Scatological humour can be a nightmare. Done wrong, it is crass, coarse, vulgar, nauseating and any number of synonyms you can think of. It appeals to our basest sense, as evidenced in various films – both Hollywood and Bollywood – that squat at the bottom end of humour. These are the film equivalent of tabloid journalism, pandering to the lowest denominator with little or no thought to taste.
Into this yellow-, or sometimes, as one character says, green-, stained universe, then, stroll director Shoojit Sircar and writer Juhi Chaturvedi. The duo strides with feline sure-footedness as they negotiate a subject considered indelicate in polite circles, without once stumbling into indelicacy. If writing and making Piku were to be compared to walking a tightrope between humour and bawdiness, the duo that gave us Vicky Donor acquit themselves with the grace of Cirque du Soleil artists.
Piku is the kind of nugget that suggests that there is more gold in this lode. It is the kind of film that shows us, a Bollywood audience that has long suffered brainless innuendo masquerading as humour, that there is a place where skilful writing and affectionate directing can combine a complicated, almost exploitative father-daughter relationship, finely-etched characters, a road trip, and unremitting conversations about the size, frequency and texture of a 70-year-old’s bowel movements into a script that never plants a foot wrong.
It is an insider's look at all Indian families and its attendant bickering, but it also offers us a lesson in the emotional exploitativeness that many can't often see or recognise because they are themselves players in the act. And somewhere along the line, Piku also makes out a case for what a woman's place in her family, and society, can be, and how the choices that we make, ostensibly for the sake of family, can affect the course of our own lives. Deepika's character is her own person, living life on her terms, supported ferociously by her father (although often to hilarious and detrimental effect), without any dilution of 'family' values, and could well become a poster-child for Indian feminists.
To be sure, there are moments that some of us may find recoiling from as a constipated father describes his fecal emissions in graphic detail to his doctor, to his daughter and, for that matter, anyone else within earshot. But as anyone familiar with homeopathy will recognise, the road to robust health starts in the stomach. And in Piku, the road to Bhaskor Banerjee’s aching heart does, indeed, lie through his stomach, or to be precise, his rectum.
Sircar is spot-on in his handling of one of India’s greatest living actors, bringing both his own knowledge of the Bengali mindset and idiom; I cannot but suspect that Bachchan, the most famous of Bangali jamaais and himself a Calcutta man, reveled in this role. More credit, then, to Chaturvedi, raised in the refined stratosphere of Lucknow, for writing so effortlessly for an almost all-Bong cast of characters.
Indeed, the writing is near-perfect, paced with much care, while some of the dialogues are absolute gems. ‘No one can control death and bowel movement, when they come, everyone has to go,” says a character, in a brilliant reworking on death and taxes. The ensemble cast gets some of the best lines, too, with a just-fired maid wondering aloud why she would leave diamonds and laptops lying around the house after she is accused of pilfering Phenyl.
But back to Bachchan. It is a bravura performance from an actor whose star has of late seemed to only twinkle occasionally instead of burning bright as it once did. Forget all those supposedly critically-acclaimed performances that critics rave about, and all those best-forgotten roles he has played for the gallery. This film is where The Big B show us why he is the upper-case in the industry, bringing to exasperating perfection a character that has a hypochondriachal obsession with digestion, a childlike obstinacy that drives everyone around him up the wall and an unseemly dependence on his daughter. The film is named after said daughter Piku but it is Bachchan who dominates our mindspace throughout.
Irrfan is as effortless as he always is, portraying a straight-talking engineer-turned-taxi fleet owner with endearing likeability. He is the perfect foil to a domineering Bhaskor Banerjee, telling him things to his face no one wants to, or can. And yet, he is the only one who truly empathises with, instead of just worrying about Bhaskor-da’s troubles, bringing him a bunch of basil and mint to boil and drink as an antidote to constipation, or explaining the benefits of Indian toilets over Western-style ones with a matter-of-factness that somewhat endears him to the grumpy septuagenarian. Irrfan's Rana Chaudhry wins some, and loses some – as in the moment where he has to give way after a stand-off on the highway – but never loses his common-sense insight when all others around him are going off in various tangents.
Deepika Padukone shows us what a natural she can be when given room. Shorn of her usual glam-doll look, make-up free and dressed in often frumpy clothes, Padukone easily endears herself, showing us what she is capable of when given something more to do than look pretty and be the crazy-dance girl at parties. From fiery Delhi girl to mellow fellow-traveller to concerned-yet-exasperated-yet-dutiful daughter, Padukone often speaks better through her silences and her doe-eyes than she does with her lines, which is more than one can say for some of her contemporaries.
Moushumi Chatterjee makes a delightful return as a rambunctious maashi/saali, a thrice-married imperious Bengali queen bee who doesn’t shy away from a verbal joust with brother-in-law Bhaskor-da or a drink or two. Raghubir Yadav, seen here as the long-suffering family doctor, brings a low-keyed assurance to his character, a willing partner-in-crime to Bachchan while remaining devoted to the family’s well-being as when he warns Piku about her friend-with-benefits.
It is often easy to forget what it takes to write a good, taut film script, let alone one like this. How does one put dialogues describing the colour and texture of a man’s shit, and then hope to find a director who can translate that on screen without anyone finding it crude or offensive (indeed, the audience all around me was laughing its guts out through most of the first half of the film). And once you have established that character, how do you move the story beyond that one obsession? And how does one even start to imagine a film that takes very basic, very real issues involving duty, individuality and love that face two generations of India’s population and address those through an act that is among the first we do from the time of birth?
And through it all, how does one retain heart? How does one make sure that the audience feels as one with those they see up there, that they see themselves in the outsize humans projected on 16 mm film, that they take carry a piece of the film in their hearts and minds when they walk out?
Sircar and Chaturvedi get all this done, and then some, in Piku. This is the true achievement of all great films, and Piku accomplishes it delightfully well, which is why I highly recommend that you spend your time – and money – to make such rare filmmaking possible, as well as viable. Because God knows, I am done with the regular shit that Bollywood throws at us most Fridays.