Piku: Plenty of potty talk. No toilet humour
A lovely slice-of-life film about a father, daughter and a cab driver.
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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 a 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 after Rana advises him to try Indian-style squatting in the toilet (this doesn’t magically 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 symbolic analysis. 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. These things are not organic 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 all 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 fundamentally a 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 some 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.