Piku is a good film. No this is not me trying to damn with faint praise. Piku *is* good. Even more than good, I would say it is courageous. In a world of cookie-cutter behemoths , to invest in a film that is paced slow, driven by characters, and set in a non-Oye-Oye-Shava-Shava socio-cultural milieu, requires commercial cojones, and props to everyone associated with Piku, from the big B and the Choice P to the director to the guys who actually put money behind it, for providing us with something that I would not hesitate to use the term ‘risky” to characterize.
However it is not great. But it could so very well have been. It comes very close, several times as a matter of fact, to touching something that is deeper and darker and universal, but almost, whether intentionally or not I cannot say for sure, it draws back into a comforting, crowd-pleasing but ultimately unsatisfying green zone.
But before I explain this rather strange criticism, of evaluating something on the basis of “could have been” than “what is”, a word or more than a few about potty humor. Scatological humor, when played for shock value, is something I find most trite and tiresome, especially since I am not ten years old any more. However here, it seems to serve a purpose, that of establishing something defining about the psychology of Bhaskar Banerjee. It is quite common, at least for people his age, to be obsessed with their own excretions and their body in general, and not because they find it funny in the way a pre-teen would, but because their bodies react to unpassed stool in a way very different from how they would have at the age of twenty, leaving them, to use the perfect English word in this context, “bilious”. And it’s not just , and here Piku gets it pitch perfect, a mere physical malaise. With very little to otherwise occupy their minds and with nothing left to achieve, no office to go to, no children to get ready for school, old people turns inwards, obsessing about motions and the changing color and consistency of their stool in a way that becomes almost a psychological affliction in itself. Now I do not have exact data for this, but it could be that this is particularly acute for Bengalis, obsessed as we are about catching cold and stomach bugs from youth itself, which explains the ubiquitous presence of the monkey cap, the strips of Gelusil and the Mahendra Lal Dutt umbrella in the Bengali life kit, and this fact in itself makes Bhaskar Banerjee an entirely believable creature. His potty-fascination then becomes a metaphor for his self-obsession, rather than an egregiously offensive plot-device played to get titters from an audience, forming a starting point for his character arc. It’s this arc where Piku works spectacularly, ending as it does with Bhaskar Banerjee finally liberating himself from the bounds of his own device, by cycling about in his old city and partaking the oily snacks that every Bengali in his heart craves and it is precisely because the climax has no drama, no impassioned tear-jerking, no sweeping background score, that it brings a lump to the throat, in the way only something this real can.
Which brings me to the daughter, Piku, played with great understatement by Deepika who is surprisingly becoming the best actress of her generation (who would have thought after “Om Shanti Om” that this would happen?), and her relationship with her father, and here is where my problems with the film start.
To put it simply, it is way too sunny. The conflict between the father and the daughter is too polite, too low intensity, too gentle to be even mildly realistic. Or rather mildly interesting. So you have the father telling prospective suitors that his daughter is not a virgin, and the daughter is only slightly irritated by her father’s eccentric honesty. The father’s fastidiousness leads to the hired help quitting and once again, the daughter is mildly miffed. There is never a confrontation between the two, never anything resembling real tension. Not once does she explicitly, and with great passion, raise the very real possibility that her father is sabotaging her relationships intentionally, so that she stays and cares for him, he being someone who does not trust professional caregivers.
Because this happens. All the time. Parents strangle the lives out of their grown children, because they expect to be looked after, and children soldier on, often reluctantly and at great cost to their own future happiness.
There is tension here, there is emotional violence and blackmail, and yet bizarrely there is also sometimes love, sacrifice, and genuine tenderness.
But yet we never see this kind of conflict in the movies.
In the black and world of popular Hindi cinema, the parent-child relationship has been fetishized to an extent that the only characters that may be shown are cardboard, either Alok Nath’s half-crying smile and Nirupa Roy’s desperate eye-fluttering or the evil smirk of the son that abandons his parents, usually under the influence of the modern “bahu” (Rajesh Khanna’s Avtar).
And that’s where I felt Piku would bring some welcome nuance, a touch of darkness in the light of comedy.
Not that one doesn’t understand why a director would pull punches. Satyajt Ray’s “Aparajito”, far superior cinematically to “Pather Panchali” (my personal opinion) was commercially less successful than its crowd-pleasing predecessor, partly because audiences were freaked out by the aloofness of Apu towards his ailing mother, tempered though that coldness was by moments of genuine warmth”. Even Ray, brave as he was, diluted the original narrative of Bhibutibhushan where the tension between mother and son was even more pronounced. While in the movie “Aparajito”, Apu when he hears of his mother’s death starts crying in the way a good son should, in the book he actually feels good, a fact that he recognizes with only a smidgen of guilt, liberated from that which tethered him to the rustic life he was so eager to abandon, till he sees the jars of achaar and realizes that there is no one to stop him from opening one, which is when he breaks down and starts bawling. Even as a very immature teenager which is when I read Aparajito, with little knowledge of emotional nuance and the grey tones of life, I was moved intensely by the scene, and I suppose I was expecting something similar from the cerebral entertainment that Piku seemed to promise.
There was nothing like it. Nothing even remotely close.
Like going to take a dump with the expectation of something toilet-shattering and then coming out gently shaking your head.
Not that it wasn’t good, just that it wasn’t liberating. You know what I mean right?