This was originally published on The Huffington Post
– May 28, 2005
“Yes, I’m a Bengali Sur, not a Punjabi Suri or even a Sood” – That’s my rehearsed response to the many Bengalis who repeatedly question my Bengali roots and most of them in disbelief have looked at me surreptitiously, as though gauging my pedigree by my looks and then dissatisfied asked me again, “Are you sure both your parents are Bengalis?”
Bhashkor Banerjee’s (Amitabh Bachchan’s) repeated reference to being a Bengali in Piku and Rana Chaudhary (Irrfan Khan) being asked if he was a Bengali ‘Chaudhury’ captured this aspect of the perceived superiority of the Bengali bhadralok accurately. And while I loved Shoojit Sircar’s frames that captured the upper middle class life aptly, be it C R Park in Delhi or in north Kolkata, what also struck me was how Piku justified India’s deep-rooted classism through it’s characters and dialogues.
“He is the owner Baba,” Deepika introducing Irrfan Khan to Amitabh Bachchan as the owner of a cab-renting agency and not a taxi driver himself, seemed like a justification for Deepika who plays an educated architect, to fall in love with Irrfan. I’ve lost count of the number of times the viewers are told in one way or the other that Irrfan Khan was not just a taxi driver but an educated guy who lost his engineering job abroad and now runs a taxi service. What was the director scared of?
There is more than one instance when the bhadralokness of Bhashkor meanders from being a sophisticated Bengali to a classist Bengali in Piku. The way he shouts at his domestic help when she complains about his intrusive behaviour to Deepika or how he makes his caretaker, Budhan from a West Bengal village do everything for him – even cleaning and sanitizing his portable shit pot. And well, if this can be overlooked as nursing and caring for the elderly, Sircar gives a classist shade to his younger characters as well. The Chaudhary taxi agency owner (Irrfan) refuses to drive when the Banerjees’ domestic help Budhan sits next to him on the passenger seat. He also pleads with Piku (Deepika Padukone) to let him sleep in the hotel room with her and his father as there isn’t any other room available. His argument being – “I’m not a driver and can’t sleep in the car. I’m the owner.” Yes Shoojit, we get the point that Irrfan is the owner but even if he wasn’t would it really matter to the story or the viewer?
Otherwise a bold film, appreciated by many for openly talking about a woman’s choices in life and her sexual needs, Piku according to me plays extremely safe when it comes to challenging the classist undertones in our society.
Films draw from real life and perhaps Piku has successfully reflected the existing post-colonial hang-ups of bhadrolok, sahib and memsahib culture. But instead of a critical representation, it has embraced them.