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.

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Arts and Entertainment
Bryan Cranston will play federal agent Robert Mazur in The Infiltrator

Books
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin