3.5 Stars (out of 4)
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Rather than the broad, scatological comedy hinted at by the movie’s trailers, Piku is a thoughtful, funny movie about the fraught relationship between an adult children and their ailing, aging parents.
Director Shoojit Sircar and screenwriter Juhi Chaturvedi are proving to be Bollywood’s most interesting off-screen partnership. Following their surprise hit debut Vicky Donor and the somber war film Madras Cafe (for which Chaturvedi wrote the dialogue), Piku is the duo’s most refined work yet.
Deepika Padukone plays Piku, a 30-year-old Delhi architect who doubles as caretaker for her ailing 70-year-old father, Bhaskor (Amitabh Bachchan). Piku’s mother is dead, and the only help she has in caring for cranky Bhaskor is the patient servant Budhan (Balendra Singh).
Piku is a carbon copy of her dad. Both are intelligent and confident, but also stubborn, opinionated, critical, and unable to admit mistakes. Bhaskor’s blindness to his own failings is particularly troublesome. On principle, he refuses to let Piku marry, lest she waste her intellect as a stay-at-home wife. However, he sees no hypocrisy in calling her home from the office every time he imagines a rise in his blood pressure or temperature.
Their relationship is the focus of the entire film, and there isn’t a lot of action, even when father, daughter, and servant hit the road to visit the family home in Kolkata. The owner of a taxi service, Rana (Irrfan Khan), gets to observe and comment on the family dynamic when pressed into driving them on their 1,500 km journey.
Where Piku differs from many other films about family relationships is that it eschews broad themes. There are no speeches or generalizing statements about love, the importance of family, or the challenges of aging. Piku and Bhaskor don’t learn from each other or Rana; they don’t evolve.
The characters in the film are who they are, and they all know it. Bhaskor and Piku argue without creating permanent rifts. Detailed discussions of medical conditions devolve into laughter. This is a movie about accepting life as it is, making it work, and finding humor in odd places.
It’s a joy to watch the actors portray fully developed characters with such honesty, and Sircar allows the performances to shine. Instead of cutting between closeups of individual actor’s faces as one delivers a line and another reacts, Sircar shoots most of the film’s conversations so that all the actors’ faces are within the frame, simultaneously. When Bhaskor says something ridiculous, we see Piku and Rana look at each other and stifle giggles in real time, all while Budhan naps in the background.
The superb performances are further confirmation of the cast members’ immense talents. Bachchan highlights the absurdities inherent in Bhaskor without making him into a joke. Khan brings warmth and perspective into the story through Rana.
Piku teeters on the brink of unlikability without falling off, thanks to Padukone. The character is a woman whose reserve of patience has been exhausted by her father, and she doesn’t suffer anyone who makes her life harder than it already is. The qualities that make her difficult are the same that make her endearing. She wins over Rana with her wisdom and sharp humor.
Rana and Piku don’t have a typical, dramatic Bollywood love story, but it’s romantic nonetheless. For two hard-headed single people with demanding families and jobs, more drama is the last thing they want. An allegiance based on understanding and compassion is much sweeter and more satisfying.
While the film’s trailer is full of references to bowel movements, they don’t dominate the movie. There’s one visual gag — in which a sink clogged by tea leaves is meant to evoke images of something more disgusting — that should’ve been left out. The movie is too clever for such a cheap joke.
Sircar and Chaturvedi show a real understanding of the emotional complexities of the parent-child relationship as it shifts over time, and the cast is the perfect group of actors to bring the story to life. Piku is really something special.