PIKU (Dir. Shoojit Sircar, 2015, India)

piku

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.

ROAD, MOVIE (Dir. Dev Benegal, 2009, India/US) – The Magic of Cinema

Still awaiting a UK release date director Dev Benegal’s latest film Road, Movie has met with disastrous domestic box office results. That I guess is going to be the real tragedy of this impressive third feature from the nephew of Shyam Benegal. Both of Benegal’s first two films – English, August (1994) and Split Wide Open (1999) are currently unavailable on DVD and are referred to by some critics as having heralded the beginning of a new wave in Indian art cinema. It is difficult to try and position his latest film in terms of a wider body of work thus I am going to stay clear of getting into any kind of detailed analysis of his status as a contemporary auteur. A co-production between the US and India, Benegal’s film is one of the most magical films I have seen in a while. Combining the love of cinema with the conventions of the road movie genre, the story sees Vishnu (Abhay Deol), a symbol of the middle class Indian youth who has become trapped in the family business of selling hair oil travelling across the mythical landscape of Rajasthan’s deserts and roads so he can return a tired old Chevy truck to a museum. It is only when he picks up a young boy (Mohammed Faisal) and a mysterious aging man (Satish Kaushik in a wonderfully touching and steal scening performance) is he made aware of the Chevy he is driving houses a mobile cinema including reels of film and a rusty old projector.

The road movie genre means that the destination is less important than the changes and discovery a group of people undergo whilst travelling together as a displaced family. In many ways, this is a conventional road movie with Benegal using the allegory of cinema as a way of illustrating how it cuts across society, vanquishing problems and transforming the lives of people. Benegal’s film is also hugely reflexive in that Vishnu’s coming of age is manifested through two scenarios which have often been repeated in popular Hindi cinema: the villain and the love interest. Falling for the charms of a beautiful gypsy woman (Tannishtha Chatterjee) and heroically standing up to the despotic overtures of a rural bandit (Yashpal Sharma), Vishnu’s transformation is both comically staged whilst in a way paying homage to the satisfying escapism of the Bollywood masala movie. A number of sequences stand out including the midnight Mela on the desert plains of Rajasthan and in particular the first occasion in which Vishnu and his helpers set up the mobile cinema, projecting the images of classic Hindi cinema (Deewar) on to the walls of a police station.

Abhay Deol is fast becoming the leading actor of his generation, having starred in a series of critically acclaimed offbeat art films including the noirish Manorama Six Feet Under (2007), Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008) and Dev D (2009). Road, Movie is another one Abhay Deol can chalk up on what is shaping up to be an impressive filmography. Another aspect to savour is the technically flawless shape of the film including magnificent cinematography by Michel Amathieu, an understated ambient score by Michael Brook and a rich production design by Hollywood Anne Seibel. In terms of cinematic influences, Benegal draws upon a range of classic European and American road movies including Wim Wenders definitive Kings of the Road (1976) and Cinema Paradiso (1988). Benegal’s film is one of the most poignantly crafted Indian art films of the last few years and it deserves to be seen by a wider audience. The website for the film is a little movie in itself and is full of useful information related to the production context. Road, Movie is currently available through a DVD import from India but I am still hopeful it will get a UK release. A masterpiece? It might just be.