Friday, February 05, 2010

Peepli Live directed by Anusha Rizvi: A report from Sundance

Fete accompli

By Mahmood Farooqui
Posted On Monday, February 01, 2010

Our first screening of Peepli Live took place at the Egyptian theatre, down Main Street, the only screening venue which is located in the Park City. The quaint theatre hall was completely full and the first public screening of the film and also the premiere, went down much better than we expected. A hall full of Americans seemed to enjoy every nuance of what is a very Indian film. The Q and A afterwards, and this was true of every subsequent screening, had charged up Americans wanting to unravel complex economic issues of rural India.

The festival itself is spread out over several theatres several miles from each other and they are all unconventional venues. The Temple theatre is a Jewish synagogue, the Library is located at a school, The Yarrow is a hotel, Prospector is a lodge while the Eccles, the largest of them all, is in a school premise. There are free buses to and fro the venue and helpful volunteers and drivers look after the arrangements.

This year 1590 people, many of them pensioners and film buffs, have traveled, at their own expense and arrangements, to do unpaid service at the festival. They work as ticket sellers, cinema managers, ushers, ballot collectors and traffic wardens. And Park City is not the most economical of places to stay at because it is a Ski resort town.

I travelled thirty miles to see a film at the Sundance Resort, a ski and recreational venue which is owned by Redford, who apparently stays there all the year round and skies when the festival ends, where you would only go to see a film. And incredibly, even that place was full. The next day we all traveled to Salt Lake City for our second screening. The place was swarming with Indians, who had mostly come to behold (and touch and harass) the producer of Peepli Live, Aamir Khan. The Indians, well, they were so excited with the star and so many of them rushed out after him that they all forgot to vote for the film.

The audience awards are decided on the basis of the ballot that every film watcher submits and in the past the popular audience choices have gone on to become blockbusters, including Sex
Times Wellness
, Lies and Videotape which launched Steven Soderbergh's career.

At the heart of Sundance lies the Sundance Institute and the festival is only one part of its numerous activities. It runs a film lab which has seeded a large number of films, a theatre and music lab, a screenwriting lab and workshops go on right through the year for aspirants and hopefuls from all over the world. Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs was first premiered here and it is the independent film and the documentary that Sundance is known for. Low budget, cutting edge cinema has been Sundance's slogan and through most of its twenty odd years it has succeeded in living up to its motto.

Although the refrain is loud and clear, year after year, that Sundance is not the same as it used to be, that it has become successful and has sold out, there is still a very large number of documentary and indie films that turn up year after year. For all its four categories, docu and feature, for world and US sections, it receives more than a thousand entries every year and there is, in addition, a Short Film section, a Spotlight section and several other kinds of showings.

The programmers who watch and decide the films to be seen, and thereby set the agenda for the nature of feature and non-feature film making, are incredibly involved with films they have nurtured. John Cooper, the director of the festival, who worked in the program section for years, has been credited with returning the festival to the indie and to the experimental and incredulously he knows or knows of practically each of the two hundred odd films that screen this year. Most of Sundance staffers have been around for decades, nobody seems to ever leave this place. And this is also true for filmmakers, writers and audiences, many of whom have been coming here for years, if not decades.

Since the success of Sex
Times Wellness
, Lies and Videotape and Reservoir Dogs the studios have turned up every year and sometimes bidding starts right after the screening and deals are sealed overnight. Everyone hopes to sell their films but few actually get sold. What will interest the American audiences, everyone claims to know it but few can actually predict it. Of course our film, despite the obvious enjoyment of a lot of Americans, seems too remote for the Americans who obviously want another Slumdog.

Three documentaries we saw slammed the American establishment very strongly. Casino Jack and the United States of Money exposed the lobbying and corruption straitjacket around Washington while the Secrets of the Tribe tore apart the powerful and influential American Anthropology establishment. But the star turn was reserved for Michael Winterbottom's adaptation of Naomi Klein's hit book The Shock Doctrine. The panel discussion afterwards included Robert Redford and the overflowing hall seemed totally in unison with the condemnation of neo-liberal economics portrayed by the film.

The list of Sundance products, either as debutants here or as people who were directly or indirectly mentored by the Institute, is impressive. They include Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Jonathon Dayton, Nick Hornby, Miguel Arteta, David O Russell, Roberto Rodriguez, the Weinstein brothers and several others. There are filmmakers here from Greenland, from Iraq from faraway Korea and China. The thing with selling and success is that if films begin to sell rapidly and all too easily then it would seem that what is premiering here is something the establishment is totally at ease with.

Once they become successful, all counter cultures, risk becoming the establishment and there is no easy way around this. So should we worship obscurity for its own sake? At the last screening on Friday, I was in conversation with an intense South African who said ours was the best film he had seen. When he walked away the lady who was talking to Anusha (Rizvi, director of Peepli Live), a part of a community of filmmakers called the Oklahoma filmmakers, turned to me and said, ‘gosh, I wish I had taken a picture of him.’ Turns out he was John Savage, of The Deer Hunter fame. Gosh, I really want to come back here.

(Farooqui is the co-director and the casting director of Peepli Live the first Indian film at the Sundance World Cinema Competition)

Peepli Live

About Peepli Live

On the eve of national elections in an Indian village Peepli, two farmers, Natha and Budhia, face losing their land due to an unpaid government loan. Desperate, they seek help from an apathetic local politician, who suggests they commit suicide to benefit from a government program that aids the families of indebted deceased farmers. When a journalist overhears what the two farmers plan to do for the sake of their families, the media goes into frenzy about whether or not Natha will commit suicide.

Copyright 2008 Bennett Coleman & Co. Ltd. . All rights reserved.

1 comment:

A H Zaidi said...

Eagerly awaiting for the movie.

Fellow Alig.