Director Shoojit Sircar and writer Juhi Chaturvedi have a thing for developing humour by invading into uncomfortable personal spaces of their characters. Vicky Donor was about sperm donation and how it impacts the lives of their principal characters. Now comes Piku with Deepika Padukone in the eponymous role but the film is really about Bhashkor, Piku’s hypochondriac father with a curious case of constipation among other health issues. To drive home the point Sircar focuses on food when Piku and others in her family talk about motion and constipation as if they are discussing their day in the office at the dinner table. But Bhashkor’s issues are not only physical. He’s also in the way of Piku having a normal life of a 30 year old career woman. For a 70 year old man, Bhashkor’s needling and unbridled enthusiasm mirrors that of a 7 year old and it leads Piku to the kind of lassitude that one gets enough of just by being employed in this age. He is not a good listener, talks non-stop and for an old man with health issues sleeps a lot less. He is usually the perpetrator but ends with “the dog ate my homework” excuses. But the talky part is something you can accuse the whole film of. It is refreshing.
The film begins with simple opening credits set to classical music. With all the Bengali references (done in great self-deprecating humour, another trait carried over here from Vicky Donor but not as forceful), the natural response is to deduce that we are probably in for an arty slow moving film. Far from it. Piku is as talky as a talky can get. This is an ensemble cast in excellent form working with an absolutely delightful script from Chaturvedi. Lines and scenes move like clockwork, characters jet in and out of frame with effortless grace, exchanges are astounding and if you take a sip from your Coke or put your hand into an empty popcorn tub you run the risk of missing a line or a joke. If you hadn’t known this was a film from Shoojit Sircar and Juhi Chaturevedi, you’d be excused if you believed this was from that guy named Woody Allen. Right from the sober opening credits to the low-key ending.
Piku, Bhashkor, Rana Chaudhary (Irrfan) and Bhashkor’s help take a road trip from Delhi to Kolkata. Rana is a taxi service company owner and the way he is brought into all this – as their driver – is pure genius. Piku, for all the sacrifices she makes to take care of her dad, is not perfect. She has her set of issues and Sircar uses the subplot of her problems with the taxi drivers. She takes out all her insecurities and frustrations on them. She yells at the driver for being late even when she’s walking out long after his arrival. Rana joins in as the outsider. He’s almost like the stand in for us, the audience. How long can one take the yapping within the Banerjee family? He’s confused at first not knowing how to react and Bhashkor goes into his Q&A sessions even before the trip begins. Bhashkor owns a commode chair that needs to be packed into the car. This is almost symbolic. It is tied up on top of the car in its upright position. I wonder if Chaturvedi had Vikram and Vetal (or should I say Baital, what with all the Bengali appropriation around) in mind with the chair like Vetal resting on top of Rana’s car the way Bhashkor and family are on Rana’s head now (in the poster he is literally carrying the car and the chair above his head). There is no limit to Bhashkor’s questions and as Rana handles them with enviable patience, Irrfan’s deadpan performance is brilliant here. He is also perfect foil for the classy Bengali family receiving everyday advice and solutions from a middle class man from UP. And just like Vetal threatens Vikramaditya by going back to his tree, Bhashkor stops the trip multiple times and once even orders Rana to go back to a dhaba – at least a day behind them – for his hearing aid battery. That’s finally when Rana’s head explodes. That’s also when they almost reach Kolkata and the chair on top of the car is not in its upright position anymore. A lesson in foreshadowing.
If Bollywood had NBA like awards, Deepika Padukone is a clear winner for the Most Improved Player. It’s fascinating to see how far she’s come and what an interesting filmography she’s had on her way to the top. She’s never been not on top in terms of popularity and delivering hits but her’s is building up to be a beautifully calibrated career. Amitabh Bachchan’s Bhashkor is the straight opposite of the namesake he played in Anand but just as excellent. It’s worth studying both, one for all the restraint and another for all the clamor. In addition to the Anand hat-tip, Sircar also includes a reference to 36 Chowringhee Lane. The way people calmly switch between Hindi and Bengali is extraordinary and lends the film a character. It’s quite telling of Bollywood’s strides in the last decade that after Karan Johar’s cacophonous tackling of the theme, Sircar and Chaturvedi have made one of the finest films that’s all about loving your parents.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)