Updated: Oct 9
Review: An attempt to bypass the male gaze
Indian cinema has an unsettling history when it comes to portraying women in films. In the past, women on the silver screen have often been portrayed as uni-dimensional characters. Their roles were limited to the familial sphere especially in support of the male characters in the family. They are mostly considered as an epitome of virtue and values, where her family identity dominates her professional and personal identity. Ironically though, they are never shown to be in their workplace. They mostly occupy the house and the kitchen.
Women of substance who can lead their life independently and take decisions are missing from such portrayals. But Indian cinema has come a long way from misogynist, one-dimensional, radicalized portrayals of women. Thanks to our new-age filmmakers and actors and actresses who have dared to explore subjects from the women’s perspective. Movies such as English Vinglish, Kahaani (2012), Mark Kom, Queen (2014), Piku (2015), Raazi (2017), and Super Deluxe (2019) present uplifting themes women’s diverse experiences of -freedom and self-respect, privacy, consent, sexuality and the fight against prejudice and gender violence.
We will read about one of these films today, PIKU, and how it is a step in the right direction towards a more realistic and powerful representation of women in Indian cinema.
1. Piku (2015) made by the writer-director pair Shoojit Sircar and Juhi Chaturvedi is a delightful heartwarming tale of Piku Banerjee, an independent working woman. Piku, a Bengali entrepreneur in her 30’s is fully committed to taking care of her widowed cranky and constipated aging father Bhaskor in Delhi. Her day starts with her office and ends with a complex relationship with her ever-worried-about-constipation father. Life is monotonous for her because of her ever-complaining and stubborn father.
2. That’s until suddenly he insists that they visit their ancestral home in Kolkata by car. Here enters the taxi service owner-cum-driver Rana who steps in to drive them is what makes the rest of the movie. Piku tells a universal tale of the changing dynamics between ‘parent’ and ‘child’, beautifully capturing a slice of ordinary life. However, a critical viewer cannot miss the performative aspect of feminism that is so very evident in the movie. Here are some aspects of the film exploring feminist ideas.
3. Women can be completely Independent. Piku is an ambitious architect who not only runs a prosperous business but also cares for a 70-year-old ailing man. She loved both of these aspects of her life and wanted to give up on none of them. It is a delight to see a young woman taking financial and emotional responsibility of her elderly father without fuss or drama in a patriarchal country where it is presumed as a son’s job.
4. In every way, Piku is independent and does very well at her work. She doesn't aspire to please anyone. She does not apologize for being empathetic. She is vocal in family conversations, discussions about the property, and fiercely shares her opinion. Unlike most Hindi film heroines Piku is irritable and flawed too unlike most Hindi film heroines. There is no gloss over her flaws and that’s what makes her appealing and realistic.
5. A man does enter her life – Rana Chaudhary the owner of a taxi service, excellently played by Irrfan Khan. He brings some balance in her otherwise haywire relationship with her father, she seems interested in him but the movie doesn’t explore any romance because this is not about a woman’s desperate quest for love. She is not a woman who suddenly turns into a supporting character because of her gender. She is a woman who knows what she wants and has a strong identity to follow it. This is where Piku raises the bar in telling the women's story.
6. And just as you think you are familiar with her, she amazes you again. When Baba passes away, she’s heartbroken, but not angry or devastated. She was at ease knowing that he died peacefully. For her death is just one of the many events that one encounters and not horribly sad or devastating. People accept, move on, and lead their own lives with dignity.
7. What’s amazing is that the film knowingly or unknowingly broke that bubble of taboos, awkwardness, and denial around an Indian’s sexuality – and especially an Indian woman’s. Piku has an active sex life without a relationship; her partner occasionally sleeps at her place and no one in the movie judges her for that – not even her father. According to her sex is a need and her sexual life is hers.
8. For ages, we have been bombarded with images of a responsible father fulfilling his biggest responsibility, but marriage is not a primary concern of family even though she’s skirting thirty. According to her father “Marriage without purpose is a low IQ decision”, this is something very rare in Indian films.
9. What surprised me is the generosity of Amitabh Bachchan and Irrfan Khan, both stalwarts, in allowing the film to belong to Deepika in both the film title, the script, the scenes, and the acting. Other female characters are not just two-dimensional stereotypes. They have a role to play in moving the story forward. Chhobi masi is very comfortable with her multiple marriages and the choice she made to give attention to her own needs.
Piku is a triumph of writing and women. A new age cinema which says so little and yet conveys so much with strong characters that we do not lose interest at any point of time. Like Vicky Donor, Juhi, and Shoojit 's earlier collaboration, the film makes insightful remarks on the societal taboo and stereotypes we carry. Cheer! especially to Juhi Chaturvedi who has written some of the best, progressive fearless writing in Hindi cinema in the recent past.
Bechdel testing Piku: The film passes the test with good grades as there are many scenes in the film where two or more female characters were talking to each other about things other than men.