwai, she heard the local musicians singing this song. They had written this song themselves and it's part of their music. When she heard this song she really liked it. So this is their voice and she asked them if she could use it in the film. And she got Raghu-bhai (one of the lead actors in the film) who is a very good singer to learn the song and sing it. They actually learned the song that night in the village under the tree and it's recorded live on location, not in a studio, with spoons and thalis (steel dinner plates) and home-made musical instruments. And that's a song that has really resonated strongly with a lot of India[ns] because it's a coincidence that at the time that we were about to release the music of the film there were these huge price increases in India. The opposition parties called for a national "bandh" which is sort of a general strike for a day all across the country in protest of these price increases. And that day all the news channels actually carried the song as an anthem of what was happening around us. And so that made the song very popular. What's amazing is that this is a song created by the villagers as part of their lives. This is what affects them - it's their voice which you can hear.
Kolhatkar: So you hope that the film goes a long way toward bringing the stories of silenced farmers to not only urban India but to a worldwide audience?
Khan: Yes, I am hoping that the film sensitizes a whole lot of us like it did to me when I first read the script. As a society we have to be aware of inequalities and try and fight against them. I think that this is a film that I'm hoping will have an impact. It's not often that films have an immediate impact but I'm hoping that this film has an impact and starts people thinking in the right direction.
Kolhatkar: There is only one hint in the film about the complicity of corporate America when one of the politicians' characters in the film mentions the American company "Sonmanto" in an obvious reference to the agri-giant Monsanto corporation. Given that farmer suicides are directly linked to neo-liberal economic pressures from the West, particularly the US, how important is it that the film is viewed by an American audience?
Khan: I think it's important that all of us should be aware of this, not only Americans. It's important for all of us to be aware how our actions are affecting other people. When Peepli Live was screened at Sundance where we had a predominantly American audience, we got some pretty interesting responses, one of them being that not only did they find the film to be a great window into rural India but they felt that it resonated with them. One [member of the audience] gave the example of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans and how the [Bush] administration reacted and the observation made was that even in that case the people affected were from less privileged sections of society. Which is why nothing was done for very long and even the funds that were collected for them, a lot of that didn't reach [the people affected]. So these are things that happen all across the world, even in "first-world" countries. And the other aspect that you were talking about is how each of our actions has an impact .We have to be aware of how each of our actions affects other people and on a very basic level - I know this is over-simplifying things - we should try not to adversely affect people with our actions.
Kolhatkar: The media as portrayed in your film Peepli Live is amusing and even shocking. I'm wondering how you think Indian media is going to receive your film and the commentary that the film makes on them?
Khan: I believe that all of us are human beings first. I'm an actor, you're a journalist, and someone else might be a politician. At the core of it we're all human beings first and I think that that's how I think people would receive the film. I think the film is accurate so no one should have a complaint from that point of view. I think that we as a creative group that has made the film are very clear that we're taking one point of view and that it's not a holistic point of view. So not every media person is like that. But this is one of the realities today of life in Indian society. And also importantly I think that Anusha Rizwi as a writer and director is not being judgmental on anyone. She's not taking any sides and I think that's an important aspect of the film. It's important for people to receive this in a positive way for it to have an impact. And I think that's one of the things that this film does achieve in my opinion.
For example you have Natha's son [in the film] saying "Dad when are you going to die because uncle says that when you die I'm going to become a contractor." And Natha says "what do you mean? Your dad's dying and you want to be a contractor?" The son says, "No no, I want to be a cop!" So this is not how every child would react and this is not how we would expect a child to react whose father is about to die. You'd expect him to say "Dad I don't want you to die." But here we have a kid who's in a bit of a hurry about his dad dying. So it is a black comedy, it is a dark view of things. And it's not the only view and I'm sure the media's mature enough to realize that.
Kolhatkar: I'd like to talk a little bit about your own career and why you gravitate toward films with a socio-political message. You've made a number of films either as an actor or producer or both, that are not simply standard Bollywood fare like Lagaan, Rang De Basanti, Mangal Panday, etc (many of which have been about the historical resistance to the British occupation). Why are such films important to you?
Khan: Well I move towards material that excites me, stuff that I believe in. And creative people whose voices I believe in. So, it's important for me to be happy in what I'm doing. When I come across a script that touches me, moves me, engages me, makes me laugh or cry, that's what I want to be part of. I think for me film-making is a number of things: you're entertaining people, you're also engaging their minds. And importantly, it's one or two years of my life. And so, the process is as important as the end result. So I have to be happy and excited about what I'm doing.
Kolhatkar: Your last film 3 Idiots became the highest grossing Bollywood film of all time in India, breaking many records, and winning a huge number of awards. Although it's extremely entertaining it also has a social message at its heart about the intense pressures that Indian parents put on their children to be highly educated professionals in technical fields. It's not often that such a topic is tackled in Indian film is it?
Khan: Yeah, I think that Raju [Hirani] is a fantastic film maker but in this case he also picked up [on] a topic that I think a lot of people, not only in India but all across the world, [see in] our lives. And I think the core message of Three Idiots is "don't chase success, chase excellence. And do what makes you happy, because if it makes you happy you'll probably be good at it. And success will follow up somewhere behind. But don't make your decisions based on what you think will make you successful because that might just make you really unhappy as well." And, I think that core message really hit home in a big way with a lot of audiences. And again it's a very funny film. It's a film that is very entertaining but also is a film that rings true with a lot of people.
I've been very fortunate to work with a lot of talented people and films like Taaray Zameen Par which is about childcare, primary education, and learning disabilities and Three Idiots, which is about higher education -- these films have been so satisfying to be a part of because not only have they been huge successes but more than that these are films that have actually changed lives. I have met so many people and so many have written to me about how the way they look at their kids has changed. And parents have changed the way they look at education, and kids have begun feeling differently about themselves. And that's a very rare achievement for a film to have such a strong and immediate impact on society. And it's so satisfying to see that. It's really amazing.
Kolhatkar: Given how influential Bollywood actors are in India (just as Hollywood actors are here in the US), do you think it's important for celebrities such as yourself to influence people in a positive manner or should movie stars never talk about social issues? I'm sure I can guess your answer but not all celebrities use their celebrite in a responsible manner.
Khan: I think my answer is fairly obvious. I think celebrities should, to the best of their abilities, use the kind of influence they have with people in a positive way and that's always great and that's what ought to be done and ought to happen. But having said that, I think each to his own. Celebrities are also human beings and I think we should understand if a certain person wants to stay away from stuff. Fair enough.
I really feel that each one of us, no matter which section of society we belong to, has to engage socially and politically in our own way. And each one can do it to a different extent. But each one of us CAN do it. And I think that's what's important. All of us should be aware of that and should engage in a positive way. That's what I believe.
Kolhatkar: Bollywood flims have not always gotten too much recognition outside of South Asia, and the Gulf Arab States. But they do break through into the West occasionally, like your film Lagaan which was recognized by the Academy Awards -- only the third ever Indian film to be nominated for Best Foreign Film. Do you think it's important for the West to recognize the largest film industry in the world?
Khan: Well I think it would be nice if people around the world watched our films and enjoyed them but I don't think we should load the West with this responsibility of having to watch our films and enjoy them. I don't think that's fair. And I don't think that film-makers in India really have looked toward making films which are meant to engage a world audience. Because we have such a large and healthy audience of our own and we are very happy and busy engaging them and making films for them.
But I think every once in a way we do come across films that can break through. For example when I read the script of Peepli Live I immediately thought that here is a film that I really want to make first of all. Secondly it is a film that may have limited appeal in mainstream Indian cinema. But I'm going to try and push that. But I also believe it has the potential to engage world audiences. And so, with that in mind we're trying to reach out to audiences across the world with this film. It's not a big entertainer. It's certainly not "Inception" or "Spiderman." But it's a film that is a human story which will connect with people.
So I think every now and then when there is material that organically has the potential to appeal to a world audience, it would be great if they would watch it!
Kolhatkar: You come from a family steeped in the tradition of Hindi film. Your father Tahir Hussein (who recently passed away) was a prolific film maker in India. What sort of mark do you hope to leave on Indian cinema, and indeed on international film making?
Khan: I'm not sure about that. I don't know whether I think in these larger terms. I just want to be able to do work that I'm happy doing, that's all. And I'm really happy with the kind of love and respect I've gotten over the last twenty years that I've been working [in film]. And I'm hoping that I'm able to do work which is good, which is challenging, which actually helps me to grow as a person and as an artist, and creative person.
Kolhatkar: Finally what lies in your future? I understand that you have a film coming up directed by your wife, Kiran Rao. Can you tell us more about that and any other projects of social or political significance or that are designed to appeal to an international audience?
Khan: Well Peepli Live is going to be released on August 13th. And then the next film after that is Dhobi Ghaat which I've produced and I'm also acting in it. Dhobi Ghaat is written and directed by Kiran [Rao], my wife, and it's set in Mumbai. It's about these four characters whose lives kind of touch each other. And the fifth character in the film is the city of Mumbai. It's a kind of "slice of life" film. Half of it is in English and half is in Hindi. So, we've been honest to the characters. People who would naturally be speaking in English are speaking in English and same for Hindi. And the third film that I have in the pipeline is a film called Delhi Belly, which is a comedy. This is actually a story about three kids living in Delhi and how they get into trouble with the mafia and the underworld and they don't know why. It's a bit like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels in its genre. It's not that story but it's that kind of film I guess. Again it's a very unusual film for Indian cinema because it's entirely in English. I think it's one of the few times that an English [language] film will be coming out of India. All the films that have no hopes of working are the ones that I end up producing [laughs].
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Peepli Live opens in theaters across the US on August 13, 2010. More information at www.peeplilivethefilm.com. Sonali Kolhatkar is the host and executive producer of Uprising, a morning drive-time show that broadcasts on KPFK, Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles. A weekly syndicated version of Uprising airs on over a dozen stations nationwide. Find out more at www.uprisingradio.org.