13 May 2015

Slice of life, served warm

My Mumbai Mirror column last Sunday: 

Caught between too much Bengali-ness and too little, Shoojit Sircar's 'Piku' mines dysfunction for gentle comedy.


By the time you read this, you would have heard and watched the PR machinery grinding away for days, anointing director Shoojit Sircar as the new Hrishikesh Mukherjee. While this is only a symptom of how desperate we are for labels (and maybe of how much we secretly miss 'Hrishi Da'), Sircar has done something that counts as a rather fun tribute to Mukherjee. He's taken Bachchan's original quick-tempered, reserved 30-year-old Bhaskar Banerjee of Anand (1971), and aged him into the crabbily eccentric, garrulous 70-year-old Bhaskor Banerjee of Piku. More amusingly, the hypochondria of richer patients like Asit Sen's Seth Chandranath, that so annoyed Bachchan as a young doctor in Anand, has now become his own. The new old Bhaskor, nursing his boxful of homeopathic tablets as close as his now-generous paunch, lives in Delhi's Chittaranjan Park and spells his first name with a deliberately underlined Bengali 'o'. (That 'o' is a sign for you to wonder: did Amitabh Bachchan make a better Bengali when he wasn't trying so hard to play one?)

This is Sircar's second cinematic take on Dilli Bangalis. The first, Vicky Donor (2012), which still remains his finest film by far, had Ayushman Khurrana's persistent Lajpat Punjabi boy woo Yami Gautam's gently dignified Ashima Roy, resulting in wedding negotiations that bring out each community's most ungenerous view of the other: superior, killjoy Bengalis believe they're being forced to deal with moonhphat money-minded Punjabis -- and vice versa. But despite Sircar's penchant for broad stereotype, his affection for his characters shone through, as it does in Piku.

Here, Sircar seems to suggest that Padukone is a Delhi girl, her Bengaliness expressed as culture and not as language—note the scene where she dismisses a potential suitor for not having watch any Ray films. But even if she were cast as a Hauz Khas Enclave girl instead of a Chittaranjan Park one, Padukone's Bangaliyana would be too little, and Bachchan's too much. Still, despite Bachchan's overdone accent, I didn't completely cringe at the jaanishes that occasionally punctuate the father-daughter conversations. And drawing my half-Bengali self up to the full height of its limited authority, I shall vouch for the joyful appropriateness of both the Bangla song references: the playfully romantic Hemanta-Sandhya Mukherjee song from the Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen classic Saptapadi (1961) 'Ei Poth Jodi Na Shesh Hoye' ['What if this road were to never end'], which Bhaskor breaks into on their already interminable road journey, and Manna Dey's cheerful 'Jeebone ki paabo na, bhulecchi shey bhabona' ['What I won't find in life, I've stopped thinking about that'] to which a tipsy Bhaskor shakes a leg in much the spirit of Soumitra Chatterjee's original twist in the 1969 film Teen Bhuboner Paarey.

But the Bengaliness in Piku is at its best when least remarked upon: such as the fact that 'Piku' is what Padukone's character is known by, not just to family and friends, but pretty much to everyone. Colleagues and cowering taxi drivers alike call her Piku Madam, anointing with respectable publicness what would otherwise be *just* a nickname. There is probably a long and impressive bhalo naam, but it's so long and impressive that no-one ever uses it. I also loved the non-underlined way in which Sircar uses a ridiculous battle over a knife: it was about an old man's stubbornness, but it was also a gentle suggestion that what Hindi belt masculinity might consider a way of keeping safe (having a weapon in the car) is, to the Bengali bhadralok, a source of clear and present danger.

Another aspect of Bengaliness that the film quietly demonstrates is the family conversation as argument, with people quite happy to cut across each other and squabble joyfully over pointless things. (I must mention here that Moushumi Chatterjee, as Piku's aunt Chhobi Mashi, is an absolute gem. I've thoroughly enjoyed getting to know this grown-up, un-coy version of the actress in two wonderful Aparna Sen films, The Japanese Wife and Goynar Baksho, and I'm waiting for Hindi cinema to give her a truly meaty role to sink her teeth into.)


What's best about Piku, though, is not its droll Bengaliness, or its unending succession of alimentary conversations (which are not half as bad as I expected, and even contain some useful homespun wisdom on bowel-clearing from Irrfan Khan's fantastically wry Rana). It is the film's affecting ability to draw out our complicated feelings about our parents—the frustration at their embarrassing quirks, the reversal of positions that becomes inevitable as they age, and the fierce protectiveness with which we guard them from the criticisms of others. Piku's combination of annoyance and amusement, of being weighed down and standing tall alone, will strike a chord with every middle-aged person who's taken care of an irritable parent (often a parent irritable at having to be taken care of).

There is also the un-heavy-handed, thoroughly endearing way the film deals with the subject of ageing and death. Irrfan, playing a taxi company owner who ends up driving Bhaskor, Piku and their Man Friday Budhan (the servants in this film could do with a separate column) to Calcutta, gets some of the best lines: “Tapak gaye toh Banaras jaisi koi jagah nahin,” he announces as they drive past the city Hindus consider the holiest place to die. But to see how to meet death with a twinkle in your eye, you have to see the film. Perhaps it is an Anand homage, after all.

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