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Aamir Khan: the Tom Cruise of Bollywood

The actor, director and producer talks to The Independent Online about his new film 'Peepli (Live)', a satire on the mass farmers' suicide problem facing India.
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When Tom Cruise visited Mumbai to plug his latest film he was referred to in the press as the ‘Aamir Khan of Hollywood’. This might give you an inkling of how enormous Khan’s celebrity is in his native India, although he is lesser-known in this country. When we meet for this interview in a swanky London hotel, the four burly bodyguards dancing attendance are a clear sign that the Lagaan heartthrob is used to being mobbed.

Having had a stellar career as leading man, Khan began working off camera directing and producing movies four years ago. He has since won a Filmfare best director award (the Hindi film industry’s Oscars equivalent), and his 2009 film 3 Idiots is currently the highest-grossing Bollywood film of all-time. He is in London to promote Peepli (Live), a Hindi language film written and directed by Anusha Rizvi, funded by Aamir Khan Productions and produced by Khan himself.

The film is a low-budget satire on the mass suicides of farmers in rural India. Sounds like a hard sell, doesn’t it? But the comical story of Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri), who having drunk and smoked away his farm decides to kill himself, has been a surprise hit in India. It was the first Indian film to compete at the Sundance Film Festival, was named Best First Feature Film at the Durban International Film Festival, and is thought to have recovered its costs prior to release.

Khan hopes that Peepli’s success will continue when it hits UK cinemas on Friday. “I think the film appeals to an audience that may never have seen an Indian film before,” he said. “When I read the script what first attracted me to it was the humour and the vibrant characters. It was very sensitising for someone like me who was born in, and grew up in, a big city like Mumbai. I knew almost nothing about what was happening in rural India.”

The suicide problem that Khan is talking about is impossible to quantify. According to Khan, who examined a government census, 80,000 farmers in India committed suicide between 1991 and 2001. “The next census report, 2001 to 2011, will be published in two years’ time, but I predict that the numbers will be on a par with the last one. The average hasn’t dropped, as far as I know,” he said.

The suicide epidemic was widely reported in the 1990s after a journalist called P Sainath drew attention to it. More recently, Khan told me, there have been instances where people have threatened self emollition and a journalist has continued to point a camera at them instead of trying to intervene. “This has happened on at least two occasions. So it is quite terrible,” he said. Rizvi, a former television journalist, knows only too well about media pitfalls, and Peepli cleverly portrays a heartless media response.

In the film, a cavalcade of television crews rush to Natha’s farm hoping to catch a live suicide. The ensuing circus turns his home into a zoo, and the journalists are quickly followed by politicians. With elections imminent, local MPs wade in seeking to use Natha’s plight to help swing votes. This is interesting, given that Khan says one of the film’s biggest triumphs is that it has got real politicians talking. “The Prime Minister and at least 200 MPs have seen the film,” he said. “The film takes a caustic and humorous view of what the politicians and media are like. Some of the politicians even admitted to me that this is sometimes how things play out, which they are unhappy about.”

But not everybody has received the film so favourably. There has been some objection among farmers’ groups in agricultural India, who argue that the film trivialises the suicides. Khan looks impatient when I mention this, and says: “This is not a film about farmers’ suicides. It doesn’t go into the issues farmers are facing. It is a film to be viewed as a backdrop to the alarming numbers of suicides which have taken place in the last two decades.”

“I’m entirely in favour of the farmer issues and I believe this film will go a long way in furthering the cause of all people in rural India. For me, Natha could have been cobbler, he could have been a potter; we’re talking about rural India here not just farmers. I believe the film goes a long way in showing their situation.”

Despite being “off-beat for Indian cinema” with a cast of unknown actors, the film’s ultimate success is that it provokes serious consideration of the situation faced by many in rural India, but does so through entertaining characterisation and a great script. As Khan remarks: “The film is interesting because it is truthful in its satire.”

Peepli Live hits UK cinemas 24 September 2010