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‘Peepal Tree’ review: Indian eco-drama doesn’t quite cut it

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

The bio on the website of Indian filmmaker Kranti Kanadé states that he’s planted more than 8,000 trees. That kind of environmental concern is the animating force behind his latest movie, “Peepal Tree,” in which Kanadé stars as a conscientious man spurred to activism after discovering that the police academy abutting his property is illegally chopping down old peepal and banyan trees. (These fig varieties have historical and religious significance in India.)

Initially, the situation, which we’re told was inspired by true events, creates a kind of bureaucratic comedy, with Kanadé’s character (named “He” in the credits) and his wife (Eesha Thaker as, you guessed it, “She”) complaining to law enforcement about its own lawbreaking, which they then learn is an offense with no arresting authority. When shaming, logic and lively harangues about ecology get the couple nowhere with their neighbors, they turn to a tree activist (Vinay Sharma) steeped in the toothless environmental laws that have allowed developers to run rampant without any penalties. He introduces the couple to a community of like-minded citizens who meet regularly to disrupt tree-cutting.

Filmed in a loose, documentary-adjacent, handheld style that favors argument and mood over conventional narrative or character building, “Peepal Tree” boasts a convincing immediacy about its central issue, framed — accurately — as a threat to life everywhere. But it also suffers from a (ahem) rootlessness in its tones and structure, so that the enlightenment is always blunted by the meandering ways of its poetry and passion. When we can’t get a bead on who the central couple are, for instance, the journey feels glancing, not consequential.

Though its seriousness of purpose and visuals of trees whole and hewn keep “Peepal Tree” intermittently compelling, one wishes the more pointed audaciousness of Kanadé’s last film, the stylish acting-school melodrama “CRD,” were in effect here to rev the urgency of what is clearly a deeply personal crusade for the filmmaker.

‘Peepal Tree’

In Hindi, Marathi and English with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Playing: Starts Nov. 5, Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino

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