Monday, 11 May 2015

Piku, meet The Avengers.

I was privileged to see a preview of Piku on Monday, four days before its worldwide release, courtesy of Mitu Bhowmick Lange and her team at Mind Blowing Films. I enjoyed it and left the cinema thinking it would be an easy write-up, that finding a hook for Western filmgoers would be a breeze.

Only it wasn't.

There were basics. Piku is an actor-dominated film, in this case three of Indian cinema's finest: Deepika Padukone, Amitabh Bachchan and Irrfan Khan. It's refreshingly, brutally honest, a rarity among commercial films. Director Shoojit Sircar does a phenomenal job portraying a peculiar father-daughter relationship without the usual sappy cliches. His depictions of family interplay, usually over meals, made me think of similar scenes in Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy and the brilliant Modern Family tv show.

A lovely film, a heartwarming film, a unique film ... accurate labels, but cheap superlatives. What context could make this film properly vibrate with a Western audience? I was drawing a blank.

Until my wife and I saw The Avengers: Age of Ultron Saturday night. And then it was easy.

The success of Marvel's Avengers franchise and its many spinoffs is attributed by some to multi-million dollar CGI budgets and villians bent on global annihilation that automatically draw an international audience. It's a tried and true formula employed by many but few enjoy box office numbers like the Avengers. Its phenomenal success, to me anyway, stems from two qualities that stray from the 'How much shit can we blow up in 90 minutes?' formula:
1) a star-studded cast
2) a collection of extraordinarily gifted heroes who relate to each other in the most casually human of ways
First, the cast. Robert Downey jr, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth et al. are marquee names that studios trust to open films on their own, much less as members of an ensemble cast in exceptionally tight-fitting outfits. Second, the interplay between these characters cleverly relies on simple glances, warmth and humour to connect them to an audience, regardless of the often ridiculous scenarios they're fighting through. Even the best CGI descends into a series of cartoons if nothing in between touches a nerve, and the talented actors who comprise the Avengers rise above their high-concept surroundings to do that more often than you 'd expect. Heroes with genuine humanity resonate long after cities are smoldering and villians are banished and a premise for the next sequel has been revealed at the end of the credits. They need to make us care.

Which brings us to the heroes of Piku.

Bashkor Banerjee (Babu)
In Indian cinema, the trio of Deepika Padukone, Amitabh Bachchan and Irrfan Khan has just as much if not more gravitas than the cast of the Avengers. There is no greater star in Indian cinema's long history than Mr. Bachchan, a 72-year-old who's nonetheless appeared in a staggering 36 films in the past 10 years alone. He's also hosted six seasons of Kaun Banega Crorepati (Who Will Become a Millionaire, popularly known as KBC), a wildly popular Indian TV show, in that span. All this from a man who reached legendary status in India before the 1990s. And when I say legendary, I mean bloody legendary: When Amit-ji was injured doing his own stunt during the filming of a fight scene in 1982, thousands converged on his hospital and prayed for his recovery. Cut to present day and hundreds flock every Sunday to his home in Mumbai, hoping for a glimpse of/wave from one of the most famous men on earth.

The man's not a hero: He's a god. Which, in the Marvel universe, would make him Thor. But over the course of Piku, Mr Bachchan's Bashkor Banerjee transforms instantly from a rumpled, sweater-wearing, bespectacled, mild-mannered man to a nearly unrecognisable monster, capable of wreaking havoc with little effort or regret.

Which makes him, in fact, Bruce Banner/Hulk. A constipated Hulk, no less. (Let that roll around your imagination). He hurls abuse and offers support to his caretaker daughter in equal measure, all the while consumed by his body's self-defeating tendencies. Bachchan's Babu destroys without hesitation but deep down you know he wants to protect his daughter -- but to do so requires defeating his own nature.

Deepika Padukone is simply the most dynamic actor in Bollywood at the moment. She shifts from sensuous item girl to independent film heroine with ease. Only eight years removed from her breakthrough role in the Shah Rukh Khan blockbuster Om Shanti Om, the 29-year-old makes actors around her better by absorbing light rather than reflecting it, never overshadowing but always self-assured. Deepika's astounding natural beauty would make her easy to write off but Piku and 2014's Finding Fanny find her eschewing the glamour every Indian actress must wantonly project if she wants to be cast as anything but a suffering wife or insufferable mother. Not all of her films have been blockbusters but she's yet to sell herself short, and in Piku she's created a modern heroine that by the film's end you wish you'd gotten to know better.

The name of Deepika's character is the name of the film because everything that happens in the film flows through her. Her father's pain, misery, and love; her family's heartache over the prospect of selling their ancestral home in Kolkata; and the growing interest of Irrfan's character Rana all get processed by her multi-tasking, high-strung mind. She's confident and successful but ultimately unsatisfied.

She's Tony Stark/Ironman. The dark intellect of every scene she's in. Stark's best lines often come when all we see are his eyes and digital jibberish inside Ironman's helmet. Likewise, Deepika's eyes are powerful enough to convey ... well ... anything, everything or nothing at all. I found myself watching her eyes when I should have been reading subtitles. Not for the first time in one of her films.

Rana and Babu.
Irrfan Khan can't match the legendary status of Mr Bachchan or recent box office success of Deepika but I think he's the most natural actor of the trio. All the characters I've seen him play are old souls, whether it's an unflinching police inspector in Slumdog Millionaire or besotted office worker in The Lunchbox. The versatile 48-year-old's been in dozens of films and TV shows during a career that's included roles in several Western production and have allowed him to unleash a pair of eyeballs even more evocative than Deepika's. Like Ms. Padukone, Irrfan makes fellow actors better by infusing his presence on screen, whether spilling his guts or staring out to sea, with a billion human emotions in the blink of a hypnotising eye. Rana, his character in Piku, is a man burdened by family and failed expectations who delivers truth to Babu and Piku at the same measured pace he delivers them from Delhi to Kolkata in one of his company's vehicles.

Rana is Thor. He brings an otherworldly perspective to the daily battle of wills between a father-daughter duo that calls on reservoirs of superhuman patience and strength. Rana is a subdued voice among attention seekers and when he does blow (with a mighty 'CHUP!') it's momentous. He wields a hammer of simple normalcy and knows when to use it, judiciously and with a grin.

I fear comparing an Indian family drama with a comic book blockbuster gives an impression of folly -- of course a strict comparison of them is silly -- so here's the serious bit. Piku represents a once-in-a-generation assemblage of talent that benefits from a director wise enough to understand the forces at his command. One need not understand Bengali to appreciate the nuances of often frantic dialogues that reveal a plain, complicated and very modern Indian family. I loved Age of Ultron and am a fan of director Joss Whedon but there's no need to see that film again until it's out on DVD and need to shut my brain off for two hours 20 minutes. Piku is a film I look forward to seeing again this week because I want to revisit the company of Babu, Piku and Rana, and marvel at the depth of their deliverers.

Piku is a special film about ordinary people dealing with shit. (Yes, literally.) No aliens, no doomsday machines, no apocalyptic showdowns. Just the very things we face every day in the struggle to lead satisfying lives before we die. Which is a helluva lot harder to depict than a wiseguy in an Ironman suit saving the planet.

See Piku, and you'll understand why.

No comments: