Saturday, May 09, 2015

Father and daughter go to alimentary school - on Shoojit Sircar's Piku

[Did this for The Daily O]

Shoojit Sircar’s Piku (subtitled “Motion se hi Emotion”) is about Bhaskar Banerji (Amitabh Bachchan), an old man with a bowel disorder, and his daughter Piku (Deepika Padukone) who has spent too much of her young life attending to him and having conversations about constipation (which infiltrate other aspects of her world, freaking out co-workers and potential boyfriends). It is about how father and daughter, in different ways, find catharsis through a Delhi-to-Kolkata road trip in the company of cab-agency owner Rana (Irrfan Khan).

And of course, once you use a word like “catharsis” – and think about other dual-meaning terms like “anal-retentive” or even “tight-arsed” – the metaphorical possibilities of this story should be obvious. Crabby old Bhaskar needs to purge himself, not just of the stuff choking his intestines, but of something else – something that can perhaps be freed only when he returns to the city of his childhood and re-experiences a little of his past: cycling about near Kolkata’s crumbling havelis, dodging trams, bringing home a greasy bag of street food. A Delhi-hater might even say that on some level this film is about a provincial Bengali disinfecting himself after years of inhaling the capital’s shit. (Living in Delhi’s Bangla colony and setting up shrines to Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray inside your house isn’t enough. You need the real air and kaalchar.)

More likely, Bhaskar and Piku just need something, anything new. “Kuch naya karne ko mila,” he says happily after Rana advises him to try Indian-style squatting in the toilet (this doesn’t solve the old man’s problems, but it makes him feel a little more alive), and the words apply just as well to their unusual car journey. The first time we see Bhaskar stepping outside his cluttered, self-contained CR Park house, he is cycling very tentatively in a lane, with two people running alongside to keep him steady. This short and uncertain exercise is a dress rehearsal for the road trip, and by the end we will see that the road trip itself was the prelude to a final liberating ride. The two cycling scenes and the car journey sandwiched between them can be viewed as stand-ins for three life-stages: childhood, the long middle stretch, and childhood revisited in old age.

Yet it would be a mistake to confine Piku to this sort of symbolism. After their 2012 sleeper hit Vicky Donor, Sircar and writer Juhi Chaturvedi have again imbued a film with so much verve, attention to detail and such a sense of lived-in-ness that you don’t have to dwell on Deeper Meanings if you don’t want to; it works so well as slice-of-life storytelling. Chaturvedi’s naturalistic dialogue is unafraid to use ellipses and to not spell everything out
it leaves us free to observe these people and conjecture things about their personal histories. And though the story follows a rite-of-passage formula and is always headed for a specific sort of resolution, the characters have many dimensions. When Bhaskar does the seemingly “cool”, non-fatherly thing of telling a young man that Piku has had physical relationships (“Bhirgin nahin hai”), it is really because he is scared she might get married and leave his house. What a tragedy it is that women are restricted to wifely roles when we have the example of great heroines like Sarojini Naidu and Vijaylakshmi Pandit, he says magnanimously, but later a casual exchange suggests that he wasn’t so progressive within his own marriage: his wife had to leave her teaching career after marrying him; as so often, there is a gap between stated ideals and lived experience.

Similarly, the Irrfan character Rana could easily have just been the outsider who watches, comments and supplies wisdom, the Krishna-like saarthi who literally and otherwise chauffeurs Piku and Bhaskar to the place they need to reach – but it is subtly indicated that Rana has his own demons, that this is a therapeutic journey for him too. A fine scene near the end puts him on the receiving end of a lecture and implies that he feels guilt for not having been attentive enough towards his cancer-stricken father. If Piku represents one extreme – the young woman whose life is flying by at the service of a parent’s ailments – Rana could be near the other extreme; the child who never even knew enough about a parent’s condition to be able to talk about it. (How easy it is for him to up and leave early one morning without even informing his mother and sister back home.) We are also allowed to wonder what effect his experiences in a menial job in Dubai have had on his present-day class consciousness, his insistence on being not a “mere” driver but an owner. Such little touches are not vital to the story we are being told, but they give us a sense of the characters’ inner lives.


When art sets out to remind us of the unglamorous rudiments of the human condition – that beneath our posturing we are just bags of mince and shit with very limited sell-by dates – the mode is usually bleak or surreal or self-consciously depressing. This has not (to say the least) been the case with Sircar and Chaturvedi’s work together. In Vicky Donor, Dr Chaddha compartmentalized people into “sperrrm types” but also affectionately oversaw the transformation of squiggly raw materials into flesh-and-blood human beings with personalities and feelings. In Piku there are little moments that steer close to detached, Bunuel-esque nihilism (the scenes where potty talk happens at dining tables, even as the camera offers us loving close-ups of Bengali dishes, or in a sophisticated restaurant with romantic music playing in the background, reminded me of the famous reversal of roles in Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, where defecation is a public act – people do it while making polite conversation together at a table – and eating a clandestine one) – and yet this manages to be an essentially warm, life-affirming film.

With a couple of exceptions such as a slack scene involving a knife (which seemed to me to exist mainly to set up the sort of dramatic intermission that our multiplex movies require these days), the storytelling is crisp and focused, and the performances by the three leads as well as the supporting players are super. (In her first scene as Bhaskar’s perky, much-married sister-in-law, Moushumi Chatterjee’s opening words to Bachchan are “How are you? Motion
toh hua na?” As Dorothy never said, “We’re not in Rim Jhim Gire Saawan Land anymore, Toto.”) Padukone and Irrfan – an unlikely couple in many ways – find surprising chemistry together, the sort of chemistry that facilitates an ending where romantic loose ends don’t have to be neatly tied up. (Watch the final shot – no spoiler here – where a game of badminton is being played in a driveway, with one player inside the gated area and the other outside.)

And there is Bachchan, of course. In the past couple of decades there has been much talk about AB’s passage from the anti-authority hero of the 1970s, champion of the downtrodden (onscreen), to a symbol of benevolent authoritarianism himself (on and off screen). But who knew, back in the day when we were kids imagining ourselves as leather-jacketed Sikandar on the motorbike singing “Rote huay aate hain sab…”, that one day we would see the 70-year-old version of that fate-conqueror complaining that his bowel is dispensing “one small piece at a time” – and that we would STILL cheer for him. Well, fans grow older – and wiser – too.

[A post about Vicky Donor here. And a very short profile of Juhi Chaturvedi in this post.]


  1. Perceptive and thoughtful, as always, Jai! Well, AB HAD said that a muqaddar ka sikandar is also one "hansta hua jo jayega", and in that sense, it is one full, satisfactory turn of the Circle of Life!

    1. Thanks! And yes, that "hansta hua jo jaayega" bit did just occur to me.

      Also, I may have been remiss in implying Bachchan's 70s and 80s characters never had to go to the toilet. Was it Do aur Do Paanch that had the scene where Shashi Kapoor mixed laxatives in AB's food (or the other way around)?

  2. A high point in my trip to Trinidad was when "Rothe Hue .." played on the Indian radio station there as we heading out of Port of Spain. Cabbie of Indian origin whose dream in life was to one day go to India, his Mecca. It was all just perfect...

  3. Radhika Oltikar10:38 AM, May 16, 2015

    "...but later a casual exchange suggests that he wasn’t so progressive within his own marriage: his wife had to leave her teaching career after marrying him; as so often, there is a gap between stated ideals and lived experience." Not so sure about this. While it is true that Bhaskor is a difficult, authoritarian, even selfish man who likely caused his wife a lot of stress and imposed his will on her, earlier in the film he seems to have thought considerably less of her BECAUSE she gave up her career and dedicated her life to pleasing him. "Only low IQ women do this!" Plus, he has in the past used his influence to get his brother's wife a job with Bata, which she says she declined because to take it would mean her earning more than her husband. Bhaskor finds her way of thinking reprehensible...

    1. he seems to have thought considerably less of her BECAUSE she gave up her career and dedicated her life to pleasing him. "Only low IQ women do this!"

      Possible, but we'll never know, right? Maybe he's just saying this, when his actual behaviour in the real-life situation was much more complicated (the way it is with most of us). Consider the man we see in the film: clingy, insecure, paranoid, needing to be looked after. Doesn't it make sense that even the younger, healthier version of this man would need a wife who would mother him, be at his beck and call most of the time rather than pursuing her own career?

      Anyway, I'm not trying to make the point that Bhaskor is regressive/chauvinistic/patriarchal in some sweeping way (those brands don't sit easily on a man who is so nonchalant about his unmarried daughter having a sex life) - just that he is a mass of contradictions like all of us are, capable of being one thing in one situation and another in another situation. And that the same goes for the Irrfan and Deepika characters. And JC's writing is accomplished enough to get this across...

    2. Radhika Oltikar12:29 PM, May 16, 2015

      "...just that he is a mass of contradictions like all of us are, capable of being one thing in one situation and another in another situation." Totally with you on this. All I wanted to say was that I wasn't sure that his wife's leaving her job was suggestive of his hypocrisy in that aspect. And it wasn't even because of what he said, as people's words can be poor indicators of actual beliefs. His action of getting his sister-in-law a job was far more conclusive.

  4. Ha! I also made the Krishna connection on BR's blog.
    I haven't seen PK but I could see the Bavarchi connection in PiKu.

  5. Hi Jai, apologies for off-topic comment but:
    1.Thoughts on Bombay Velvet?
    2. What did you think of Madras Cafe? I had liked Vicky Donor quite a bit but absolutely loathed Madras Cafe. Yet to see Piku.

    1. Vijay: haven't seen Madras Cafe - from what little I've heard though, it doesn't sound as much of a "personal" Sircar-Chaturvedi film as VD and Piku were.

      Was disappointed by Bombay Velvet (and that's coming from someone who has a lot of time for Anurag Kashyap's particular brand of self-indulgence - and for auteurial self-indulgence in general). It had good things in it, but mostly I found it hard to invest in the characters (even on the superficial, nudge-wink level that one could invest in some of the characters in Gangs of Wasseypur).

      Also couldn't escape the impression that AK had set out to impress the "international" film community - the acquaintances he has made at film fests, etc - by doing a mythologised history of Bombay using tropes from Gangs of New York and Cabaret; a sort of "we can do this as well, and even get Thelma Schoonmaker to work on our film".

      Many other scattered thoughts, but I'll stop now...

    2. Agreed completely. Oh, and how the hell did he manage to get Schoonmaker on board?! So many filmmakers before him must have tried as well, no?