‘Piku’: A review of reviews and some of my own thoughts
Adults in our family (Rahul, me and the mums) are generally in the habit of making trips to the cinema hall without our children. Frankly, except for animation films made for kids (and even they have so much dialogue that is lost on the little one, and so much violence), it’s hard to find films that we think children should watch. Piku, after a long time, was a weekend trip with the kids in tow (watch trailer). Aadyaa was highly excited about being allowed to watch a movie with us and highly intrigued with what little she had heard about Piku. “Is he really obsessed with his potty?” she kept asking me the entire Saturday morning after I’d broken the news of our little outing.
In the cinema hall, I saw families helping their elderly up the stairs into the multiplex and several children milling around. The sense of excitement (and star worship) was not quite the same as I see for the typical Khan-type Bollywood multi-starrer, but there was a curiosity in the air and a level of comfort that was palpable.
What I loved about Piku (in that order)
The stunning ordinariness of the characters: The experience was a bit like watching a movie with a very large extended family. Everyone identified with someone or the other. In Piku (ably played by Deepika Padukone), some saw their own struggles with aging parents reflected. In Bhaskor Banerjee (Amitabh par excellence), people identified an eccentric uncle, an endearing patriarch, a dearly missed grandfather. Piku dusts cobwebs, Rana (Irrfan) yells unbecomingly at his mother and sister, Piku’s house has a normal and reassuring level of unkemptness but is spruced up to entertain guests for lunch, etc etc.
Functional dysfunctionality and the wonderfulness of family: But more than that, the film needs to be applauded for bringing home the wonderful way Indian families (and perhaps families in general) accept and live with the eccentricities of their own. I wasn’t entirely convinced about Baradwaj Rangan’s description of Piku as “An irresistible amble with a dysfunctional family” because I cannot think of a single family that is “functional” really! Perhaps it is our identification with this functional dysfunctionality that endears the film to us so! To me, Piku’s biggest achievement is that families, from the youngest to the oldest, could watch together a wholesome, funny entertainer without the usual crassness that we have to swallow as necessary in run-of-the-mill Bollywood fare.
A new way for mainstream cinema to look at women: Piku’s team was evidently quite confident of the wholesomeness of their script, for writer Juhi Chaturvedi has boldly taken the opportunity to speak a very different language about how women can be in Indian society. As one of my favorite feminist bloggers puts it, Piku is among a new set of movies “that acknowledge women as people” (Read IHM’s review titled Piku in Patriarchy) and do not make women fit into the ideas that society has of them, rather letting them break out and be what they will.
Nivedita Mishra’s HT review points out that it’s easy for a priviliged upper class Delhi girl to be ‘independent’. Even so, I think Piku’s character and her manner of negotiating her relationships goes beyond privilege and speaks to her ability to remain headstrong and stubborn in a world that is still largely patriarchal, even for the privileged upper class woman.
Jugal Mody, in his excellent post on The Ladies Finger, also points this out, especially referring to the friends-with-benefits relationship that Piku has in the film and the strength of the film’s other female characters. Particularly, he picks out the film’s ability to highlight how feminist men like Bhaskor (Piku’s hypochondriac dad), though supportive of women in their lives, constantly feel the need to control them. The film, he writes, points out “the irony of men who want to be feminist allies to the women in their life. In the long family banter scenes, they keep interrupting the women who are talking about what they want only to tell them about independence.”
Within this theme, I come to what I loved particularly about Piku. In a setting when Piku is forced to travel with a man she doesn’t particularly like (Rana Chowdhry, played by Irrfan), a man who has an uncanny way of getting under her skin and really understanding her, one would expect a romance to kindle in the style of Mills & Boon (which is absolutely full of these strong silent characters who are drawn to each other after a series of misunderstandings). But no, the knight in shining armor (I was really wondering, when the Tullu pump was being repaired in the minutes before Rana leaves Kolkata!) does not gallop in on a white steed and carry away the Princess to ‘happily ever after’; instead, they exchange friendly knocks with badminton rackets in the closing scenes, which shows their growing friendship but nothing more.
What I didn’t quite get about Piku (in no particular order)
Everything about the film was subtle, so subtle that somewhere on their journey to Kolkata, I found my attention slipping. Aadyaa was restless besides me: “When will they reach Mumma? how many hours in real, how many hours in the movie?” The events on this journey seemed to me haphazard, but I’m sure that chaos was also part of the charm. I certainly have no suggestions for how this could be improved!
I thought the film could have highlighted a bit more Piku’s pleasure in re-connecting with the city of her childhood, Kolkata. It could have been an opportunity to show another side of Piku, the contrast to her severity and wilfulness might have rendered her even more lovable. Even her sudden change of heart about retaining (and not selling) their ancestral home came through, to me, as abrupt (close after her conversation with Rana about this, it came across as if he was overtly influencing her, which is at odds with Piku’s character). If this was an important part of the subtext, the connection with their home and their old life, it merited a bit more attention perhaps.
Kudos for telling new stories, and not rehashing the formula
I’m saying nothing new here and I admit I’m biased, having known Juhi for a long time. But truly, Piku is a brave story, a real story. Kudos to Juhi for writing it and to Shoojit for putting it together so beautifully.
Piku could be my story or yours; and it’s impossible not to love it. After Vicky Donor’s bold humorous take on a taboo subject, Juhi’s fresh take on the ordinary madness of life’s relationships in Piku deserves all our praise. I can imagine the catharsis she experienced in writing this, the long hours that went into the detailing it and the uncanny instinct that helped focus on that one thing that Indians love to obsess about- Potty!
I know, as the daughter of a gastroenterologist. I grew up hearing stories from my dad on the strong links between the bowels and the emotions, especially in Indian culture. On how the cures he offered were less about medication than about listening to his patients and counseling them. On how bowel movements were a reflection of relationships, of a person’s status in their family, of their self-esteem, a whole bunch of stuff that was way beyond anatomy and digestive processes. So Juhi, spot on! My father is smiling at you from wherever he is, and that’s my way of saying you simply aced it with Piku.