The stories we tell do not exist in a vacuum. They are deeply rooted in the human experience and in the human psyche. It is no surprise, then, that storytelling comes naturally to us, regardless of the medium. They have the power to inspire, excite, anger and move us. But some stories surprise us: they feel like a gentle breeze, while simultaneously stirring up deep emotions.
No, this elephant hasn't been forgotten at will, it just has not been recognised properly, owing to its many sizes and disguises. When this elephant was young and a new occupant, the child found it confusing: why does it help my parent? Why does it make me feel tiny? Is it because it's huge? Why does it interfere with the way I do things? Why does it expect me to prove myself? Is it evil? Is it love?
Slowly over the years, in the child's eyes, the elephant morphed from something terrifying to something normal. In the parent's eyes, it never even existed. And so, unrecognised and left untended, it grew like a parasite.
Deepika Padukone's character, Piku, is familiar with that elephant, to say the least. Her seventy-year-old father, Bhaskor (Amitabh Bachchan) is extremely difficult to live with, and completely dependent on Piku. We meet the characters in the middle of their lives, at the start of another day: Piku is doing hectic chores while dealing with her father. The concern of the first quarter of the film is to give us a sense of the father-daughter dynamic.
We see signs of abuse in all the conversations they have. Bhaskor has unrealistic expectations: there is extreme pressure on Piku to meet every demand with subservience. He emotionally invalidates Piku when she brings up the inconvenience he causes, by reminding her that he, in fact, has given her full freedom, so she cannot talk to him like that.
There are no boundaries. Bhaskor's "shit" literally and figuratively interferes with Piku's life. Like when she receives an inappropriate message from him in the middle of her meeting, or when she goes to meet a friend named Aniket. It is evident that Bhaskor does not care about his daughter's privacy: he never leaves her alone, he attempts to control her social life by routinely informing potential dates that she is not a virgin (to fend them off), and he constantly reiterates that marriage is a "low-IQ decision". Still, as much as Piku may not like it, the truth is that Bhaskor completes her. Which is the reason his declining health worries her, and why she would rather live in her current state of chaos than be alone.
If we need more proof about the frail state that is her individuality, might I suggest we look at the title of the film – Piku. It is her story. Yet the person we see, hear and tolerate most during the entire length of the film is Bhaskor – his health issues, his taunts, his struggles, and his opinions. Piku shares almost all of her screen time with Bhaskor.
I like to believe that this is the creators' way of making the audience understand what emotional abuse essentially is: having so much power over the other person that a story about the victim automatically becomes a story about the abuser.
In relationships like these, a third-person point-of-view has immense significance; therefore, Rana (Irrfan) finds existence in the story. He represents us, the audience, and he finds the duo's squabbles as intriguing as we do. So he asks questions that Piku never does: "Do you talk about constipation all day?", "Why do you not like to drive?", and most importantly, "Why do parents have to emotionally blackmail their children?" (Later, it is clear why Piku does not like to drive: Bhaskor does not trust her driving, and it is reasonable for us to assume that that was how the driving was curbed.)
In a beautifully written scene, Rana points out Bhaskor's selfishness to Piku, who in turn goes on to defend her father by giving an answer that feels like something that has been conditioned into her psyche. Following which, she does admit that even though he is a selfish man, he is still her father, and she has to take care of him.
Rana slowly guides Piku's gaze towards the old elephant, which had left the room and was in the car with them as they made their trip to Kolkata. And so, near the end of the film, Piku finally finds the courage to speak out about the hindrance her father causes in her life.
It is important to note that the film does not wish to paint Bhaskor as a villain, neither does it hope that all children leave their parents to care for themselves. It merely presents us with two very different people, who are right in their own particular ways. The point being made is that life is not black and white, it is shades of grey. Bhaskor is a father who loves and empowers his daughter, but still, unknowingly and relentlessly, hurts her. Piku is a daughter who struggles to view her father as a bad person, knowing deep down that that analysis won't be wrong, but keeps up the charade because he is someone who never left her alone.
Lastly, the film can be viewed in various ways: it can be perceived as a love story of a father and a daughter, or it can be taken as an honest representation of the human condition in abusive relationships. Or it can be considered exactly as it's told – a journey: Piku's journey. Which, ironically, truly begins after her father's death.