What would Satyajit Ray have made of Piku? There was a sundry of questions running through my head as I left the cinema. There is no doubt he would have agreed that the central female protagonist of Piku (Deepika Padukone) educes the classical Ray woman: progressive, perceptive and selfless. Some critics have commented that Piku’s unconventional characterization is not representative of Indian cinema. I’m not certainly swayed by this argument. A lineage of salient female characters can be traced to Ray and Ghatak, and also Bengali film culture. Just a desultory glance at Ray’s work is palpable enough. One only has to consider films such as Kanchenjungha, Charulata, Devi and Mahangar to recognise that Piku (yet another Ray reference to his 1980 short Pikoo’s Day) is already familiar to us a Bengali archetype. Instructively, our first introduction of Piku is framed indoors by the posterized image of Ray. Measured postmodern juxtaposition outlines the communal authorial intents of writer Juhi Chaturvedi and director Shoojit Sircar framing Piku as not only an admirer of Ray (which middle class Bengali isn’t?) but also a hybrid of traditional Bengali femininity and contemporaneous designs. In some respects Piku could easily be classed as a Bengali film, as could Vicky Donor, Chaturvedi and Sircar’s first collaboration, which relatedly explored the comical gradations of contemporary middle class Bengali culture.
The comedy is arguably one of the trickiest film genres to master in any cinema. Some of the best comedies, the ones that have endured, are marked by the lightest of touches. Piku like Vicky Donor mixes comedy and melodrama, exploring relationships, this time between a father and daughter, but applying an observational approach to humour. All of this boils down to the tasty scriptwriting talents of Juhi Chaturvedi, exhibiting a definite ear for sharp, witty dialogue that never feels forced while the plot less narrative adds a welcomed fickleness. Another genre element is at play, the road movie, using the journey to Kolkata (more Ray; Nayak anyone? –although the journey is from Kolkata to Delhi in Ray’s film), exploring themes to do with ancestral origins, identity and disconnect between parents and children. If Piku is the one suffering from familial crises then her father Bashkor Banerjee (Amitabh Bachchan proving yet again he can almost play any type of role with grace and consistency) is a Bhadralok, a snotty, valetudinarian Bengali patriarch with a hilarious bout of constipation servilely dependent on Piku’s daughterly obedience.
It’s too soon to say if this will be remembered as one of Amitabh’s last great roles in the twilight of a singular career but it is certainly one of his most lively in years. Irrfan Khan as Rana, a wayward owner of a taxi service which he has inherited, works as the perfect antidote, striking up a relationship with Piku, affectionately emerging as the realist, an outsider who ever so often imparts a verismo that pries open the guarded mentality of both Piku and Bashkor. Irrfan Khan is a rare actor indeed; no one has been able to shift across independent and mainstream Indian cinema with such ease and success over the years. Along the way Irrfan Khan has notched up many impressive performances. He is surely one of the few actors that most directors are scrambling to work with given his consistency as an actor. Yet this film belongs to Deepika Padukone who is cast against type, delivering her finest performance to date as the vulnerable yet feisty Piku. It is a subtly modest performance, almost de-sexualizing her stardom so that the girl next-door idea notion is acutely visible yet balanced by a wit and intellect that strives for something altogether more Bengali.
Propitiously for a film dealing centrally with death (and shit) both writer and director manage to avoid the trap of mawkishness, aspiring for something sharper in an ending that is a mastery of understatement. This is a film unassumingly about people and the choices they have to make executed with an unashamed simplicity so often lacking in contemporary Indian cinema. Yet have any mainstream UK film critics mentioned this film in their recommendations of the week? No. Why should they? It’s just another film from Bollywood after all and thus deserves to be dismissed at the expense of monolithic American and European cinema.
Alaap was released in 1977 when Amitabh Bachchan’s stardom was at its peak. It has often been said that the films he made with Hrishikesh Mukherjee saw a more restrained side to Amitabh. In the film Alok (Amitabh Bachchan) wants to become a classically trained singer but Prasad (Om Prakash) his orthodox father regards the musical profession as derisory and instructs Alok to follow his lead and become a lawyer. Alok rebels and a bitter conflict emerges between father and son that results in a tragic conclusion. Sons defying their fathers tapped into a number of prevalent social issues; the generation gap, youth rebellion and iconoclasm. The Salim-Javed scripted Shakti (1982) lifts a number of ideas from Alaap and reworks them with a bigger cast. Director Hrishikesh Mukherjee starts deceptively as the focus is clearly on music in the opening but as Prasad begins to sabotage his son’s dreams, the musical aspects become perfunctory while conventions of the social melodrama take over much of the narrative trajectory. There a number of elements of the film including Rekha’s character which are ornamental as they are not given room to develop and at times distract from the central story. The characters in Shakti are much more clearly defined and have a complexity to them that is absent from the peripheral characters in Alaap. Nonetheless, Amitabh’s performance is one of his best as the character of Alok brings together Dilip Kumar’s tragic persona with the social indignation of Raj Kapoor.
In terms of the angry young man films of the 1970s, Alok’s anger is visible but it is controlled and much of the anger is directed to cultural traditions (in particular class) rather than the state. Ideologically, Alaap is an optimistic film that argues reconciliation is essential if family is to continue as the ideological centre of Indian society. Given Amitabh’s bankability at the time, it does seem a little strange that Alaap failed at the Indian box office. The key to Alaap is a sequence that occurs towards the end of the film in which father and son are unexpectedly brought together. It is night. Alok picks up a passenger in the horse-carriage which has become his livelihood. The passenger turns out to be his father. Alok pulls up outside his family home and when his father gets out giving him the fare for the journey, he discovers it is Alok. As they engage in conversation, the performances at first reveal an estrangement but a closer look at Amitabh and Prakash’s tone of voice, body language and positioning within the shots points to a repressed longing for reconciliation. It is an expertly directed sequence that demonstrates the emotional power of the Hindi social melodrama. You can watch Alaap for free online (officially posted by the Shemaroo DVD label) with full English subtitles. Here is the direct link to the aforementioned sequence: http://youtu.be/_2sZ9nDBNCY?t=1h41m48s
The angry young man phenomenon that emerged out of the tentative screenplays of writers Salim-Javed (Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar) in the 1970s was in part shaped by the Indian Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi that lasted between 75 and 77 yet predominately the origins of Amitabh Bachchan’s often repeated ‘Vijay’ persona was ideologically conflated with the anti-hero of the forties and Indian mythology. In Zanjeer, similarly like many of the angry young man films of the 70s that featured Amitabh Bachchan what remains strikingly magnified today is the exemplary quality of screenplays produced by Salim-Javed. Their work reached its epoch in Shakti that paired Dilip Kumar with Amitabh Bachchan, exhausting many of their creative ideas whilst leaving open the potential of continually reinventing the angry young persona for Indian cinema’s most culturally iconic of film stars. Watching Zanjeer today, it has been transformed through postmodern homage and imitation into a kitsch cinematic catalogue of star persona’s, social anxieties and zeitgeist hyperbole.
The ultimate pleasure it offers an audience is situated in a nostalgic yearning for the masala cinema of the seventies. If Zanjeer was a revenge film and Shakti a film about father and son then Deewar’s rags to riches narrative seemed to be the one that offered the most visceral and provocative ideological connection with the state of Indian society; Deewar features perhaps the most realised of the Vijay persona’s as it succeeds in blurring the line between fiction and reality. However, upon its release Zanjeer may have been declared as groundbreaking in terms of the mainstream but the melodramatic gestures makes one firmly position this as a film that grasps traditions. The radicalism may have been in the volatile persona of Amitabh’s Vijay but around him, traditional forces constantly remind us that in the midst of such cynicism, an impulse to recognise the vitality of popular genres is what makes much of the work of Salim-Javed so instrumental to mainstream Indian cinema.