Piku gets closer than any Hindi film in recent memory to what family is really like. The film is special for many reasons - pace, editing, dialogue, performances - but this more elusive achievement is the greatest.
It's hard to say what makes one depiction of family more real than the next. But Piku gets it. Piku gets parent-child dynamics, it gets the hilarity of ordinary situations, and it makes no visible moves to turn any of it into theatre.
Its two schticks of Bengaliness and scatology - surprisingly fun, considering my boredom with stereotypes and poop jokes - are a shell. The core of the film is something different. The core is what it feels like inside the word 'family'.
This is not an easy thing to put one's finger on, much less communicate, which is probably why we have so many maudlin literary novels that rely on family secrets to convey intimacy. It's also why family in Hindi cinema has largely been about khaandaan, parampara, duty, honour, loyalty and other totems of Morality 101.
A commitment to family in Hindi cinema is usually an unfortunate burden borne bravely or a saint-like virtue of the truly good, demonstrated in black-and-white situations of chunauti and sacrifice. All high drama.
But nothing we show or are shown about family in our cinema comes remotely close to what it feels like to actually inhabit one: the unstated commitment of daily support and companionship, the slack affection in routine, the trust built through shared space. The exhaustion of being bound, the sense of relief in duty, the pleasure in taking liberties.
Piku barely has a beginning, middle and end. We seem to be made privy to a life ongoing
Director Shoojit Sircar and writer Juhi Chaturvedi understand instinctively the rhythms and textures of family, and Piku draws us into them effortlessly - with no wormholes of melodrama.
There is none of the sentimentalism of Dharma or the saccharine of Rajshri. There are no dioramas demonstrating togetherness, no coordinated dance moves, no collective prayer ceremonies with matching costumes and beatific smiles. There is just home, the dining table, breakfast, the courtyard, the car, and, of course, the toilet.
Still, a few moments stand out.
One is a big family dinner scene that shows us exactly how many interwoven tensions can diffuse themselves through jovial bickering over a home-cooked meal.
Another: Piku (Deepika Padukone), at home in pajamas after her father embarrassed her at a party, discovers him drinking whiskey and dancing in his room, the music all the way up. Leaning against a doorjamb, her irritation softens to affection and she backs slowly out and dances her way back to her room with her own wineglass.
These moments are never treated as narrative crescendos. Piku barely has a beginning, middle and end. We seem to be made privy to a life ongoing. We come in through a morning routine, and leave through a casual game of driveway badminton. Through it all, family is present, even when difficult, as a pleasant background hum.