It has been 15 years since Deepika Padukone first graced the silver screen. Touted as a modern age 'Dream Girl' when she debuted with Om Shanti Om, she has consistently pushed the bar after her initial struggles, achieving success that was once unprecedented for a Hindi film heroine. By putting her might behind subjects like Chhapaak as a producer, she has developed an ecosystem where films that were considered offbeat got mainstream footing. But her finest hour as a performer to this day remains Shoojit Sircar's Piku, a father-daughter comedy drama film where she plays Piku, the beleaguered daughter of her widowed father Bhashkor Bannerjee (Amitabh Bachchan), whose biggest concern among other things are his bowel movements which he discusses in intricate detail. Piku, who Bhashkor introduces to her potential matches as a 'financially, emotionally and sexually independent, non-virgin woman', is a practical and headstrong woman who lives life on her own terms. After a turn of events, they end up on a road trip from Delhi to Kolkata with Rana Choudhary (Irrfan), the outsider in Piku's universe.
Writer Juhi Chaturvedi and Sircar tell the story within the realistic realms of a middle class Indian Bengali household where a child takes care of their ageing parent and every topic from 'shit' to sweetmeat is up for debate (I can attest to it since I am Bengali myself). But, Sircar keeps it light and that is where the beauty lies; there is no melodrama, no over the top sermonising, only a close up of a situation that we have seen or have tackled at some point. The journey (there is a song titled Journey Song and the music by Anupam Roy is brilliant) asks us to reflect on not only the relationships we harbour and the cost of development but also what makes us who we are; our roots, our culture, the memories we hold dear and about accepting flaws in our relations. Through Rana and Piku's sweet chemistry and growing attraction (there are small hints about falling in love), the film smartly lays out these ideas without hammering it down. A lovely scene at the ghat has Rana and Piku discuss life (while chomping on some delicious egg rolls), how Piku and Bhashkor always quarrel and how even though her father may be 'selfish' but she would always take care of her 'nabbay saal ka baccha'. Sircar mines indefinite humour out of the toilet related talk without ever making it crude or disgusting; one hilarious sequence in the pre-climax involves Bhashkor somehow relating frustration to constipation. Rana who is bewildered by the connection says,"kamaal hai. Aap har baat ko pet se kaise jod dete hai, kamaal hai". And Bhashkor quickly quips, "aadmi ka motion uske emotion se juda hai"(the film's lovely tagline).
Piku also gets its atmospherics bang on. The cramped spaces in Delhi, the open courtyard mansion in Kolkata, the Bengali penchant for various homeopathic medicines stuffed in a box, the love for music and literature and the pitch perfect Bengali archetypes. Amitabh Bachchan is fantastic as the bengali bhodrolok Bhashkor. He roots his character with a quirk that makes him unlikeable but is a quiet force behind his daughter. He gets an excellent scene where he cycles through the narrow by lanes of Kolkata, stops to feast on kachori and jalebi and just reminisces with a wide grin about the city he loves the most. Irrfan's Rana is the fulcrum on which the story balances and he is extremely adept with the role. With his trademark wry smile, deadpan humour and wide eyed expressions that say so much, he is the sounding board for Piku and Bhashkor; in fact in a telling scene he makes Piku realise as to how selling her home would destroy the very roots she has been holding on to.
But ultimately, the film is Deepika Padukone's and she shoulders it with a silent intensity. She does not have an instantly likeable part but her performance makes you understand why she is cantankerous and frustrated with Bhashkor. She nails the accent; even in the drama and dialogue heavy scenes she ensures that not one word is pronounced wrong. The part frequently requires to switch from being extremely irked to gravely concerned to softly satisfied with Bhashkor in a matter of minutes, which she pulls off without ever having to strain. She gets a wonderful moment after Bhashkor passes away which she delivers with sweet melancholy. Even though she is headstrong, she displays a layer of vulnerability that comes with caring too much. It is a top notch act.
Piku is one of those rare films that ages along with its characters and with you. Each time you watch it, you learn something new. It teaches you to reflect, to value what is important sometimes keeping practicality aside and love life for all its shortcomings, making it my favourite Deepika Padukone film.