In India, each region, culture has its own peculiar relationship with the movements of the bowels. But shit binds us. We all have profound, philosophical idioms dipped in shit and an abiding belief in Indian style potty for reasons of hygiene and physics. The pot and position are designed to exert pressure at the right points and, thus, one is poised to yield happy results.
In Punjab, we compliment good food with loud belching and then, through the day, with madhur sounds accompanied by drifting smells.
In bhadralok Bengal, loud belching is considered crass. They opt for subtle, small burps, as if letting out tiny notes of Rabindrasangeet. When perseistent, they give rise to ambol (gas), and that invites concern and comments from family and friends and, soon, the gaseous one is plied with bottles of Aqua Ptychotis and Milk of Magnesia to goad it all out.
Piku, written by Juhi Chaturvedi and directed by Shoojit Sircar, is planted in this poopy aspect of Bengali ethos and is in self-parody mood. And, as was the case with their Vicky Donor, here too a sweet love story nestles in the comedy of manners.
Bhashkor Banerjee, Baba (Amitabh Bachchan) is the patriarch of a small family in C.R. Park, Delhi. There’s him, his working daughter Piku (Deepika Padukone), their servant Budan, and wafting in and out of their living room is the quintessential adda-baaz, Chobi maashi (played with casual brilliance by Moushumi).
Baba is a selfish, splenetic man who has forged a life-long cranky relationship with his bowel movements. He begins his day by contemplating them, then gently caressing and cajoling them. This is followed by pacing around the house and waiting for some acknowledgement. On most days the sound of the flush is not an announcement of mission accomplished. It’s mostly a job half-done. Or, well, done in stutters. This sets the mood for the day which is spent discussing the colour and consistency of the yield, summoning Dr Srivastava (Raghuveer Yadav), a homeopath, for his expert advice, and calling up Piku, at work and when she’s out on dates, to give hourly updates.
With his motions, Baba controls Piku and her emotions.
Piku, a partner in a design firm, has built a safe, angry, irritated life around her Baba and his bowels.
Seemingly resentful of the duty she’s assumed for herself, she actually wears it as a badge of honour. Drawn in and stuck up, she’s in a perpetual sulk. Almost as if she’ll fail in her duty as a daughter if she relaxes. Piku has chosen not to have a life, but blames him. Though independent, she’s waiting for him to allow her to marry, if not arrange the wedding itself.
Baba holds the thought of her marriage in contempt. He is always talking of how women should be liberated, while leaning on Piku to pander to his needs and indulge his quirks.
She doesn’t see this manipulation as selfish. There is a residue of love and warmth somewhere, but it’s expressed in strange ways. Piku doesn’t need rescuing, she just needs to be told that she needs to rescue herself.
The film devotes a substantial amount of time to establishing just this, and we know that it is poised to chronicle a change in her life.
A road trip to Calcutta with Rana Chaudhary (Irrfan Khan) brings in that change.
Rana is the owner of a taxi company, but special care is taken to make him an acceptable and attractive prospect by making him play tennis with Piku’s partner and by giving us an interesting glimpse of his own frustrating family situation.
In the initial 20-25 minutes of the film I sat expecting to be scooped up and carried away by the superstars dominating the screen. That didn’t happen. Piku picks up late, with the arrival of Rana on the road trip. That’s when, in between the crotchety bak-bak of the father and daughter, the film falls silent and begins to pulse gently.
Juhi Chaturvedi has set her own standards, and she has set them high with Vicky Donor.
She’s written Piku’s story, screenplay and dialogue and almost all her characters are parochial stereotypes mouthing an amusing, often funny, string of comments that make up these stereotypes. The film and its characters are made by the writing, but they are also constricted by it. Director Sircar has done little apart from shoot it all straight.
Chaturvedi’s screenplay and dialogue and the film’s art direction are the baubles that make up the Bengali identity and setting. The characters live in spaces crammed with portraits of gurus and gurudevs, there’s continuous cross-talk, general lament about all-pervasive corruption, illiteracy and all things non-Bengali. There are books on Sri Sarada Devi, fights with maids and a corporate conspiracy behind everything that costs something. The characters, though etched with firm, bold outlines, have just a shade or two inside. They are defined by but are also restricted to just their idiosyncrasies. For a film whose plot and progression depends almost entirely on its characters, they are limited. They needed to be lit up by stories, anecdotes, should have been constructed in layers that would have given them dimensions. They are not, especially Bhashkor Banerjee.
The film is built around him and his self-serving hypocrisy, but it is scared of letting us see his warts. We feel his meanness but it’s always couched in cute, funny quirkiness. Amitabh Bachchan too inhabits Bhashkor with endearing old-age crotchetiness.
We are shown his physical vulnerabilities, but are not left alone with him to share his concerns, fears about mortality. The heart-to-heart between Dolly and Biji over nightly pegs in Vicky Donor helped us get intimate with them. There is no such moment with Bhashkor. Just like his singhasan that travels with them to Calcutta but remains an amusing, unused prop, Bhashkor too remains a garrulous eccentric, never quite becoming human.
AB has shed many inhibitions to play Bhashkor and is, for a change, acting here. An ungainly wig, his brows arched in wary surprise at the world around him, I thought he was at times channelling Harindranath Chattopadhyay, the man who acted only in burlesque to create his own unique stereotype. But AB’s Bhashkor is a fluctuating Bengali. He oscillates between a crabby Bengali and the Big B mannerisms. I was entertained but couldn’t make a connect with him and for me that’s usually impossible.
Deepika Padukone, on the other hand, was simmering. Apart from the fact that she is simply luminous and I couldn’t take my eyes off her, she was very good. Despite her compelling screen presence, she was restrained and subtle.
Irrfan Khan as the amused, baffled and amusing Thakur from UP is delightful and his Rana is itching to make exciting chemistry with Deepika’s Piku. I hope we see them together again and soon. The film’s lovely end does leave it open for Piku 2. And I hope when it comes, it gives visitation rights to Chobi maashi.