In Piku, Amitabh Bachchan plays Bhaskor, a 70-year-old Bengali widower who’s obsessed with the state of his health. He’s particularly interested in the texture, hue, quantity, ease and regularity of his motions. One might dismiss such behaviour as a screenwriter’s conceit but my Bengali friends assure me that this kind of fretting is normal in their households. Apparently, Bengali males of a certain vintage are happiest thumbing through medical books, looking for what ails them. One might call them happychondriacs.

Now, that’s a bad pun and I apologize, but it’s hardly worse than the dozens of stool-centric jokes—including the ridiculous tagline: ‘Motion se hi emotion’—that one encounters during the course of this movie. This isn’t to say Piku is a bad film, only that it’s at its weakest when striving for effect. When the film’s promotion focussed on potty humour, I assumed its makers were playing to the gallery to get people talking about the film. But Bhaskor’s constipation really is the main topic of discussion in the film. It rules his life and that of his long-suffering daughter, Piku (Deepika Padukone).

The film is built around a road trip that Bhaskor and Piku make from their Delhi home to their ancestral house in Kolkata. They’re accompanied by Rana (Irrfan Khan), a taxi stand owner who ends up chauffeuring them when his driver bails at the last minute. Though there’s an ostensible reason for this trip—Bhaskor has a near-death experience and wants to see his old house, which Piku is secretly thinking of selling —it’s really just a way for director Shoojit Sircar and screenwriter Juhi Chaturvedi to get these personalities to bounce off each other. Some of the best scenes in the film unfold in the car, with Bhaskor imperious and unreasonable, Piku holding on to her sanity with both hands, and Rana looking on in wonderment at the two of them.

When it’s on song, Piku has a lot going for it. Chaturvedi has a knack for writing spiky dialogue and characters with complexities and tics. Moushumi Chatterjee and Jisshu Sengupta do some useful supporting work. There’s great use made of overlapping dialogue, especially in the dinner tables scenes, with everyone eating and arguing at the same time. Instead of big set-pieces, Sircar gives us a series of small showdowns, confrontations and revelations. It isn’t the most arresting of films, but it’s never boring.

Bachchan as Bhaskor will probably divide opinions down the middle. The accent he adopts is almost too Bengali; when he’s acting with actual Bangla speakers in some scenes, you can tell the difference. Yet, he also manages to locate a stubborn charm and moral certitude in his character’s bluster. His scenes with Irrfan, who finds himself in the unaccustomed role of mood-lightener (and acquits himself beautifully), are memorable for their push and pull; the ones with Padukone tilt too heavily in Bachchan’s direction.

Bachchan’s boisterous performance places him at the centre of most scenes, but the film’s emotional lynchpin is its titular character. Padukone has made a career out of underplaying; suggesting rather than serving up emotions. This might be her smartest performance yet. In the beginning, Piku’s so wrapped up in her father’s demands that she has little emotion left for herself. She spends the first half hour frowning with varying degrees of intensity. But as the film progresses and Rana begins to divert Bhaskor’s attention, we see her open up.

All three performances come together spectacularly in one scene. After listening to Bhaskor rant for more than a day, Rana finally loses patience and tells him off. Piku stares at Bhaskor wordlessly, her face strained. You can read so much in her pained gaze: gratitude towards Rana for saying what she could never, sympathy for her father, guilt for wanting to be the one yelling at him. It also serves to illustrate the film’s central quandary: Are we duty-bound to sacrifice our happiness for our parents?

If only Sircar and Chaturvedi hadn’t tried to do for shit what they did for sperm. Their first and best film, Vicky Donor, was about a man who realises his seed is extremely fertile and becomes a successful donor. But ‘sperm’ is still a relatively taboo thing to repeatedly say in a Bollywood film. Joking about constipation and doing one’s business is more juvenile than transgressive. Piku may be a film about difficult fathers and dutiful daughters and charming taxi stand owners, but audiences are likely to leave with crap on their minds.

Piku released in theatres on Friday

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