Recently, I’ve been playing this game on facebook – in which I say my favourite thing about the people who ask me to. It is lovely, emotionally draining and cathartic. More relevantly, though, it has become a parade of me asking myself, why am I sad I’m not this person? Why can I not even conceivably be this person? And that is usually my favourite thing about that person; this is not an accident – Elementary‘s Sherlock Holmes agrees with me:
one of the things I’ve gained from our collaboration is a working definition of the word “friendship.” Friendship, I’ve come to believe, is most accurately defined as two people moving towards the best aspects of one another.
Not long after I played this game (well, began playing this game; I still have two people left), I was watching Shoojit Sircar and Juhi Chaturvedi’s Piku.
There’s a scene early on in which Deepika Padukone’s Piku, Amitabh Bachchan’s Bhaskor, and a maid are fighting. The maid is angry because Bhaskor is the most irascible sahib in the history of five distinct worlds, an unrelentingly suspicious crotchety old man. Bhaskor is… um, convinced that she stole the phenyl. And Piku is annoyed as hell that her unbearable arse of a father has scared away yet another maid, and deperately wants the maid to stay on. But, he’s her father dammit! She’ll be damned – damned – if she lets down the side! These conflicting feelings, that drive much of the movie, are both treated with equal legitimacy by Piku; Bhaskor is a person of his own, a fully-formed character, and the Miss Chaturvedi and Mr Sircar will be damned – damned – if they bestow judgement on him (to clarify, I’m not saying the movie portrays him in a positive or even neutral light, just that it lets Bhaskor choose his own light).
I spend a considerable amount of effort steering myself away from serious engagement with people I foresee a lack of compatibility with; I have very little patience for people in general. Which means, if I wrote Bhaskor, he’d be a foil, and strictly that. Not only do I not have the ability to breathe life into any of the character in this movie, let alone Bhaskor, but I also have trouble even feeling that such people are real; ultimately, my favourite thing about Piku is that it couldn’t conceivably have been made by me.
In fact, this goes a lot deeper. And the best way to understand that is via something that Manoj Gopalakrishnan, the founder and director of my improv group (and a professor at my institute), said. Paraphrasing him (liberally), one way – the most common way – to plot a piece of fiction is to plot it, map out the cause and effect and (ideally) insert living breathing characters in the middle of the hurly-burly. Watching Piku, it is very easy to feel like it’s not going much of anywhere (an interesting relation to the same pair’s Vicky Donor whose plot takes so many sharp turns that it was a wonder what a pleasurable watch it was – if you don’t believe me… quick, what was the theme of that movie?).
That’s because these movies are not plotted around plot; it’s just a bunch of characters with certain relattionships being around each other, with the occassional feathery nudge from the writers to change the situation (or, in conspicuously incongruous moments like the one right after the interval of Piku, to dig it out of a hole). At this point the characters would have resistance from the parents? Awesome, now this is a movie about lovers getting their parents to look beyond regional prejudices. At this point the characters would continue to shout at each other about the same things? Awesome, story momentum is for noobs anyway.
This is not how movies are structured. Most movies have a particular theme in mind, a particular arc, and even if they have great characters they find themselves the need to keep the momentum on (this is as true of Godard’s incomprehensible thingies as Action Jackson). So much so, I often consider the central stance of a movie to be the direction of an arc (as opposed to the directions it did not take). These movies, however, while they have arcs, have arcs only as subsidiary things, emergent phenomena of the people and the little nudges.
It’s this fact that makes this pair’s work as touching and affecting – and alien to me – as it is. Not only are they people who are intimately familiar with the normal middle class person, not only are they people who can show the sensibilities of their characters (main owner hoon driver nahin, Irrfan Khan, and literally everyone else, repeatedly opines) as mere facts rather than value judgements (an incredibly hard feat, since the inclusion of a scene in a movie is attached to an implicit claim that this is something the makers want you to take notice of), but they are also people who give their characters so much space that they can fill up the screen. It’s not often, after all, that the big B immerses himself into a role and loses his Bachchan-ness; there’s just no way he could have done this movie with the Bachchan-ness intact.