Piku begins with a reference to constipation, proceeds to indulge in poop-centric jokes and ends with a reference to a good, satisfying “motion”. The last time Bollywood presented a film so fixated on the human digestive system was Delhi Belly. In Piku, however, it’s potty humour, Bengali style. On one hand, it means the film has none of the crude bits that Abhinay Deo and Akshat Verma’s north Indian caper did. It’s graceful, elegant and never crass. It’s also far more relentless in its focus. Delhi Belly was actually about misplaced diamonds, after all. Piku is all about potty, particularly Amitabh Bachchan’s potty. And it — the film — is as wonderful, satisfying and fulfilling as a long-awaited, post-constipation dump.
From the Piku trailer, you might think you know what’s going to happen in the film. Piku will be a beautiful, quirky young woman who lives with her father, Bhaskor. They’ll adore each other, sing songs, possibly cut a birthday cake. Along the way, Piku will fall in love with someone (Irrfan), she’ll be torn between father and lover for a bit, there will be a few tears and then everyone will live happily ever after. Exactly none of this happens in Piku.
Writer Juhi Chaturvedi and director Shoojit Sircar have done what no one thought Bollywood had the gumption to do: they’ve made a film that’s entirely unpredictable. From character to plot, everything in Piku will take you by surprise. Everything other than Bachchan’s inconsistent Bengali-accent, that is. But it’s a minor flaw because Piku gets pretty much everything else right, and gloriously so.
Piku (Deepak Padukone) is an only child, who lives with her elderly, widowed father Bhaskor (Bachchan) in a bungalow in Chittaranjan Park. Inside, photos of Rabindranath Tagore, Sri Ramakrishna and Sarada Ma hang on on the walls. There are books, mosquito nets and lovely wooden furniture. It’s beautiful and precisely what you expect of a Bengali home.
That authenticity isn’t limited to the decor. Bhaskor is a grumpy hypochondriac who thinks it’s perfectly fine to call his daughter up when she’s on a dinner date, to inform her that he’s pooped and the consistency was like mango pulp. (That’s taken care of summer for you aamras lovers, hasn’t it?) She doesn’t find it particularly odd either. Like most Bengalis, Piku has grown up with such detailed descriptions and analyses of digestive processes and discharge. It’s a part of life, much like her father’s other idiosyncrasies, like hiding the salt so that no one in the household gets “BP” (blood pressure).
Bhaskor is demanding, suspicious, whimsical, opinionated, sweet and a royal pain. In short, he’s pretty much your favourite old uncle/ granddad. Bachchan gets that combination of an annoying but adorable personality perfectly. The only thing that doesn’t ring true about his Bhaskor is the paunch that looks like a cushion’s been stuffed under the kurta. But who cares about paunches, when Bachchan is, with supreme deadpan composure, discussing excrement and leaving you rolling with laughter?
Given lines that crackle with wit, Bachchan delivers them with the kind of flair that you expect from an actor of his calibre. His comic timing is superb and his body language is just right. You realise how perfect his portrayal is because of the details — like when Bhaskor is listening closely, he has a fixed but open-mouthed, slack-jawed stare, as though he hasn’t even realised that his jaw is hanging loose. Yet his eyes, magnified through the thick lenses, are unblinking and intense.
Matching Bachchan’s Bhaskor stroke for stroke is Irrfan (who it appears has finally done the deed and dropped his surname) as Rana, a taxi company owner who ends up driving Piku and Bhaskor to Kolkata when Bhaskor decides he’d like to visit the ancestral property. Rana’s drivers can barely tolerate Piku’s snarling company for 30 minutes, so all of them ditch Rana when Piku wants a driver for the cross-country road trip. That lands Rana behind the wheel and right in the middle of father and daughter sniping, singing duets and snoring.
Irrfan’s fantastic performance is a reminder that a good actor isn’t just someone who plays their own part well, but who complements fellow actors. Over the course of the trip to Kolkata, Rana develops a rapport with both Bhaskor and Piku, all thanks to some delightful sparring. Bhaskor and Piku are both feisty, but Rana doesn’t back down. He challenges, cajoles and charms. For instance, when he realises all Bhaskor cares about is his own bowel movement, Rana sets himself a personal goal: he will teach Bhaskor, who like a good Bengali has devoted his life to analysing his digestive processes, how to achieve the perfect motion. With a diagram and sound effects, if need be.
Wonderful as Bachchan, Irrfan and Sircar are as actors and director in this utterly charming film, the real stars of Piku are two women. Padukone as Piku delivers a performance that’s honest, unaffected and guaranteed to pierce you. To think this is the same actor who did films like Lafangey Parindey and began her Bollywood career displaying about as much emotion as a block of wood! Over the years, Padukone has proved both her intelligence and her talent with the roles she’s picked, and the hard work she’s put into her performances. With Piku, Padukone establishes herself as both an excellent actor as well as a star. It just goes to show how much can be showcased when the writing is good. Padukone is riveting on screen, even when she’s being screechy and unpleasant, and Piku is often screechy and unpleasant.
Padukone’s Piku is not a heroine, but a very real person. She’s not a nubile, pretty face. She’s grown up, responsible and doing everything on her own — which means her patience runs thin and she’s rarely Disney-princess-esque. Oh, and she’s not a virgin. Not just that, her father knows it because she doesn’t make a secret of her lover staying over.
The other star of Piku is Juhi Chaturvedi, who has written credible characters, charming scenes and terrific dialogue. Among Bollywood’s many failings is its unwillingness to spend time on establishing relationships. Romance is achieved by a ballad, disappointment is established with a sad song, and so on. Chaturvedi doesn’t take those short cuts. Her characters talk to each other and through their conversations — crazy and normal — they get to know each other, and we get to know them. Sircar is lucky to have such a talented collaborator and she’s lucky to have a director who both trusts and realises her vision so well.
Chaturvedi’s greatest talent is in her ability to tackle complex themes in the chatter that abounds in Piku. There’s the business of how difficult old age is, not just for the person ageing but those around them. Piku has to mother Bhaskor and find a balance between her needs and his, which isn’t easy. Chaturvedi also picks up a few ‘bold’ themes. The film’s undramatic way of dealing with Piku’s sexual needs and separating sex from romance is in sharp contrast to how awfully and ham-handedly Bollywood usually handles these topics (remember Hunterrr?).
More provocatively, Chaturvedi has Bhaskor standing as an obstacle to Piku’s love life, but in a thoroughly unexpected yet believable way. He is heartwarmingly supportive of her career and doesn’t begrudge her casual sex, but Bhaskor doesn’t want her to get married and scotches every possibility that he thinks could go in the direction of real emotional commitment. He claims he’s anti-marriage for Piku because he doesn’t want her to sacrifice herself to a man, yet that’s exactly what he wants her to do for him. The real reason Bhaskor wants Piku to stay single is that he doesn’t want to lose her to someone else. It’s partly selfish and partly obsessive with an unsettling Oedipal whiff. Chaturvedi treats this very complex idea with magnificent subtlety and finesse, and without melodrama.
And that’s Chaturvedi’s real talent: her writing never gets bogged down in seriousness even while dealing with serious issues. She successfully explores ponderous concepts, but through sparkling conversations about bowel movements. Piku is great fun. It’s filled with laughter and so much motion as well as emotion that you will want to watch it again the moment you come out. Just so that you can return to the banter between Rana, Bhaskor and Piku.