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SUICIDE CINEMA: Death & the Dearth of Options
Rohit Chopra  18th Sep 2011

Omkar Das Manikpuri as Natha in a still from Peepli Live

opular Indian cinema, Ashis Nandy once observed, represents a slum-eye view of politics. For those of us tutored in Indian cinema through the weekly black-and-white Sunday offerings on Doordarshan in the 1980s, it was 'art films' that dealt with causes such as poverty, hunger, and political violence and offered serious commentary about the failings of Indian state and society. We contrasted the form and content of these films to the song-and-dance routines, sentimental sermons, and mindless violence of Bollywood. Nandy's remarkable insight, however, makes the point that despite their excessive melodrama, crude plotting, and heavy-handed rendering of good and evil, Bollywood films are not necessarily unsophisticated in their politics. Embedded in their frenzied technicolor imagination lies a nuanced examination of the complexities of Indian social life, whether conflicts of modernity and tradition or ideas of freedom, selfhood, and citizenship.

What most visibly links 3 Idiots with Peepli Live is the theme of suicide, which periodically erupts in the course of the narrative. Joy, a student, commits suicide on not being allowed to graduate because of not having completed a project on time.

In the last decade or so, a number of films more squarely in the popular realm have begun steadily encroaching on the territory of the Indian art house film, in aspirations and themes as much as in techniques and production values. One can perhaps envision a finely graduated model of Indian cinema bookended by the ideal types of the 'popular' and 'serious,' with most films located at various points along the spectrum yet sharing concerns about life in contemporary India. Two recent Indian films, Peepli Live (2010) and 3 Idiots (2009), stand as a particularly instructive example. The former is somewhat closer to the serious end of the spectrum and the latter to the popular end. Despite their obvious differences, both films explore similar philosophical and political questions — questions that are singularly pertinent to present-day India yet also possess import beyond that context. What does it mean to live life with freedom? How much agency does a person have in fashioning their life? What are the larger forces that constrain and enable attempts to do so? How do these choices play out for different categories of citizens? In their examination of these questions, the films, in their difference as well as in their similarities, tell us something fundamental, I think, about life in contemporary global India.

Peepli Live is a darkly comic account of a farmer, Natha, who, on the verge of losing his ancestral land because of an inability to pay back a bank loan, decides to commit suicide. The logic underlying Natha's decision is impeccable, even if the idea is not quite entirely his own, having been planted in his head by his brother, Budhia. The compensation provided by the state to his family on account of his suicide will help save the land and provide for the family. Overheard by a local reporter, Rakesh Kapoor, the plan becomes national news, landing Natha and his family in the midst of a media frenzy and a web of political intrigue. Politicians at the local and national stage, from different caste and class backgrounds, are invested in Natha needing either to go through with the death or rescind his decision. The national news media, obsessed with ratings, descend on Peepli, Natha's village, to monitor the situation in real time. Matters end in tragedy. Still not certain that he wants to die, Natha temporarily escapes and seeks shelter in a barn. Word of his new possible location gets out, however, and all the interested parties descend on the site. In the melee that ensues, the barn catches fire. A body, thought to be that of Natha, is found.

3 Idiots is the story of three college friends, Raju, Farhan, and Rancho, studying at the Imperial College of Engineering. Raju and Farhan, of lower middle class provenance, struggle with the demands of the degree, while Rancho, from a wealthy family, breezes through it, given his extraordinary aptitude for engineering. Their antagonists are Viru, the eccentric, excessively self-regarding, dean of the college, and Chatur, a Malvolio figure, who is Rancho's competitor. Years later, Raju and Farhan seek to track down Rancho, now a teacher, with whom they have not been in touch since graduation. They are accompanied by Chatur, who wishes to lord his professional success over the rival who had trumped him academically in college.

What most visibly links 3 Idiots with Peepli Live is the theme of suicide, which periodically erupts in the course of the narrative. Joy, a student, commits suicide on not being allowed to graduate because of not having completed a project on time. Joy's mistake is to have pursued the path of creativity rather than of convention, allegorised in the figure of the rhadamanthine dean. Raju, faced with expulsion after a prank targeted at the dean, jumps out of a window in an attempt to take his life. In a well-established trope of Bollywood cinema, rendered with a light, ironic touch, Raju finds himself in a coma but eventually recovers. And, finally, in a confrontation with her father, the dean's daughter, Pia, tells him that her brother, the dean's son, had killed himself on being unable to meet his father's expectation of securing admission into Imperial.

Suicide is, paradoxically, both an act of utter helplessness and defiance; at once, an act of submission to unyielding circumstance and a rejection of those circumstances through the elimination of one's life. In each case in the film, suicide serves as the only expression of agency available to the individual in question. Anyone minimally familiar with routine happenings in India will be able to identify the rash of farmer suicides over the last decade and the tragic occurrence of student suicides linked to academic pressure as the broad horizon of reference in each film. Additionally, within the structure of each film, suicide is linked to the claustrophobic and oppressive nature of everyday life, which, at its best, is life-denying and, at its worst, no better than death.

In 3 Idiots, the pressure of family and societal expectations of academic achievement, the educational culture of rote learning, and the lack of options for expressing individual choice and creativity constitute a life-denying environment. The dean's son had dreamed of being a writer; thwarted he kills himself. Farhan finds fulfillment and self-realisation when is able to pursue his passion of photography. This perspective is poignantly evoked in the lyrics of the lovely song in the film, "Give Me Some Sunshine": "Saari umar haam mar mar ke jee liye / ek pal to ab haame / jeene do jeene do."

In Peepli Live, Natha moves around with a catatonic air in general, both before and after his reincarnation as a potential suicide. It is not accidental that he is referred to in the film as a zombie and stonehead, in part the function of the lot of his ilk and in part of his personality. Once events have been set in motion and his family comes to grips with the possibility of his death, each of them — like the politicians and mediapersons — start thinking of him as a means to an end, surmising and calculating what his death might bring them.

It is in the possibility of hope and opportunity — or lack thereof — presented in both films that we see two different understandings of freedom, each one corresponding to a class of Indian citizens. In 3 Idiots, along with the critique of societal convention, it is individual assertion that is celebrated, most conspicuously in the figure of the entrepreneur. In addition to his plan to humiliate Rancho, Chatur is also seeking out a legendary innovator Phunsukh Wangdu to secure a deal. He discovers, to his chagrin, that Phunsukh Wangdu is none other than Rancho. We also learn that Wangdu, of humble origins, worked as domestic help in the real Rancho's household, attending school and college in his stead.

It is here that the film strikes one as both limited in its radicalism and very much of a historical moment. It shares, with our age, the mindless fetishization of the entrepreneur and a somewhat uncritical valourisation of the ideology of individual meritocracy as the ability to bootstrap oneself out of poverty. What would have been truly radical is to have shown Rancho as a schoolteacher, driving home the point that this achievement, rather than Chatur's corporate climbing, is success enough.

In Peepli Live, in contrast, globalisation has meant the negation of the very possibility of freedom and anything resembling self-realisation for Natha and those of his background. The film makes a reference to Sonmanto, a thinly disguised version of Monsanto, the multinational whose genetically modified crops have been accused of driving farmers to suicide by destroying the relatively stable political economy of Indian agriculture. Globalisation has been productive for elites and hustlers, whether the English-medium type Nandita Malik (a caricature of the NDTV journalist Barkha Dutt), or her Hindi-language counterparts. The politicians, rural and urban, have figured out a way to benefit from the new changes afoot, as Indian politicians always do. For others, it has made things worse.

The sole source of idealism in the film is Rakesh Kapoor, the local, small-town journalist, who chafes at the narrow bounds of his world. But in the moral economy of Peepli Live, there is no place for Rakesh. We discover that it is actually Rakesh who has died in the fire in the barn. Natha has, in the meantime, made his escape to the city. We see him sitting at a construction site, gazing blankly into the distance with his characteristic daze. He is literally in the ranks of the undead, as legally dead if physically alive. Natha's family will not get the benefit since his death was ruled an accident rather than a suicide.

In the Amitav Ghosh novel, The Shadow Lines, the protagonist experiences an epiphany about the force that drives Indian middle-class life. It is the fear of the slum, the knowledge that but for an accident or opportunity one might have easily wound up — or might still land — in the slums that lie adjacent to middle-class apartment buildings. Peepli Live and 3 Idiots, juxtaposed with each other, present an argument about life in democratic, global India that may be grasped through the image of the slum. For some of us, globalisation at least represents the promise of escaping the slum and leaving it far behind (even if that promise might turn out to be only partially fulfilled). For the rest, freedom in global India is simply a false choice — played out in the pornographic glare of a neoliberal media, bureaucracy, and political leadership — between the slum of the present and a slum of the future.

Rohit Chopra is an Assistant Professor at Santa Clara University

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