Piku (2015)

Piku-poster-2

Shoojit Sircar’s Piku could be summarised as two hours of Bhaskor (Amitabh Bachchan) and his shit, literal and figurative. He is a man obsessed with his ever-present constipation, and that and his intelllectual superiority are his favourite topics of conversation. Luckily there is more than just a constipated old man to this story and for me, Piku (Deepika Padukone) is the real heart of the film.

Bhaskor is well intentioned but domineering and contradictory. I found him slightly monstrous as his self-absorption is limitless, and for all his manners he is often unkind. He won’t let his daughter marry saying that is a ‘Low IQ’ thing to do and he wants more for her than to be a man’s wife, but he also insists she do as he says. On the one hand he talks about how much he loved his wife, then criticises her for being so unhappy (because he made her unhappy by marrying her). He introduces her to prospective suitors by telling them she isn’t a virgin, and asking if they have a problem with that. They mightn’t care, but for me his lack of empathy for Piku is very off putting. The family is loud and shouty, all of them totally obsessed with their bowels or Bhaskor’s motions, but there is no lack of love. Arguments get heated then suddenly devolve into giggles or reminiscences, a nicely realistic note.

Piku-Bhaskor

Amitabh effortlessly dominates the scenes he is in, even when he is sleeping. He does a little OVER!ACT!ING!, particularly towards the beginning of the film when Bhaskor is being set up as irascible and a bit quixotic. But when he hits his stride, he is delightful and charismatic. My favourite scene was when Bhaskor comes home from a party a little drunk. He puts on old records and starts dancing. At first he is playing to his judgemental daughter, twisting and mugging to get a laugh and stop her from telling him off. But then his moves change and he seems to have journeyed back to an earlier happier time, not even looking at Piku, as he gently dances to a much loved song. Her expressions are perfect as she moves from anger to concern to grudging amusement before sashaying back to her room, half dancing along. For me, that perfectly expressed the love and tension when the child becomes the caretaker and has to deal with their parents’ mortality.

At first I thought this was going down the path of a modern woman has to be an aggressive, unpleasant, and possibly slutty woman. But Piku is overruled by her father and his innards, her clients often ignore her design advice, and she has no one who will really listen so I can’t blame her for getting irritable. Piku is aware of how much her father’s needs and demands are shaping her days, but she is doing what she thinks is right so doesn’t feel bitter. Her love life is limited to the occasional hookup with her business partner Syed (Jisshu Sengupta) and she doesn’t invest time in notions of romance. At first glance Piku is abrasive, but Deepika is lovely, warm, and…real as she adds and removes layers to her character. The rapport between Piku and Rana develops slowly, borne by the conversations and observations of people stuck in a car with a cranky old man. He sees past her tough front, and she sees his apparent laziness is more of a weary pragmatism which she can relate to.

Irrfan (apparently he needs no surname these days) can be hit (Life in a Metro) or miss (do we all remember Krazzy 4?). This performance is a hit for me, and Rana suits his slightly offbeat delivery and everyman style. He and the Big B do indulge in one scene that is more like an improv no one knows how to end, but generally he concentrates on being Rana rather than on skills demonstrations. I felt Rana was a kind of proxy for the viewer as at first he is overwhelmed by Piku’s bolshy character, all the cacophony, and the incessant examination of digestive functions, but gradually he sees behind the bluster. He tries to offer advice and be helpful at home and at work, but his platitudes are rejected. It’s only when he gets real that he is heard. The nascent relationship between Piku and Rana is based on mutual understanding and respect and there is no insta-love personality transplant or makeover required.

Moushimi Chatterjee is a whirlwind as Piku’s Aunty, and brings some fun and a much needed opposing voice to Bhaskor’s benevolent dictatorship. Budhan (Balendra Singh) is a hapless servant, attending to all Bhaskor’s bathroom related chores. While I did laugh at some of his scenes, I could have lived without all the poo jokes.

Whistling in a soundtrack is generally an indicator of whimsy, which is not my most loved style. But apart from a propensity for emo guitar tweedling, Anupam Roy’s soundtrack suits the drama and the pared back style very well, and I enjoyed it and the songs used in the background.

Piku has a flavour of the middle cinema of the 70s; not realism but realistic. The characters felt like they had roots. While the cinematography was beautiful, it wasn’t distracting, more often giving the viewer a fly on the wall glimpse of what was going on. There were a few indulgently arty shots in Kolkata, but who could complain about that? Some of the dialogue feels improvised and Juhi Chaturvedi’s screenplay gives a distinct voice for each character, whether through their blend of languages or the formality of their speech.

Not much really happens in Piku, but all the characters go on a bit of a journey beyond the physical road trip. I laughed, the lady sitting next to me cried and we all did a bit of ‘you go girl’ affirmative nodding. See this for Deepika Padukone giving a fine performance as a modern, complex woman and for some late career Big B magic.

(Note: Maybe don’t see this if even mild toilet humour grosses you out.)

 

Advertisements

Madras Cafe

Madras Cafe

I’m not normally a fan of films that deal with the subject of war, but I found the combination of Shoojit Sircar as director and the backdrop of the conflict in Sri Lanka intriguing enough to warrant watching Madras Cafe.  The film is a world away from his last film, Vicky Donor, but Shoojit Sircar shows a similar attention to detail in this realistic and gritty political thriller.  The film begins with a disclaimer which states that Madras Cafe is a work of fiction, but even with the little I know about the Indian involvement in the Sri Lankan conflict, the story seems heavily influenced by real-life events of the time.  The story deals with the build-up to the assassination of the Indian ex-Prime Minister and owes more to Hollywood drama than the more usual Bollywood tale of an Indian army hero who single-handedly saves the day.  As a bonus, John Abraham is more convincing than expected in the lead role and his performance, along with some excellent cinematography make Madras Cafe well worth a watch.

Madras CafeMadras Cafe

The first half of the film sets up the story, starting with a fairly graphic depiction of the atrocities committed against the Tamil people leading eventually to the development of armed resistance.  It is at times confusing as numerous characters are briefly introduced before the action moves quickly along, but once the whole cast is assembled the story settles down to describe the events leading up to the Prime Minister’s resignation and eventual death.  John Abraham plays the role of Major Vikram Singh, a RAW agent sent to Sri Lanka to ensure elections to secure the peace process go ahead.  To this end he has two aims, to move support away from the head of the Tamil Liberation Force (LTF) and instead to promote the more acceptable (to India) Shri, leader of the Tamil political party TPA.

Madras CafeMadras Cafe

Madras CafeMadras Cafe

The LTF is led by the charismatic Anna Bhaskaran (Ajay Ratnam), who is ably supported by his inner cadre of Pandyan (Johnson Manjali), his Intel chief; Mallya (Arijit Dutta), deputy leader and army commander; and Rajasekharan (Dinesh Nair), spokesperson and arms dealer. Vikram manages to meet up with Shri (Kannan Arunachalam), who demands weapons for the fight against the LTF, but the mission to deliver these goes wrong and the weapons end up in the hands of the rebel force. Vikram suspects that someone in the Indian RAW group has betrayed them, and so begins a cat and mouse game to identify the traitor while attempting to keep the peace process on track.  During his mission Vikram meets Jaya (Nargis Fakhri), an American journalist based in London, who is in Jaffna to report on the plight of the refugees.  Jaya has a number of informers and sources, who later prove important contact points for Vikram, but otherwise her role seems fairly pointless and not helped by Nargis’s lacklustre performance. The initial meeting between Jaya and Vikram suggested that there may be some conflict between the two over nationalism and journalistic integrity, but this never materialised, perhaps because there is already plenty of conflict onscreen.

Madras CafeMadras Cafe

 

While the traitor is still providing the rebels with details about the Indian army plans, Vikram’s colleague S.P. (Rajeev K. Panday) intercepts wireless transmissions that provide details of an LTF plot to kill the former Indian Prime Minister during his campaign for re-election.  The assassination plot is developed during meetings between Anna’s representative Rajasekharan and nameless Western corporate executives who meet in the Madras Cafe.  The last half hour of the film moves into overdrive as the clock ticks down and Vikram and his boss Robin Dutt (Siddartha Basu) desperately try to put all the pieces together before their time runs out.

Madras CafeMadras CafeMadras CafeMadras Cafe

 

The screenplay by Somnath Dey and Shubendu Bhattacharya is realistic and gripping, even if you don’t know much about the original story – in fact it may be better if you don’t.  Excellent performances by most of the lead actors, including Prakash Belawadi as Bala, the Indian head of operations in Sri Lanka help to paint a plausible picture of the events leading up to the final assassination.  The pace does pick up in the final half hour although in general the film is kept understated, with a subdued performance from John Abraham, suiting his role as an undercover agent.  He’s perhaps a little too muscular and brawny to be 100% convincing, as I expect undercover agents to be more wiry and less memorable, but his mannerisms and emotions are much better than his previous films and seem fitting for an army officer.  At least there is none of the dreadful melodrama and over the top emoting which often seem to be required for a ‘hero’ role.

Madras CafeMadras CafeMadras CafeMadras Cafe

On the other hand Nargis Fakhri seems completely miscast and never convinces as a war reporter, while her appearance seems even more outlandish than in Rockstar. Rashi Khanna does a better job in her role as Vikram’s wife and the large supporting cast all are well suited to their roles with some excellent individual performances from the various cabinet members, Sanjay Gurbaxani as the Prime Minister and the members of the LTF cell in Madras.

Madras CafeMadras CafeMadras CafeMadras Cafe

The film looks beautiful despite the subject matter, and the cinematography by Kamaljeet Negi is superb.  There are contrasts between shots of beautiful countryside and scenes of complete devastation caused by the conflict.  The framing is excellent and often characters are shown hemmed in by their surroundings, just another way of showing there is no escape from the consequences of war. My only complaint is that the same two helicopters seem to make their way into a few too many shots, but since I always associate the sound of a helicopter with an army presence (from my childhood growing up in Northern Ireland) this just added more realism for me.

Madras CafeMadras CafeMadras CafeMadras Cafe

There are no songs as such in the film, but the background score by Shantanu Moitra is hauntingly beautiful and fits the imagery well.

Madras Cafe is not a film for everyone and at times is more of a documentary than a drama, however the subtle build-up of tension and attention to detail make for compelling viewing – even if I kept thinking that surely an undercover operative in Jaffna would speak Tamil!  A beautifully shot and well-made film, Madras Cafe is a fictional account that aptly illustrates the horror of conflict and the civilian cost. 4 stars.