Piku is one of the best releases this year in the UK. I laughed, fell in love, reflected on the faded grandeur of Calcutta and admired the writing, direction and central performances. The music by Anupam Roy wasn’t bad either.
The eponymous character is an attractive young woman (played by Deepika Padukone), a singleton of around 30 working in Delhi as a partner in an architectural design company. Her busy life is complicated by the demands placed on her by her 70 year-old widowed father, a hypochondriac constantly complaining about his constipation. When he demands a trip to Kolkota to visit the house he still owns (and where his brother still lives) Piku discovers that her reputation as an angry passenger has alienated all the taxi drivers in a local company. Father decides they must be driven to Kolkota (1500 miles away), so the taxi company boss (who has his own reasons for leaving Delhi) has to take the job himself. Since father is played by Amitabh Bachchan and the taxi boss by Irrfan Khan we are guaranteed an entertaining ride.
At this point I should point you to Omar Ahmed’s posting on the film. I’m indebted to Omar for several insights into how the film works. I’ll try not to repeat things he says and offer instead some extra points. I first came across the director-writer partnership of Shoojit Sircar and Juhi Chaturvedi when I watched and very much enjoyed Vicky Donor (India 2012). That film dealt with the social issue of sperm donation and the idea of ‘designer families’ and the impact on the sperm donor. It too employed comedy and featured a Bengali family brought to Delhi (Sircar is a Bengali). The effectiveness of that film derived from the acute observation of people in potentially embarrassing situations in which they are allowed to react naturally. This is a form of social comedy approached with genuine humanism and in Piku Sircar and Chaturvedi utilise the family melodrama and the road movie in constructing their comedy narrative. In doing so they create a narrative about a ‘real’ (upper) middle-class Indian family. ‘Real’ in contrast to the ways most families are depicted in mainstream Hindi cinema.
The film could be universal except for the one aspect of Indian middle-class culture that remains beyond my understanding. There is a fourth character in the car – a servant who acts as something like the old man’s ‘batman’. He rarely speaks and is largely ignored by the other three characters, except when he is needed. The careful attention to detail in the script is illustrated by a scene in which at the beginning of the car journey the servant climbs into the front passenger seat next to the driver. The driver refuses to move and apart from a few glances in the rear view mirror, nothing is said until Piku changes places with the servant. Rana, Irrfan Khan’s character is an educated man, a civil engineer who worked in Saudi Arabia before taking over the family business. He needs to assert his social status – important to him as he must grapple with Amitabh’s Bengali patriarch Bhaskor Banerjee. Later we learn that Rana has a Bengali family name (Chowdhury) even if he comes from Uttar Pradesh. This makes him at once potentially acceptable, but also inferior to Bhaskor. These nuances, as Omar suggests on his blog, point us towards the kinds of narratives explored by Satyajit Ray. Piku is a familiar Ray woman – introduced in the opening sequence by a full length poster of Ray. Later she dismisses a potential suitor because he does not appreciate Ray’s films.
Piku has been a big hit in India – and in South Asian diaspora communities overseas. The reviews still reveal a significant portion of detractors – many perhaps angry that there seems so little in the way of ‘plot’ and excitement with three major stars. The music is all used to support the narrative without disrupting it – there are no romance set pieces or choreographed dances etc. Only a bicycle ride through traditional Calcutta (reminding me of Ray’s Mahanagar at times) breaks away from norm. The pleasures in the film come from the script and the performances. In the UK a specialised film distributor was able to make a considerable killing with the ‘Indian Independent’ film The Lunchbox (India 2013) starring Irrfan Khan. Piku has been a success for Yash Raj in the UK (two Top 15 appearances in its first two weeks) but it won’t have been seen by the same audiences that enjoyed The Lunchbox. How to put these two audiences together is an intriguing question – but I wonder if either the Indian or UK distributors really want to try?
It’s somehow indicative of the lack of interest shown by Indian distributors towards audiences outside India and its diasporas that there are no subtitles on the trailers for most new releases (even though the films themselves are subtitled). This trailer over-emphasises the romance elements and the relationship between Piku and Rana is developed in understated and subtle ways.
Nayak (or The Hero) was not released in UK cinemas, a relatively rare occurrence with the films of Satyajit Ray at a time when he was at the peak of his fame. There are various reasons why the film might not have appealed to UK distributors (assuming that it was available). It would be sad if it was because the film seems less ‘realist’ and certainly less concerned with the ‘exoticism’ of India – two traits appreciated by the supporters of Ray’s earlier village-set and ‘historical’ works. Perhaps it seemed inaccessible because despite its modernity it deals with Indian [upper] middle-class mores that were more difficult for the Western audiences of the time to understand. It also feels like one of the most carefully ‘constructed’ of Ray’s films. It shares with Kanchenjunga (1962) an original screenplay by Ray himself (many of his other films are based on Bengali novels) and a range of characters brought together in a controlled space. In Kanchenjunga it is the promenades of Darjeeling and in Nayak it is an express train travelling between Calcutta and Delhi.
Andrew Robinson in Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye (revised 2004) writes very well about this shared set-up and he describes it as a “microcosm of Bengali middle-class sanctimoniousness”. But it also seems to me that Ray himself is rather sniffy about his characters (or that’s the impression I get from Robinson) – which is dangerous because the central narrative line explores something close to Ray’s own experience. The ‘Hero’ is Arindam Mukherjee, a major star of Bengali popular cinema who has been invited to Delhi to receive an award. Because he has left his arrangements late he must take the train from Howrah instead of flying. Apart from the opening sequence, the whole narrative is played out on the train, though several earlier parts of the story are revealed through flashbacks. Ray decided to cast a ‘real’ star of Bengali cinema, Uttam Kumar, in the title role, arguing that although he didn’t value ‘commercial cinema’ he did think that certain actors had talent which he could utilise. Robinson’s description of Ray’s feelings about working with Kumar suggest that the director behaved quite badly and indeed he seems to have patronised the actor. In order to pursue his own ideas about cinema and to raise questions about stardom, Ray wrote the second main character as a rather serious young woman who is the editor of a women’s magazine. Aditi (Sharmila Tagore) is pushed by her travelling companions into interviewing Arindam even though she herself is dismissive of popular cinema. Thus Ray is able to raise questions about ‘realism’, ‘conscience’ etc. in relation to cinema, especially since Aditi is sat in a ‘chair’ coach (i.e. the cheaper seats) and the couple meet in the dining car. Aditi is thus the ‘outsider’, commenting indirectly on the privileged world inside the sleeper.
The other passengers in the First Class sleeper include a businessman and his family, a elderly writer and an advertising executive with his younger wife. In the flashbacks we see the actor during incidents in which he has often behaved badly. We also experience two of his nightmares when he tries to doze off. I suspect that it is these scenes that put off distributors in the West. Ironically, Ray is using devices that might have appeared in Hollywood or Hindi cinema films from the 1940s/50s (though in his blog Omar refers instead to Fellini and Bergman).
Robinson tells us that most of the film was shot in a studio in Calcutta, yet there are several shots of the railway. I did feel that the sleeper was much more ‘modern’ and luxurious than the Indian Railways trains that I have ridden – but probably I wasn’t in the ‘best’ carriages! Overall, I enjoyed the film. I thought Uttam Kumar was very good, as was Sharmila Tagore. I didn’t mind the flashbacks and although they are ‘traditional’ rather than ‘modernist’, they do signal a shift in Ray’s practice to include more non-realist material and this became a more common feature of his work in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, Nayak still qualifies as a ‘humanist film’ in which Arindam has all his weaknesses exposed but emerges at the end as a rounded character with his good and bad points – much like everyone else.
The more I think about the film, the more interesting it gets. A man and a woman meeting on a train, especially in a dining car, is a feature of several classic romances and thrillers – Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and North By Northwest for instance and the opening of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. But Ray subverts our expectations. The couple do not develop the kind of romantic relationship we might expect, instead we get a much more (intellectually) interesting relationship that develops as Aditi learns more about Arindam. In the same way, although we learn about Arindam’s life, this isn’t a critique of the film business as such. Marie Seton, in her Portrait of a Director (1971), writes very well about the meanings of Nayak. She suggests that the film tells us a great deal about the people in the sleeper compartment and also explores several aspects of Bengali society. For instance, she comments on Arindam’s handling of cash and his fears about losing his successful box office position, pointing out that the prevalence of so-called ‘black money’ in the financing of popular films in India at the time generated insecurity. Arindam’s background includes references to the Bengali theatre tradition and to left-wing politics – again ‘local’ factors in Bengali life in the 1960s. I was intrigued that the advertising man’s wife is called ‘Molly’. I wondered if this was an Anglo-Indian name? Or is it simply a corruption of a Bengali name? As Seton suggests it is these touches that make the film so rich in meanings.
This website offers a very detailed reading of the film (and is obviously full of spoilers):
Channel 4 celebrated the 100th Birthday of Indian Cinema with five late night/early morning screenings of Satyajit Ray films. Perhaps we should question this strategy – why not five different directors? But this is what we got and at least Channel 4 (a pale shadow of its former self these days) still shows Indian films. I’m certainly grateful for the chance to see Ray’s last film which turned out to be a very enjoyable watch and a moving tribute to the director and to Indian cinema.
The narrative is on one level very simply structured but also rich in provocations about Bengal, India and the wider world. The ‘stranger’ of the title announces himself by a letter that arrives one day in the comfortable Bose household in Calcutta. Wife and mother Anila is startled to read that her uncle, who she barely knew when she was an infant before he left Calcutta 35 years ago, is on his way to visit her family. Anila’s businessman husband Sudhindra is immediately suspicious but his small son Satyaki is delighted at the prospect of seeing his ‘great-uncle’. I don’t really need to give any more of the plot outline. You can probably guess much of it and the kinds of little dramas that arise. This is a very familiar narrative with ‘the stranger’ always likely to shine a light on whatever are the dark secrets of the family or to stir up the hopes and dreams of family members etc. One of the strongest ‘echoes’ for me was of a similar character appearing in the Charles Burnett film To Sleep With Anger (US 1990). Danny Glover is the character from ‘back home’ in the South who arrives in an African-American household in suburban Los Angeles and ‘disturbs’ the household. In the case of Uncle Mitra who disturbs the Bose family, Ray is to a large extent embodying his own ideas and values in the character and subjecting bourgeois life in Calcutta to an analysis based on his own global perspective. (The 35 years that Mitra has been ‘away’ correspond almost exactly to the length of Ray’s cinema career which began with the release of Pather Panchali in 1955 and finished with the making of this film.)
Most of the film is set in the confines of the Bose household – in the living rooms and bedrooms – with a brief sequence on the Maidan where Mitra meets Satyaki’s friends. Significantly, it ends with a trip to the rural area where Rabindranath Tagore developed his education communities at Santiniketan (and where Ray studied). Mitra shares Ray’s interest in music and his main interest is in anthropology which he has pursued by travelling the world and living with various communities ‘outside’ bourgeois society. Ray also explored the tension between the Calcutta bourgeoisie and the rest of Bengali society, most clearly in Days and Nights in the Forest which has several echoes in Agantuk – the final section of the film includes a dance sequence involving a group of Santals (‘tribal people’). Mitra’s arrival challenges the materialism of Calcutta society and in confrontations with Anila and Sudhindra’s friends and colleagues, Mitra questions whether Bengali intellectual life has really sustained the vigour which Tagore instilled in it and whether or not it is too much in hock to Western values. It’s significant that the film was made just at the point when the Indian economy was beginning the process of ‘de-regulation’ – there is a nostalgic reference to Thums-Up, the local Coca Cola substitute (Coke was not available in India during the 1980s).
The film has been described as a comedy and it is true that there is a lightness about it, but also I think it offers a serious critique in what seems like a very personal statement. The playing of all the roles is very good but in particular Utpal Dutt as Uncle Mitra really nails it.
I’m particularly looking forward to the 100 Years of Indian Cinema strand in this year’s Bradford International Film Festival. One of the highlights is Satyajit Ray’s 1977 film The Chess Players. I was a fan of Ray’s films up until the mid 1970s but I haven’t seen most of his later films. Perhaps that is not so surprising. The 1970s was when the attention of many cinephiles and film scholars turned towards the New Indian Cinema of Mrinal Sen and Kumar Shahani amongst others. Ray was suddenly out of favour. Looking back now it seems clear to me that the complexity of Ray’s cinema was not properly appreciated and that many of the assumptions about his work were simply wrong. We’ve covered some of the necessary re-appraisal earlier on this blog and we hope to do more this summer with the BFI’s release of the restored print of Mahanagar (1963) and the screening of several more Ray films at BFI Southbank. All our Ray postings are available via this ‘Satyajit Ray’ tag.
The Chess Players sees Ray exploring a double form of colonialism. In the mid-19th century, the Nawab of Oudh (present day Lucknow) was the ruler of the state and the last representative of the Mughals in that region. The British East India Company were poised to take complete control before eventually giving it up to the British Government and the India Office after the 1857 rising by Indian troops of the company. The Nawab was an ineffective ruler but a great patron of the arts and this becomes one of the discourses of the film. The coloniser-colonised relationship already existed between the Shia Muslim rulers and the local people (mainly Hindus) and involves ethnicity and religion as well as political power. This is then doubled by the arrival of the British as the new colonisers with a new set of power relationships. Ray adapts his film from a story by Munshi Premchand – written in 1924 with the British Raj still in place – and adds some extra scenes in his analysis. The chess players are from the Muslim ruling class and it is their ‘lassitude’ which will allow the British (in the form of Richard Attenbrough’s General Outram) to take over. I’m looking forward to some animated sequences – typical of the devices that Ray used in his films from the mid-1960s onwards. I hope that the festival audience will see a film that challenges some of the assumptions about Ray’s cinema.