I remember skeptically entering a screening of Piku as a sixth grader, with a shaky grasp over Hindi and no understanding of Bollywood cinema. By the time I left the theatre, I knew I already had a favourite actress, a favourite actor and a favourite film. Seven years, and several films later, that list remains unchanged.
When asked which performance of Deepika Padukone stayed with me the most, I say Piku in a heartbeat. I suspect several others feel the same too. Padukone herself said in an Instagram post, that Piku was her favourite character. This begs the question, "What makes Piku so special?"
She isn't as glamorous as Shantipriya, as funny as Meenamma, as intense as Tara, as passionate as Leela or as graceful as Padmavati. Neither is she exceptional, nor is she particularly likeable. What Piku is, however, is real, honest and imperfect. Perhaps, this is why she works so well.
Piku in many ways defined the "modern, urban, Indian woman" in mainstream Hindi cinema. She is strong, outspoken, hardworking and in a perpetual hurry. As Bhaskor plainly tells a man they meet at a party, his daughter is "financially independent, sexually independent." Juggling her hypochondriac father's eccentricities, her commitments at work and her own needs and wants, we see a bit of ourselves in Piku- racing against the clock, but unclear as to where she is headed.
Piku's empowerment, however, doesn't come from partying in clubs or shopping with her girlfriends. This is a trope later "female-led" films like Veere Di Wedding would struggle with. Piku is empowered simply because she is real. In one scene, we see her scrunching her face as she unclogs a messy sink. In another, she skips a party to wander alone around the house in a loose, faded t-shirt, pouring herself a glass of wine and absently swaying to the beat of a song. These are things we hadn't seen Bollywood heroines do in the past, and wouldn't see much of in the future as well.
Behind the scatterbrained hustle and fiery comebacks though, Piku is also vulnerable and lonely. As the peppy title track plays, we see her leave her office, buy a single chocolate bar in a bustling mall and munch on it in a corner, alone. On the trip, she buys bangles she perhaps will never wear. It's the least her father could let her have, she says, since he wouldn't let her get married.
Later in the Kolkata sequence, she looks out the window longingly, watching a group of little girls in dance attire making their way down the narrow gully. With her mother's death, she's had to mature quickly, missing out on their carefree innocence and exuberance. There is a silent loneliness to Piku, one that she has accepted as part of her.
To mask the vulnerability, Piku builds walls around herself, not letting anyone get too close. She constantly tells Rana, for instance, not to bother trying to impress her or her father with his "home remedies" to constipation. In a two moving scenes however, Piku gives Rana a peak behind the curtain. Both sequences – one in Benares and the other in Kolkata, are shot on the banks of the Ganges – a motif perhaps, for the placid stillness of the otherwise feisty, gurgling river.
In the second scene, Piku tells Rana between bites of a kathi roll that after a stage, the roles of child and parent are reversed. The responsibility of "keeping the parents alive", she says, is that of the children. If anyone wanted to marry her, they would have to adopt her ninety year old father in tow. "Karoge?" she asks, laughing. "Matha kharab nahin hai mera," Irrfan's Rana replies, chuckling.
There's a poignance behind the humour. The men Piku perhaps interacts with the most are her father, his doctor, and the helper Budhan, discussing the colours and textures of shit. To her, sex is only a need, and marriage, a near-impossibility. She has no time, bandwidth or space in her life for a partner.
This makes Rana a breath of fresh air in Piku's life. In spite of being so different, Rana simply fits into her life, for want of a better word. Sircar designs their relationship with subtlety, nuance and warmth. He balances Piku's energy, understands her, and is in many ways, the perfect romantic non-hero. There are no rosy song montages, no admissions of love, and till the end of the film, we have little reason to think Piku and Rana are anything more than friends.
However, when Piku volunteers to hold a flashlight for Rana in an already fairly well-lit room, or when Rana returns to the same ghat he went to with Piku on his way back to Delhi, the messaging is not lost. Theirs is a beautiful emotional intimacy, one that Khan and Padukone bring to life with their unique chemistry.
The most memorable relationship of the film however, is between Piku and her father Bhaskor. He is difficult, nagging, eccentric and for the most part, obsessed with his bowels. He tells every man she meets that she isn't a virgin, constantly discourages her from "marriage without purpose", and in general, insists on having his way. Yet, Piku knows she is all that he's got, and in some ways he too, is all she's got. While most of her frustration comes from him, so do her few laughs. While he restricts her, he also gives her purpose.
Bhaskor passes away peacefully in his sleep, having had the his most satisfying motion that morning. "Odhbut," he says gleefully emerging from the loo. Piku is heartbroken, weeping at his bedside quietly. Suddenly, her home seems empty and silent.
In the bigger picture however, Bhaskor's death also marks a new beginning for Piku. She gets to explore, re-engage and reinvent her world, sans the baggage of her "nabbe saal ka bachcha." The film leaves Piku at this juncture, with a host of her father's happy memories in her heart, and fresh horizons to reach for.
Ultimately, Piku works because we see ourselves in her joy, frustration, excitement and angst. Sharing screen with two of Hindi cinema's finest actors, Deepika holds her own, shouldering the film and delivering her most iconic performance. "I am ten times more strange, weird, irritating, annoying [than my father]" Piku tells Rana in one scene. It's these imperfections perhaps, that make Piku so perfect.