Dir. Shoojit Sircar
Even when embedded in smart banter and delivered flawlessly by Amitabh Bachchan and Deepika Padukone, a poop joke is still a poop joke. I feel guilty for leading with this thought, because there is so much to delight in about Piku, with its gentle and loving presentation of a relationship between a difficult man and his prickly daughter, and for me the toilet humor doesn't spoil the delight. But Piku is, um, flush with lines and situations that revolve around the bowl. Bhaskor Bannerji's (Amitabh) thoughts pertain excessively to the function and dysfunction of his bowels, and so do his conversations with his daughter Piku (Deepika). They snipe and bark and snap at each other, and it's almost always something about poo. That's a whole lot of poop-talk to cram into one movie, and it is is only funny to the extent that you find poop funny, something upon which reasonable minds may differ.
But the framing of these conversations is just terrific. The dialogues are quick-paced and witty, staged in the rapid cross-talk style that one associates with quirky Western films about family dysfunction. Bhaskor and Piku live in a constant swirl of griping, poking, insulting banter with the other people who move in and out of their home - such as Bhaskor's dead wife's sister (Moushumi Chatterjee), his indulgent physician (Raghuvir Yadav), the beleaguered owner of a taxi company, Rana Chaudhary (Irrfan Khan), who gets stuck driving the pair all the way from Delhi to Calcutta, and even various servants. The repartee is fun to watch and almost dizzying at times in its acerbic swiftness.
Piku and Bhaskor, and to a degree Rana, aren't exactly nice people. Bhaskor is the sort of man who says outrageous and even offensive things, only to put on a "What, what did I say?" act when the people around him bristle in response. He's the sort of man who blurts Piku's sexual status (viz.: not a virgin) to any young man she introduces him to. And Piku is even more abrasive; there are running jokes in the first half of the film about how awful she is, as Rana's drivers hide when she calls for a cab, and her business partner (and sometime lover) Syed (Jishu Sengupta) begs her to be a shred more diplomatic with clients. A series of household servants have quit rather than stay caught in the middle of Piku and Bhaskor's squabbles. (The film's few unwaveringly nice people, like Syed, are steamrolled by the kinetic force of their bickering.)
But in the light of her dynamic with Bhaskor, Piku's acidity is understandable; they are metaphysically connected, so that his intestinal discomfort manifests in her sourness. One has the sense that the film joins Piku long after she has reached a breaking point; mean and impatient comments fly out of her mouth in all directions not because she is a horrible person, but because she has long since exhausted the energy it takes to contain them. And so there is a general feeling of goodness around Piku despite all her cranky rudeness, a sense of the love she has for her difficult, aging father, though it takes about a third of the film before she even shows a flicker of a smile in his direction, while watching him dance around his room to "Jibone ki pabona." Bhaskor's love for Piku is no less, and it is both liberating and possessive; he doesn't want her to marry partly because he needs her full attention, but also because he believes that marriage, the service of a husband and production of his children, is a waste of a woman's human potential. And as this relationship takes shape under the push-me-pull-you of Piku's need for independence and Bhaskor's need for Piku, it becomes the heart and soul of the film. What makes all the poop jokes endurable is this universally relatable tension of caring for an aging parent, and of negotiating the parent-child relationship when the child is an adult and the parent begins to have child-like needs.
As is often the case, it takes an outsider to give this squabbling pair new perspective on their bond, and help them resolve their discordant themes. The outsider is Rana, who has family strain of his own, a mother and a sister he seems to despise; indeed, escape from them is a strong motivation for him to drive Piku and Bhaskor to Calcutta when all his employees refuse the assignment. Rana, too, is irritable and abrasive, but he quickly learns that humoring Bhaskor is the only way to survive sharing close quarters with the duo. When, while doing so, he draws a diagram of the lower digestive tract complete with emergent oblong excretions, the toilet humor reaches apotheosis; but Rana is deliberately pushing the poop talk over the edge, teasing Bhaskor by goading him in his ridiculous obsession with excrement.
Piku's long-suffering bitterness mixed with affection is rendered with charming precision by Deepika Padukone. This film is a great and different use of Deepika's by now well-established talent; she is usually either perfectly glamorous or preternaturally sweet, as she was in another quirky-group-takes-a-road-trip movie, Finding Fanny. Here, she is more natural than ever, with minimal makeup that even allows some slight unevenness in her usually flawless complexion to show. It's humanizing and appealing, and allows her to be all the more lovely even while scowling. For Irrfan Khan, naturalness is practically a signature; he complements it here with deadpan comic timing that bolsters some of the film's biggest laughs. Amitabh's performance, while endearing, isn't exactly natural. He manages to embody a frail and quirky character while still remaining Amitabh Bachchan the elder statesman of superstars; to the extent his performance is restrained, he nibbles on the scenery rather than broadly chewing it. But it's all lovely, and makes for a charming and rewarding ride through one man's digestive tract and across northern India.