It would have been fascinating to eavesdrop into the meeting that got Vinod Kapri’s Pihu bankrolled by Ronnie Screwvala and his long-time protege Siddharth Roy Kapur (who turned independent producer recently). Screwvala has been a trailblazing entrepreneur, infusing the mostly family-run Bollywood with a cold, corporate discipline. One can imagine words like ‘gritty’, ‘realistic’ and ‘provocative indie film’ being thrown around like an open packet of gems in the hands of a two-year-old.
Speaking of two-year-olds, Pihu is about a day in the life of a toddler whose parents are mysteriously absent. The mother is ‘present’ – but is she asleep? Unconscious? Dead? What happened to her? No one knows. Kapri’s film doesn’t want to let you ponder about it for too long, so it resolves that within the first 15 minutes of the movie. This is a film that is more intent on ‘observing’ the child, as she endlessly cries for her mother to wake up. She plays around with her mother’s sleeping pills, paints the house with ketchup bottles and jam. The background score of the film alternates between something that sounds like a ‘lullaby’ hammering the point that this is a ‘children’s film’ and an escalating score to cater to the film’s thriller elements.
What Pihu, eventually ends up being (an epidemic within Bollywood) is something that is neither here, nor there. It isn’t honest or inventive enough to cushion the film’s one-line plot stolen from a daily newspaper’s headline (given the director’s credentials as a former journalist). Nor is it smart enough to evoke fear within its audience, purely by manipulation. The only way Pihu could have exploited its two-year-old protagonist more, was if the makers strapped a GoPro on the child’s head and made it a first-person vantage point of the day. This film isn’t too different from those gimmicky found-footage films – where you stop feeling altogether, once you’ve seen through the director’s repulsive intentions.
There’s obviously a two-year-old child hysterically crawling around a penthouse, with broken glass pieces, slippery floors, phenyl that looks like milk, rickety chairs, easily accessible gas stoves and electrical appliances. You know what the director is trying to cash in on, and instead of giving us any insight into the child’s parents (whose equation plays an important part in the plot) he revels in these select moments, something the director surely described as ‘heart-stopping’ in his sales pitch of this ‘art film’.
Only a few months ago, Screwvala produced another infuriating, by-the-numbers ‘content-driven film’ – Karwaan. That film too had its many ‘unplugged elements’ like Prateek Kuhad songs, a writer/director coming straight off a web series, an ensemble of Irrfan Khan, a YouTube personality (Mithila Palkar) and a Malayalam star/actor (Dulquer Salmaan) – the last two making their Bollywood debuts. One can think of the many reasons why the seasoned producer would bet on these relatively not-so-expensive films, that values ‘content’ more than a stars. Now, only if filmmaking could be aced with the help of in-depth PowerPoint presentations alone.
Just like the tweaked climax of Dhadak (from Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat), Pihu is designed to elicit shock. It has absolutely no insight of its own. What was the purpose of this stunt? To investigate nuclear families or to provide a commentary on urban loneliness? I would be fascinated to hear the director answer these questions. Also, Ronnie Screwvala can back ‘content-driven’ films as long there is a certain degree of honesty in them. Pihu is a gravely deceitful film, that resembles a ‘crime scene reconstruction’ of a seedy news channel.
To paraphrase the Joker from The Dark Knight, “this country deserves a better class of films with child protagonists”.