“Piku”… An irresistible amble with a dysfunctional family

Posted on May 9, 2015

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The following review is relatively spoiler-free. If you’ve seen the film and would like to read a more detailed (i.e. spoiler-filled) review, then please go directly to the review below.

Piku (Deepika Padukone) brings to screen a robust multidimensionality we don’t usually see in our leading ladies. She balances domestic chores (laundry, dusting) and a career as an architect. She admits to – you may want to sit down for this – being thirtyish. She’s religious, traditional – and yet, she’s modern, if that’s the word. She’s not in a relationship, but has a friend (Jishu Sengupta) who brings benefits. And because her mother is no more, she takes care of her supremely cantankerous father (Bhaskor, played by Amitabh Bachchan).

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Bhaskor (the ‘o’ because he’s Bengali) is a Grade-A hypochondriac. Plus, he’s constipated, and he’s obsessed about it. (Bachchan is fantastic. It’s enormous fun watching this most iconic and dignified of actors mouth the most foul, scatological lines.) But Piku is as ornery as her father. And a kind of movie begins to build in your mind. You think this is the kind of movie that’ll have Piku thaw. You think that’s why the Delhi-based father and daughter take a road trip to Kolkata. You think they’ll both learn life lessons and embrace tearfully. But there’s none of that… to pick an appropriate word, crap.

Instead, they get a co-traveller, Rana (Irrfan Khan; an inspired choice opposite the radiant Deepika). Piku, directed by Shoojit Sircar, keeps making us expect one thing and then goes and does its own thing. The offbeat rhythms of the writer Juhi Chaturvedi remind me of James L Brooks, who worked very much within the Hollywood system (and in the mainstream tradition) and yet imbued his work with jagged edges. I recalled, especially, As Good As It Gets, which was also about dysfunctional characters on a road trip. How nice to see this sensibility in our commercial cinema, like sucking on a lemon wedge between tequila shots.

The constipation, finally, could be a metaphor for not letting go (by father and daughter). It’s at least a recurring motif. A kitchen sink is “blocked” with tea leaves – it needs to be unclogged. A pump stops functioning and all the water is “backed up.” But Piku is not the kind of film you want to dig up for symbolism. It’s the kind of film that makes you happy you’re on the ride.

The following is the longer version of the review and it contains spoilers…

We haven’t seen a heroine like Piku (Deepika Padukone). That’s an odd word to use in this case, heroine – it suggests not just the female lead of a film, but the Rani of Jhansi, or at least the Rani Mukerji of Mardaani. Piku, on the other hand, is simply an Everywoman, bringing to screen a robust multidimensionality we don’t usually see in our leading ladies. She loads the washing machine. She brushes her teeth (the act itself is unremarkable; the fact that the film takes the time to show it isn’t). She oils her hair. She grabs a broom and dusts the ceiling. She admits to – you may want to sit down for this – being thirtyish. She likes Ray movies. She’s an architect. She plays badminton. She listens to complaints from the domestic help. She buys bangles on an impulse. She unclogs the kitchen sink. She’s religious (she prays to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa). She observes tradition (she touches the feet of elders). And yet, she’s modern, if that’s the word. She’s not in a relationship, but has a friend (Jishu Sengupta) who brings benefits and is mildly jealous when she talks of dating others. And because her mother is no more, she takes care of her supremely cantankerous father (Bhaskor, played by Amitabh Bachchan). On second thoughts, that last bit alone removes all doubts. Piku is a heroine.

Bhaskor (the ‘o’ because he’s Bengali) is a Grade-A hypochondriac. He takes his temperature several times during the day, and his face falls when the medical report indicates there’s nothing wrong with him. Oh, and he’s constipated, and he’s obsessed about it. He keeps subjecting Piku to updates about the colour (part green, part yellow) and consistency (like mango pulp) of his bowel movements, and he even has a chair with a hole in it – some sort of artisanal port-a-potty – for use during travel. (Perched on top of a car, it’s literally a throne, this film’s topmost subject.) Bhaskor probably knows that, despite a faithful and long-suffering servant, no one but Piku can put up with him, take care of him. So he keeps telling prospective suitors that she’s not a virgin, as if that, and not he, would scare them off – him, with his bulldozing baritone and ill-fitting clothes from a century ago. Bachchan’s Bengali accent takes a bit of getting used to, but he’s otherwise fantastic. It’s enormous fun watching this most iconic and dignified of actors (think back to the other Bhaskar he played in Anand) mouth the most foul, scatological lines. Imagine Asha Parekh saying “motherfucker” on screen and you’re close.

There are many nice things about Piku , directed by Shoojit Sircar – one of the nicest is that Piku is as ornery as her father. This is no martyr suffering under a man with near-tyrannical eccentricities. To others – like the cabbies who ferry her around – she’s the tyrant. They’re terrified they’ll be called upon to serve her. And a kind of movie begins to build in your mind. You think this is the kind of movie that’ll have Piku thaw. You think that’s why the Delhi-based father and daughter take a road trip to Kolkata. (The ostensible reason is to consider selling an ancestral home, which will likely be demolished for new development. Put differently, this could point to the dilemma: Continue taking care of our visibly decaying parents or hand them over to an ultramodern retirement/nursing home?) You think the father will understand what his daughter is going through, that the daughter will see why her father is this way, that they’ll both learn life lessons and embrace tearfully. There’s none of that… to pick an appropriate word, crap.

Instead, they get a co-traveller, Irrfan Khan’s Rana. (The character is introduced in a scene about a hit and run. Art imitating life or life imitating art? Discuss. Twenty points.) I wasn’t terribly convinced by the way he’s shoehorned into the road trip, but his presence made me very glad. Rana comes from a dysfunctional home too and his life hasn’t quite worked out the way he wanted – but again, this is no healing journey for him. There’s a wonderfully strange scene with a knife. We don’t know why it’s there and where it’s going, especially with the intermission break in the middle. Then we see it may have something to do with Rana, that he’s every bit as wilful as the others. (Well, maybe not that much.) There’s another beauty of a scene in which Rana, unable to take Bhaskor’s whining anymore, stops the car and gives the old man a piece of his mind. Bhaskor is stunned. Piku, though, is… It’s hard to say what she’s feeling, for Deepika’s face seems to be registering many things at once. Piku is grateful that someone is doing what she cannot do. She’s perhaps uncomfortable being there, witnessing her father’s humiliation. Maybe there’s a bit of guilt too, that she’s chosen to remain silent and let the humiliation continue. It’s an inspired choice to cast Irrfan opposite the radiant Deepika. She’s already proved she can be a good performer, but working with him, her game goes up a few levels. As for him, this is the closest he’s come to being a romantic leading man. And it’s possibly the closest Bollywood has gotten to the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers dynamic, of which it was said: He gives her class, she gives him sex.

And yet, theirs isn’t quite a romance. Along the journey, Rana ingratiates himself with Bhaskor. He gives Bhaskor tulsi and pudina leaves to alleviate the constipation. And in an outrageously funny scene, he squats and demonstrates the difference between the “Indian way “ and the “Western way,” using a graphic illustration that to Bhaskor’s eyes must have seemed like a Renoir original. I thought this would be the point where Piku falls for Rana. Every girl looks for a bit of her daddy in her husband. Rana’s just proved he’s got the most unforgettable bit. But Piku doesn’t go there. It might go there after the film ends and we return home. We get an ending that suggests something like that. But not now. Rana knows that, despite his obvious interest in Piku, she comes with, um, a shitload of baggage. He’s a sane and rooted man, not an insane on-screen lover.

Piku keeps making us expect one thing and then goes and does its own thing. There’s a scene where Bhaskor comes home drunk and begins to do the twist to a catchy Bengali number. Piku is concerned. She thinks he should go to bed. Then she sees how much fun he’s having and smiles wearily. For a horrified instant, I thought she was going to join in and we’d have one of those “bonding” moments. But she just goes to her room – though with an added spring in her step – and closes the door. They bond enough as it is. These offbeat rhythms of the writer Juhi Chaturvedi (she also wrote Sircar’s Vicky Donor, which was also about an icky emanation, albeit from the other end) remind me of James L Brooks, who worked very much within the Hollywood system (and in the mainstream tradition) and yet imbued his work with jagged edges. I recalled, especially, As Good As It Gets, which was also about dysfunctional characters on a road trip. There’s a scene here, when Piku is on a date and talks loudly on the phone with her father about his favourite subject – it’s like the scene in As Good As It Gets where Helen Hunt is on a date and her son begins to cough up phlegm. How nice to see this sensibility in our commercial cinema, like sucking on a lemon wedge between tequila shots.

The constipation, finally, could be a metaphor for not letting go (by father and daughter). It’s at least a recurring motif. A kitchen sink is “blocked” with tea leaves – it needs to be unclogged. A pump stops functioning and all the water is “backed up” – and as Rana fixes the machine, a man keeping watch on the roof says something you might hear Bhaskor say from inside the bathroom: “Thoda thoda aa raha hai.” But Piku is not the kind of film you want to dig up for symbolism. It’s the kind of film that makes you happy you’re on the ride. Even the boring bits are a nice kind of boring, less the result of bad filmmaking than a reflection of the nothing-much-happens phases of life. Or maybe we take to the film so much that we look for reasons to explain away the things that don’t work, like the utilitarian staging, or the numerous Amul placements. We take to Piku because it is filled with the cacophonous rhythms of family – the aunt (Moushumi Chatterji) who chatters away unmindful of the occasion, or the relative filled with pent-up frustrations (another form of constipation). Most of all, the film reminds us of our parents, those sometimes frustrating people whom we feel we cannot live with until we realise we cannot live without them either. The scene in which Piku tears up after Bhaskor takes ill may remind you of the many times you dismissed someone’s complaints until the day you found them in the hospital and were hit by a sickening mix of terror and guilt. My favourite line? When Piku says, offhandedly, that we can’t judge our parents. Sometimes we go to films to forget what life’s like. Other times, we go to remember.

Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi