Sunday 17 May 2015

"Piku" (Guardian 16/05/15)

Piku ***
Dir: Shoojit Sircar. With: Amitabh Bachchan, Deepika Padukone, Irrfan Khan. 123 mins. Cert: PG

The subtitle of this current Bollywood hit, “From Motion Comes Emotion”, has the ring of a terse Godardian credo, so it’s a shock to learn exactly what kind of motion is meant: few movies have so tied themselves to a character’s bowel movements. Shoojit Sircar’s comedy-drama flouts cinematic loo taboo by organising itself around a figure, Amitabh Bachchan’s Bashkor Banerji, who – for constitutional reasons – rarely travels more than five feet from one. It sounds crazy, like a pitch from the Prune Marketing Board, yet Sircar makes of this constipation both a theme and a virtue: he takes an everyday set-up, and then, as it were, follows through on it.

In Bashkor’s Delhi household, everybody’s uptight for one reason or another; the dietary discomfort of this widowed hypochondriac is rivalled only by the burden borne by architect daughter Piku (Deepika Padukone). Sircar gleefully establishes how father’s bowels impact upon daughter’s career (pungent status updates disrupt her meetings) and love life (such potty talk repels potential suitors). She retains one unlikely admirer: Rana (Irrfan Khan), manager of a hire-car fleet with whom Piku has been involved in a legal tussle ever since her vehicle was rear-ended. Crude as this sounds, an idea is being developed here.

Much of the action takes place in small rooms, and what’s immediately striking is that these characters don’t inhabit the palatial outposts so beloved of Hindi cinema, but cramped middle- or working-class boltholes, obliging these characters to put up with one another’s BS (or just S). Even when the film contrives a reason for the principals to hit the road to Kolkata, we’re still essentially watching three people sharing a confined space, trying to hold their feelings in until the next pit stop – and that road, necessitating frequent twists and turns, is itself surely intended as in some way intestinal. Motion, again, leads to emotion.

Given the torrent of oversharing with which the film opens, it’s clear that Sircar isn’t afraid of nitty-gritty intimacy, and he works closely with his leads to locate the grace notes in this potentially cruddy material. You can feel the film loosening up, relaxing into their company: where Bachchan seizes upon his cranky character part, making Bashkor as garrulously funny in his theories on caste and marriage as his system is backed-up, a dressed-down Padukone, the sometime model traditionally cast as a living goddess, does as much here with a frazzled silence as her earlier showcases did with her dazzle.
Arguably, though, it’s the terrific Khan (Life of Pi) who steals it, working subtle comic wonders with wry looks, and delivering the easier-digestion editorial with greater charm than, say, Gillian McKeith ever managed. Star power aside, it’s a modest, reined-in entertainment, rejecting musical numbers for a simple whistled refrain, and clocking in at just two hours; its last-act crisis involves nothing more spectacular than blocked plumbing, inevitably. Yet given the bloated junk currently clogging both Hindi and American mainstreams, such human-sensitive fare provides its own restorative, oddly pleasurable form of release. It slips down nicely.

Piku is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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