Whilst studying Indian Melodrama this term, I’ve been watching a selection of Hindi films as research for my forthcoming essay and came across Shoojit Sincar’s gem of a movie on Netflix. Providing audiences with a refreshing perspective on female characters in the form of eponymous lead Piku, it’s both a genuinely funny comedy and a powerful example of feminist cinema.
Contains a few spoilers!
The issue of women being continually sexualised in Bollywood cinema is deeply problematic, fuelling a difficult relationship between female representation on screen and their treatment in society. Discussed in depth in Ketaki Deshpande’s article, Padukone’s appearance on TV regarding the representation of women in Indian cinema reveals an actress both recognising and seeking to challenge deeply inherent sexism in the media. An example of her intentions is showcased, alongside Sincar, who both confront the misogyny within the film industry through the creation of a female lead who is the antithesis of both sexualised and objectified female characters.
Piku lives in Delhi with her hypochondriac father Bhashkor (Amitabh Bachchan), an elderly man obsessed with his decreasing health – in particular, his constipation issues. Incessantly discussing the motion of his bowel movements to anyone willing to listen, whilst discouraging male suitors from showing an interest in his daughter to protect her independence, Piku is constantly at his beck and call. Working in an architecture firm and battling against an incompetent taxi company who transport her across the bustling city, she’s a strong-willed female who (literally) takes no shit from anybody. After a rapid decline in health, her father’s desire to return to his childhood home in Kolkata transforms the narrative into a humorous 72-hour road trip across India. Accompanied by the taxi firm’s owner Rana Chowdhury (Irrfan Khan), who is forced to commit to the job after a useless employee bailed, the drive is filled with constant, hilarious bickering.
Whether she’s leading a board meeting or taking business phone calls in her office, we see Piku in a variety of working environments to reiterate her independence and success. Simultaneously caring for her 70-year-old father, running a successful business and navigating a busy social life provides a depth and realness to Piku’s character, intensified by her fiery, confident nature. She consistently demands to be respected by the male characters surrounding her; whether it’s friends, her father or incompetent taxi drivers.
With large sections of dialogue filled with discussions regarding Piku’s relationship status, the film would undoubtably fail to pass the Bechdel Test. Yet, they’re in relation to marriage affecting her ability to care and commit wholeheartedly to her father, rather than about her intentions to settle with a man. The social responsibility for children to care for their elderly parents, and welcome their full dependency, is the narrative’s main focus. Relationships exist for comedic purposes, creating a humorous divide between Piku and her father that provides the source of many a giggle. For example, after Bhashkor interrupts his daughter’s work meeting with a detailed description of his current bowel status, she angrily states ‘Is this how I’m going to live my life? Discussing your shit?’.
In fact, several instances of Piku’s lack of desire for a relationship are portrayed on screen. When interrogated by her nosy Aunt on whether her sex life is active or if she is romantically involved with colleague and friend Syed (Jisshu Sengupta), she simply states ‘it’s a need’. Here, she hints towards their relationship as merely friends-with-benefits, with the passing comment a brief but powerful indicator of her sexual independence. On a date (showcasing the character as dating, unattached to one person and in control of her choices) she is interrupted by a phone call regarding her father’s constipation. Pausing the dinner to discuss faecal matter, referring to his motion as ‘mango pulp’, her date appears disgusted by her conversation. Yet, it’s Piku that expresses disinterest, stating afterwards to Syed ‘he hasn’t seen any of Satyajit Ray’s films and he doesn’t vote. I somehow tolerated him’. Once again, she refuses to sacrifice her independence for someone who isn’t up to her standards – creating a positive role model for younger women. To be suitable for Piku, you must reveal a level of cultural and political intrigue – not merely good looks and etiquette.
When discussing his late wife, Bhashkor states ‘I wanted her to be independent, but no… She surrendered herself for my service’. Yet Piku’s been raised in a complete contrasting manner, portraying the dramatic shift in societal views regarding marriage and women’s roles within Indian culture. With her ageing father supporting and encouraging this independence, modernity merges with traditionalism to create a perspective on Sincar’s hopes for the future.
Another admirable quality about Piku is her lack of embarrassment regarding her father’s difficult nature and crude wailings. Although, at times, she can be frustrated with his ramblings (leaving her Aunt’s wedding anniversary after he diverted a potential hook-up), at heart she is protective and caring towards him. It’s endearing and refreshing to witness an on-screen relationship between father and daughter, without the interruption of a romantic interest.
Towards the denouement of the film, Piku and Rana appear to be romantically involved – although there is no blatant physical displays of affection or emotional advances. The narrative is complete without the need for a love story, and the female character provides her own happiness rather than relying on that of a man.
Sincar displays this factor in the film’s denouement, with Padukone appearing to break the fourth wall by directly glancing into the camera whilst confirming to Rana that she’ll be alright. After a dramatic event when the group arrive at Kolkata, events conspire to force Piku to gain another level of independence – her father unexpectedly dies in his sleep. Despite the death of Bhashkor, audiences are assured Piku will overcome the obvious grief and continue to remain a strong, independent female in charge of her own destiny.
It’s difficult to explain how a film filled with an abundance of scatalogical humour can be so charming and endearing – but it really is exactly that. The endless shit references become a light hearted analogy regarding our own personal happiness: with Bhashkor crudely stating one’s emotion is reliant upon one’s motion. It’s an inspiring independent film showcasing the importance of familial bonds, whilst creating a truly inspiring female lead.