Curse of the comeback? Part One of Five: Madhuri Dixit in “Aaja Nachle” (2007)

This is part one of a five part series looking at whether heroine-oriented comebacks are doomed to fail.

The first film looked at is Madhuri Dixit’s return to the big screen in late 2007’s “Aaja Nachle”, her first film since her memorable turn as Chandramukhi in “Devdas”, over five years earlier.

Madhuri Dixit, in fact made two comebacks – a second in 2012 with the film Dedh Ishqiya, which included the song “Hamari Atariya” which made the list of top 10 “anti-item songs” in a previous post, and as mentioned in said post, the film is unusual and provocative in several ways that warrant greater analysis generally outside this theme of “cursed” comebacks.

“Aaja Nachle” is a rather different comeback from “Dedh Ishqiya” as well, as Dixit did not, in fact, move back to India from the US, where she settled after marriage to an American, until late 2011, the same year as she began judging on the TV talent series Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa (the Indian version of Strictly Come Dancing/Dancing with the Stars).

The film was met with some positive, but largely mixed critical response, and disappointed at the box office. Given Madhuri Dixit’s still iconic status and lasting popularity, why this film didn’t succeed warrants analysis to determine if it was as it was a heroine-oriented comeback. This will help to decide whether all such comebacks are “cursed” and doomed to fail commercially.

Once again – here’s the SPOILER alert. Whilst far from a perfect film, watching “Aaja Nachle” is still recommended, and here’s the trailer below:

So, what actually works about “Aaja Nachle”?:

This is a dance film that actually has a plot and a message, and its interesting even if the film itself is not so sure:

The plot of the film sees Madhuri Dixit’s character Dia, return to the dance theatre where she first learnt to dance, to find it laid to waste and she is informed that her instructor has already passed away.

A video make by her teacher Makarand before he passed, specifically with a message for Dia shows him leaving as his final wish that the dance theatre Ajanta, which due to be demolished, is saved from destruction, as the land is due to be redeveloped as a shopping mall.

Dia meets with the local MP, Raja Uday Singh (played by Akshaye Khanna), to advocate in favour of preserving Ajanta, but on first meeting she berates him for keeping her waiting and mistakenly assumes he is too young to be the MP, and that he is rather the MP’s son. He dismisses the Ajanta theatre as ruins, and when Dia disagrees, he asks “you aren’t some activist type, are you?”. Both Dia and Uday emphasise that she is from New York (rather than Shamli).

MP Singh: Many NRIs like you come every other year for some social service and then go back. 

I suggest you do the same.

Dia: So you’re going to knock down our cultural heritage on a whim?

MP Singh: The day the people of Shamli can make a living off cultural heritage I’ll call you. Until then, let me do my job.

Dia: Is making a living all there is to life? Isn’t a little joy important?

She follows by promising to host “India’s biggest show ever” at Ajanta

MP Singh: Once the show’s over you and your team will leave for New York, and Ajanta will just be the way it is. In ruins.

He makes her an offer – if she puts on a show with only actors, singers and dancers from Shamli, he will leave Dia to do with Ajanta as she pleases. She agrees but not enthusiastically, presumably as she is quite aware of the mammoth task she is undertaking. She has two months to put on the show, but shows a greater confidence and fight in declaring she doesn’t need any more time. The stakes are not a particularly subtly flirtatious game.

However there is an argument here – what is the role of NRIs in influencing India? Do they stop caring? What is the meaning of returning and “giving back”? What role do they have to play and is it the right one? Where do the people who stay in (especially) small-town India fit into that? Through the prism of this conversation, and others throughout the movie, this idea is explored and the back on forth on what are the true answers to these difficult questions in a world of migration, of leaving, and of returning.

In the very next scene Dia declares: I’m Shamli’s whether she wants me or not.

Her daughter asks if they are going home to which Dia confirms. They arrive at her parents home and to the confused questions by her daughter she answers “[t]his is home”.

She has a “House That Built Me” moment where the new resident is bothered by her presence, yet the house still retains significant meaning for Dia. Bizarrely, they agree to rent Dia a room in the house.

She corrects her homesick daughter’s broken Hindi, refuses to return to the US (does her kid not have this thing called school?), and remains determined to revitalise Ajanta, as a symbol of her undying commitment to her hometown and home country, irrespective of whether she has established a life in the US or not. She determinedly prepares a poster advertising the show and will not give up despite the locals reaction (Nawazuddin Siddiqui is shown among the locals reacting to the poster), nor that Dia remains notorious in her hometown.

The songs – specifically, the title song “Aaja Nachle”:

“Aaja Nachle” is the best song of the film, and a spectacular performance, but it was unfortunately embroiled in a controversy before the film even released, around a lyric that was perceived to support caste discrimination (and fortunately later changed, but only after UP, Rajasthan and Haryvana announced they were banning the film). This poor PR around the film can’t have helped with creating a buzz around Madhuri’s return to the silver screen that the popularity of this song and her performance could have helped create.

The dance performance understandably goes down a storm with Shamli, but her speech that follows about heritage preservation is less well received. She announces they will put on a show in two months, to the amusement of the audience.

The show-within-the-film “Laila-Manju”, starts around 25 minutes before the end of the film and appears a delight.

These scenes are some of the most compelling in the film – especially captivating is the parts with Madhuri as the play’s narrator. If you have twenty minutes to spare, its well worth a (re)-watch:

Dia’s dynamic with Akshaye Khanna’s character MP Raja Uday Singh, shows they have good chemistry and their conversations lead to some of the most interesting dialogues in the film:

One short interaction between Uday and Dia’s daughter Radha serves a humorous, meta wink at the audience:

Radha: [to her mother, Dia] Can we go back to New York now?

Uday: That is a really good idea.

Radha: Sorry?

Uday: Well, I mean everybody else has gone and maybe so should you.

Radha: Who are you?

Uday: I’m the bad guy.

Dia’s first performance for Shamli since returning, of the title song, is followed by a direct interaction between the two of them. Despite the fight, he can’t help but compliment Madhuri, sorry, Dia, on her dancing skills. She purrs with confidence in response.

Uday: By the way, you dance very well.

Dia: I know.

Whilst the dynamic is left relatively unexplored, other than the aforementioned interactions, there is a truce made between them at the end of the film, which leave the audience to fill in the rest.

This happens, just as Ajanta is saved, when Dia is set to leave (the timing for which seems sudden) and is explained in the conversation below:

Uday: Don’t you think this city needs you?

Dia: This city needs itself. I just needed to come back once. I’ve fulfilled my responsibility.

Uday: I enjoyed fighting you

Dia: Me too

Uday: Don’t you think we should have another round?

Dia: What?

Uday: You liked it. I liked it. There must be something more to it?

Dia: I don’t like fighting without a reason

Radha hands her mother’s New York phone number to Uday (so she obviously approves of this “bad guy” in the end).

Where the film “went wrong” so to speak – and what could have been done to correct its course:

The set up of the film is bloated, detracts from getting into the plot, and wastes time that could be spent on showing Dia’s equations with Shamli’s residents in the current timeline:

Aaja Nachle opens with a dance scene – with Madhuri dancing (initially alone in the first part, and then joined by a class behind her) to a dated-sounding, English-language song (“Dance With Me”). We understand from this scene not only has Madhuri not lost any of her dancing ability, but she is playing a dance instructor in the film, presumably teaching somewhere in the West.

She receives an emergency call from India this is confirmed. Madhuri, as dance instructor Dia, takes the call. She learns her own inspiring dance teacher is dying and flies back to India with her daughter in tow. Her daughter asks her why they are going there when she swore never to go back. We cut to a flashback scene 11 years before in Shamli (cue classical dance steps to a Hindi song).

We are introduced to Steve, a photographer from National American Geographic shooting Indian dancers. They go for food and Dia orders extra spicy pakodas to his surprise in a light-hearted moment. Through a montage we follow their courtship and the disapproval of the locals. Her father slaps her on the way home and he and her mother announce they have arranged her marriage. With the blessing of her dance instructor and life teacher, Makarand, she elopes with Steve, leaving her family and home behind. Her betrothed is jilted and her parents leave town in shame.

It is narrated that Steve and Dia soon divorced, but that she was already pregnant, following which she embraced and found happiness in her role as a single mother.

Her American-born daughter asks: What are those cows doing in the middle of the road?

Madhuri: Welcome to India!

This is all rather cumbersome, and rather it would have been better to start the film with Dia’s return to Shamli, and for the reasons for her departure and the consequences they led to in terms of her reception back home, to be gradually revealed throughout the film.

The over-focus on supporting characters and set up of, essentially, a quite simple plot rather than focusing on Madhuri’s character, Dia, and her arc:

“Aaja Nachle” attempted to make space for character development for each of its key characters. In a film with a large supporting cast such as “Aaja Nachle”, this is beyond ambitious and becomes detrimental to the quality of the film. In a television series where characters each have space and time to develop individual and intertwining arcs over several hours, this is possible. But in a film, even if its a two and a half hour Hindi film, this becomes impossible to do and do with any great depth, meaning or authenticity.

The moments when the film focused on Dia’s character development, specifically her changing thoughts on the meaning of home, were some of the strongest and most engaging in the film, but were all too short, too infrequent and left under-explored. This seemed primarily due to time dedicated to the arcs of Imran, Anokhi, Farooque, Chaudhary, Najma, Mohan and Mr Chojar who all end up at different places than when they started the film. This should be evidence of a well-thought out plot, but in the light of the fact the film is a massy entertainer celebrating the return of Madhuri Dixit and throwing in dance songs for good measure, rather than an epic drama or character study, this distracts rather than attracts.

To compare with “Aaja Nachle” writer and producer Aditya Chopra’s release the following year, “Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi”, similarly a film where dance plays an important role within the plot itself – in RNBDJ, unlike “Aaja Nachle” the focus remains squarely on the lead character, in this case Shah Rukh Khan’s, and carries the audience through his journey and development. His co-star in Anushka Sharma also gets a character arc to play, but beyond this, the focus is on these core characters, at the expense perhaps of supporting roles. It does, however, allow for one of SRK’s most entertaining and compelling performances hidden within a frothy masala film. A similar vehicle for Madhuri Dixit to demonstrate her abilities is lost within this film, peeking out at certain moments but drowning in the multitude of other characters taking attention from hers.

Interestingly, to take the comparison further – the key ingredients RNBDJ also had, beyond SRK’s star wattage, included the launch of a now major star in Anushka Sharma, and notably, the inclusion of a wonderful dance scene – an escapist celebration of Hindi film history, with cameos from five different heroines in Kajol, Preity Zinta, Bipasha Basu, Lara Dutta and Rani Mukherji (with SRK’s “Dil To Pagal Hai” co-star in Madhuri Dixit perhaps the notable omission). Such a scene with Madhuri alongside the three Khans and maybe Anil Kapoor and Akshay Kumar or Ajay Devgan would have likely been received rapturously. Or even shake it up further and have say, Sridevi, Juhi Chawla, Kajol, Karisma Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai?

Similarly, there are a confusing number of male suitors – it would have been more interesting to focus on one or, at most, two, in order to establish a meaningful dynamic with Dia:

It would have been preferable to either understand why marriage to Steve failed (and cast a real actor, not just a random white guy) and solve the bloated set up as a result, or ideally if the whole introductory section would be cut and have the film start with Dia’s return to Shamli after several years, and have her past be revealed as part of the gossip spread by Najma later on, there would be even less focus on the character of Steve who ultimately functions merely as a plot point to move the story along.

Alternatively, Mohan could become the main love interest and be an advert for the small town guy (and Indian) with simple values over the exotic foreigner, with an extra dash of patriotism never going amiss in terms of turning a Hindi film into a success, or alternatively (and preferably) have Mohan’s character merged with the Uday character (that is make Uday the jilted fiancé who has become the politician he has in the meantime), or cut Mohan’s character from the script entirely.

The problematic (if unoriginal) advice Dia gives to Anokhi in order to win over Imran is inconsistent with Dia’s characterisation as independently-minded, empowered woman and that any man in her life would be wanted and want her, rather than needed or require her to change who she is:

Dia gives romantic advice to Anokhi, who proclaims to unrequitedly love Imran, despite him treating her poorly and even threatening her at one point. In this context, the advice to smarten her appearance to impress him and to play hard to get are obvious and not exactly women-empowering.

It would have been better to see Dia advise Anokhi in gaining confidence and self-esteem, achieving in the show for its own merits and it might have been good to show a boy in Shamli with whom she has more in common and treats her better (in your Hollywood romantic comedy this would be the previously unnoticed best friend or older brother of the best friend). Or alternatively Imran could have grown up and apologised to Anokhi. Whilst he does mature later in the film, he rather shares his feelings but there is no real apology for his former behaviour towards her.

This is scene between Dia and Anokhi followed by Irrfan Khan’s character Farooque confirming himself as our bad guy as he attempts to scupper the attempts to put on the show, by attempting to influence Uday and then yells at his wife, Dia’s old friend Najma, about how his business interests may be hampered if Ajanta is saved. Her asks her to spread gossip in the town about Dia to increase the chances that the show is a failure.

Farooque: Artists are free spirited but she’s too free.

First there was that American.

Then she left her parents.

This presents a strange (if perhaps, human) contradiction between Dia’s free spiritedness and self-confidence in the face of social pressure and judgement of others, and the advice she gives to Anokhi.

Mohan, who continues to have unrequited feelings for Dia, meanwhile, speaks to Imran and tells him to confess his feelings to Anokhi before time runs out, with the obvious sub-text of his own feelings for Dia.

Farooque manages to bribe Chaudhary to switch his allegiances back from Ajanta and Dia. Chaudhary is confronted by Imran who stands up for Ajanta and says he has finally come to his senses. Anokhi fights to defend him from the attacks that follow. This is a turning point for Imran when he realises he prefers Anokhi’s good character to the strong men types he has followed before, and that he cares for her more than he had realised.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s bit-part character gets to reveal to the remainder of the cast and Dia that Farooque bribed Chaudhary to oppose Ajanta again, and that Najma was speaking ill or Dia, to her and Mohan’s shock and disbelief.

Dia: You were right. Who was I to be a martyr to this city’s cause?

When people said I’d leave for America after this show, they were right.

It’s unfair of me to leave you with this mess. If you stand by me Shamli will make life difficult for you. So whoever wants to can leave, I won’t hold it against you.

Her daughter is first to respond: I’m not leaving.

None of the cast choose to leave and in fact Najma arrives to apologise and step in in the role of Laila’s mother.

Dia’s return to Shamli is shown to have ultimately inspired her friend Najma to stand up to her husband and refuse to support gossip and social shaming:

Dia: You’ve always been fearless Dia, and I, afraid.

I spent my life married to a man who was married to his business.

But Dia, when I realised that, my fear vanished.

It’s been years since I danced. Or lived. Teach me to dance once again Dia. To live.

Madhuri’s reaction to the whole town turning out for the show is a delight. She is genuinely relieved. This moment where we see she does care about what the town thinks is well sold, but would have been more interested if not for this lapse earlier in her advice to Anokhi.

Spending more time on establishing truly what Dia’s principles were around needing (or not) the approval of others and reflecting this consistently, including in the advice given to Anokhi, and her relationship with Najma, would have strengthened the authenticity of the characters in the film and the audience identification with them.

The lack of youth icon factor for what is, essentially, a dance film a la ABCD 2 or Madhuri Dixit’s own “Dil To Pagal Hai”:

“Aaja Nachle” could have cast two youth icons as the characters of Imran and Anokhi, who then play the lead roles of Manju and Laila in the show performed by the residents of Shamli. Interestingly, looking at today’s cohort of big stars outside the Khans, three current big stars in Ranbir Kapoor, Sonam Kapoor and Deepika Padukone debuted in Hindi cinema just three weeks before “Aaja Nachle” released.

Another, Anushka Sharma, debuted a year later in another YRF production, and in 2007, the likes of Kareena Kapoor, Shahid Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra were starting in their careers and have since proved themselves more than capable of both the acting and dancing sides of being a Hindi film hero or heroine.

The dance film – the 90s hit “Dil To Pagal Hai” with Madhuri alongside Shah Rukh Khan and Karisma Kapoor, still retains a youthful energy and excitement even as it has dated with the passing of time and our three leads are no longer believable as characters within the same moment in life as Pooja, Rahul and Nisha.

A more recent dance film that exploded at the box office was the Shraddha Kapoor and Varun Dhawan starrer, last year’s “ABCD 2” (or “Anybody Can Dance 2”), did much to further cement both Shraddha and Varun’s status as among the youth icons of Hindi film today.

Lack of casting of top dancers alongside Madhuri:

Two of Madhuri’s most popular dance tracks in the last 15-20 years have been “Ghagra”, alongside Ranbir Kapoor in his 2013 hit film “Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani”, and “Dola Re Dola” in “Devdas” alongside Aishwarya Rai.

Part of the reason Madhuri’s cameo in the song “Ghagra” and her performance in “Dola Re Dola” were so celebrated was not just the wonderful choreography for either song, but that audiences got to see Dixit dance with a younger icon celebrated for their dance skills.

This further proves that by focusing on the authenticity of the supporting characters’ journeys as amateur dancers from beginners to performers, and casting accordingly, the opportunity to see Madhuri Dixit dance alongside a Shahid Kapoor or a Deepika Padukone was lost. These would have been sure to on-screen magic and meant that the film failed to capitalise on the combination of nostalgia for the grace, elegance and execution of Dixit in video songs from “Ek To Deen” right up to0 “Maar Dala” and their enthusiasm for new stars (such as for Kareena and Shahid in “Yeh Ishq Hai” and “Mauja Hi Mauja” from the (then) recently released hit, “Jab We Met”.

This is potent combination something that was either released later and contributed to the success of her stint on the small screen dancing show “Jhalak Dikhhla Jhaa”, or ended up as a retrospective proof of the potential success of this formula (only took a few years).

A failure to make full and appropriate use of a number of wonderful actors:

In addition to Madhuri herself, who acts with ease when she is given any meaty emotion to deal with in this film, Aaja Nachle discretely has some of India’s most acclaimed actors among the supporting cast – three National Award winners in fact in Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Irrfan Khan and Konkona Sen Sharma.

Konkona, however, has never been a youth icon in the mould as described above, and could have been better cast however as say a reworked version of Najma as Dia’s younger sister married to an older man and Dia’s last family connection in Shamli. Konkona Sen Sharma’s award-winning acting skills alongside Irrfan Khan would have been a more interesting pairing and the gaining of confidence and reconciliation between Najma and Dia could have carried more weight.

As mentioned above, the film could have rather launched or promoted two youth icons as Laila and Manju (any from among star kids Ranbir Kapoor, Sonam Kapoor, Deepika Padukone, Anushka Sharma, Imran Khan, who were all launched in 2007-2008, or newly established stars such as Shahid Kapoor, Kareena Kapoor, Katrina Kaif and Priyanka Chopra).

It would also work better to recast Nawazuddin Siddiqui (admittedly at the time, he was not as celebrated an actor as he has become) as the rival politican to Akshaye Khanna’s MP Raja Uday Singh. Siddiqui would have made a lot of a role as the opportunistic and morally and ethically dubious Chaudhary Om Singh and it would have been great to see Madhuri Dixit interact with him more. The plot could have played up the rivalries between these two politicians further and swing back and forth on who both the audience and Dia identify with, and with Irrfan Khan’s character kept as the out and out bad guy (though redeemed at the end).

Conclusion:

Ultimately the film is far from a bad one. Actually, its enjoyable, entertaining fair, that has a feel-good, uplifting ending. It weaves in authentic messages and arguments about the meaning of home, community and tradition without, for the most part, contradicting a strong theme of women’s empowerment and supporting a woman’s right to make her own decisions and not to be judged for them as a man wouldn’t be.

Madhuri Dixit lights up the screen and continues to possess that movie star charisma – her years away from films seem to have done nothing to diminish that. Her dancing continues to be (even now, nine years after this was released), unparalleled in how much it is celebrated (justifiably). This film adds to Dixit’s canon that prove her ability and will sit among her legacy in cinema.

However, the film is not without flaws, and these largely contributed to the film’s underwhelming performance at the box office. The film focused far too much on making time for a large supporting cast, who, whilst containing a number of supremely talented actors, could have been more appropriately cast.

Despite Dixit’s dancing ability, an opportunity was missed to cast alongside her a number of young, popular actors, highly-skilled and celebrated for their dancing to satisfy audience curiosity of how they “match up” against her. That her most popular dance songs in recent years follow this pattern is not a coincidence.

The premise of “Aaja Nachle” in principle works. It had huge potential to work as a vehicle to relaunch Madhuri Dixit in Hindi cinema. Its failure to do so as much as it perhaps should however, therefore lie at the feet of the, at times, inappropriate use of the supporting cast, missed opportunities with the video songs, and particularly, too much distraction away from a focus on Madhuri Dixit’s character, and her own character’s development. If these key points had been addressed, there is no reason to believe “Aaja Nachle” couldn’t have been a hit.

Verdict: “Aaja Nachle” has enough going for it, and identifiable missteps that prove this film was NOT cursed, or destined to fail just because it happened to be heroine-oriented. Any such “curse” is not proven by “Aaja Nachle”.

Found this interesting?:

Piku (2015)

“Piku” starring Deepika Padukone, Amitabh Bachchan and Irrfan Khan, is, as the trailer comically shows, about constipation. Really, however, the character-driven film tackles relationships between fathers and daughters by looking at a unique one in depth. The question is, does it say anything new about this dynamic or does the film merely retread old ground with a gimmicky twist?

In the two films discussed in depth so far on Women in Bollywood, the 2014 release Queen and this year’s Neerja, we see the heroines able to gain confidence and self-esteem in a context where they have positive and supportive relationships with their fathers, who offer emotional support, encourage and believe in them, and allow them to make their own decisions. Despite this relationship taking a back-seat to Neerja’s heroics or Rani’s adventures, I noted this factor when watching both films, especially so as they were both played by the same actor (Yogendra Tiku).

The fathers of Rani and Neerja contrast with some famous fathers of Hindi cinema, some memorable examples from the last 25 years are picked out below –

  • Nandini’s father in ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’ (1999) – he is opposed to Nandini’s relationship with Sameer as he has already arranged her marriage with Vanraj, with the classical singer quitting singing in protest
  • Zaara’s father in ‘Veer Zaara’ (2004) – Zaara cannot realise her romantic relationship with Veer due to a perceived need to protect her politician father’s reputation and the taboo around Indian-Pakistani relationships
  • Jaggu’s father in ‘PK’ (2014) presumes Sarfaraz will betray Jaggu similarly due to the Indian-Pakistani divide, with the Muslim-Hindu religious angle emphasised in this film which revolves around misuse of religion
  • Simran’s father in ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’ (1995) – and Raj’s attempts to win his approval forming the crux of the plot of the second half of the film

Given that father-son relationships (and to a lesser extent, mother-daughter) relationships are more commonly portrayed in culture, I would propose by referencing the examples above as evidence that the father-daughter relationship is given more prominence in Hindi cinema than other film cultures.

So against this backdrop, can we consider the relationship between Piku and Bhakshor Bhanerji as a potential new paradigm of the father-daughter relationship? I propose for discussion a motion that the film “Piku” revolves significantly around establishing a new understanding of or paradigm for father-daughter relationships in modern-day India, and this subject far outweighs the importance of the attention grabbing and more humorous theme of dealing with constipation.

The evidence for and against the motion is discussed below. The usual SPOILER alert applies here – so if you haven’t seen the film, go watch and come back. The trailer for “Piku” is below.

Exhibit A: Piku’s professional success and head of household role

Case for the motion “Piku establishes a new paradigm for father-daughter relationships”:

Piku Bhanerji, our heroine portrayed by leading lady Deepika Padukone, is shown as the breadwinner and head of household. The film demonstrates this reality unapologetically both within the film and towards the audience. The household consists of Piku and her father, Bhaskor Bhanerji, as her mother has passed away and Piku takes care of her father in her mother’s absence. She remains a working woman however, and is shown as undoubtedly and unashamedly accomplished in her career.

Piku’s profession as an architect is interesting in that in Hollywood cinema and television the sensitive, creative but dependable romantic hero is consistently an architect by trade to the point of it becoming an absurdly boring trope. In Hindi films this trope is less common, but can even been seen seeping into the Western-influenced, multiplex-targeted films, such as ‘Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu’ where Imran Khan’s character is, you’ve guessed it, an architect.

Deciding Deepika’s character, as a new kind of heroine in Piku, would be an architect, has similar connotations of creativity combining with professional and financial success. That she is shown comfortably navigating the office environment reinforces this, whilst primarily used for the purpose of humour and establishing her dynamics with both her father Bhaskor and with Rana Chaudhary, the taxi company owner and Piku’s potential love interest. When Piku decides she needs to take a few days break from the office, her business partner Syed he questions “how am I supposed to run this firm?”, emphasising her indispensable nature to daily running of the business. Piku is not riding on anyone’s coattails.

It is worth also considering that architecture is a profession which requires years of study and sacrifice to even become qualified, beyond traditionally either marriageable age or at which most individuals have already entered the job market and are earning an income. Piku’s professional success is testament to an environment where this career choice and the time invested in studying would have need to have been supported.

Case against the motion:

A low key movie which had limited success in ‘Bewakoofiyan’ released the year before, showed Sonam Kapoor’s character Mayera as a higher earner and more successful businesswoman, and this set no new paradigm.

We also don’t see or hear too much of Bhaskor’s opinion explicitly towards Piku’s career and earnings, and it is not clear if or how he has supported her to become successful at all as this happens outside the timeline of the movie.

Exhibit B: Piku is shown as possessing a strong and unrelenting personality, and a willingness to question and challenge her father. She is presented as strong-minded and opinionated, and considered difficult to deal with by a number of different characters in the film. Notably this includes the taxi drivers reluctant to speed on her behalf, propelling the introduction and involvement of Irrfan Khan’s character, Rana Chaudhary, the owner of the taxi company.

Case in favour:

This presents a new paradigm of how fathers and daughters can love unconditionally but speak candidly. Fathers accept being challenged by their daughters and daughters do so without restraint.

Piku’s outspoken, blunt and even stubborn traits, however, are not shown as deep character flaws but rather humanise both Piku and her father, and establish their bond as somewhat similar personalities with differing but overlapping approaches and perspectives to life. Piku can understand Bhaskor even when she doesn’t agree with him, and Bhaskor can understand Piku.

Nevertheless, Piku is firmly the one in charge despite her father’s cantankerous nature. The film literally opens with her telling her father what to do. At the end of the film it is also Piku who makes the final decision about what to do with the house. Throughout the film she will openly chastise her father when she feels he is in the wrong, and whilst he will stick up for himself, his opinions and beliefs, he doesn’t deny her having her own opinions or berate her for challenging him.

Piku is shown at times as demanding, argumentative, and even aggressive. Or alternatively she is assertive, in charge, someone who knows what she wants with leadership potential. Quite remarkably for a piece of popular entertainment however, Piku is not held to a double standard for these traits as men usually aren’t (see the Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s campaign “Ban Bossy” or “I’m Not Bossy. I’m the Boss” for what is meant by this – [link below]):

That Piku isn’t held to this double standard by her father, believing that if he is grumpy and difficult then Piku has the right to be to, lays the foundations for this lack of a double standard in the film as a whole and in the audience perception of the characters. We as an audience are still expected to root for Piku and Bhaskor, and understand Piku’s perspective in particular as our heroine and protagonist.

Case against the motion:

Bhaskor’s cantankerous nature is a different, but ultimately equally inhibiting, obstacle to Piku’s freedom. Her response to his behaviour and how it affects her own is merely that which induced by having to live with him for years and deal with this reality on a daily basis.

Bhaskor creates a number of problems that Piku has to deal with due to his hypochondria and all round grumpiness – from the message left for Piku at the office, to his accusations and paranoia leading to changing maids 5 times in 2 months, to Piku being interrupted by updates on his [normal] condition whilst on a dinner date.

After this latter incident and Piku’s complaining that her date didn’t go well, she is asked by Syed if her father called her which she confirms. This is followed by an argument around the reaction to this response and the subtext is that Piku feels she shouldn’t have to defend caring about her father, but that Syed sees this as the reason for her disappointing date and overall singledom.

Conversations early on between Piku and Bhaskor include some revelatory lines including, in the first instance, following the latest departure of a maid working in the house:

Piku:  Dad, we live in a society where we have to maintain relations with some people.

And when Piku has skipped out on a lunch date to calm her father about his hypochondria-induced health concerns:

Bhaskor: I’ve given you full freedom in this house

Piku: What freedom? I had to meet Ankit today for lunch but I’m here with you. Is this how I am going to lead my life? Discussing your shit?

Witness for the case against the motion: Rana Chaudhary

Rana Chaudhary has a number of discussions with Piku during the film where he raises the issue of how Bhaskor’s behaviour limits Piku’s freedom and questions whether she should accept this situation.

Firstly, he tries to clarify if Piku herself is like her father at all:

Rana: Tell me something, you’re really his daughter. I mean?

Piku: Yes I’m his daughter. And ten times stranger, weirder, more irritating, annoying…

Rana: No no no no. I didn’t mean that way.

Piku: No I know what you mean. I know it’s weird its ok. But I am like that.

Once they have gotten to know one another better, he still questions why she has stayed in Delhi to look after her father, asking her why she doesn’t run away and get married.

Later, during the same tour of Kolkata, with the obvious subtext of his own interest in Piku, but his acknowledgement (and likely unwillingness) to deal with her difficult father or his strong feelings against Piku marrying, he asks about her life prospects for the next 20 years, and whether she is willing to sacrifice any chance at marriage and children for her father’s sake. He doesn’t believe Bhaskor’s opposition to this is primarily due to opinions around women’s empowerment or Piku sacrificing her independence, but rather his own dependence on her and selfish concerns about losing her:

Rana: How old is your father? Must be at least 70?

Piku: Exact

Rana: And the way you’re being his doctor, he’ll be around for another 20 years. Which makes him 90.

Piku: Touchwood

Rana: And in the next 20 years, you’ll become 50 approximately?

Piku: So?

Rana: 50 years? Of just taking care of your father?

Piku: One minute. Why are you saying all this? You know my situation. You know he’s dependent on me. Can’t hear or see properly. Should I leave him?

Rana: No no

Piku: How will he manage on his own?

Rana: I am not asking you to leave him. I also haven’t left my mother. I’m just saying, I hope you realise he is a selfish man

Piku: No he’s not

Rana: Yeah he is

Piku: And even if he is, he’s my father.

Rana: If he’s your father then why do you behave like his mother?

Piku: Because Rana after a certain age parents can’t live on their own, they need to be kept alive and that is the responsibility of the kids only. So if someone wants to marry me…

Rana: He’ll have to adopt your 90-year old kid too?

Piku: Of course!

Exhibit C: Bhaskor does not arrange Piku’s marriage, and not only does not stigmatise her non-marital relationships, but berates others who may do so as well.

Case in favour of the motion:

Bhaskor is keen to break taboos, and this seeps into the film more widely as well, most obviously in the explicit discussion of bowel movements in a mainstream film, but equally could be said for its frankness around marriage and sex. Piku and Bhaskor are shown as able to discuss even taboo subjects with one another, even if it is shit, marriage, or sex.

Piku has herself adopted an unapologetic attitude towards her love life, responding Syed, her business partner who questions her meeting up with a “jerk” over lunch by saying “you can’t be so desperate”. Piku’s deadpan response, “Yes, I am. So?”.

Witness in favour of the statement – Mr Bhaskor Banerji

Bhaskor makes a number of statements defending his strong opinion against Piku marrying, rather than leaving it purely to Piku to decide:

Bhaskor: [To Piku] And this. Your relationship status? If you ask me, I think casual is fine. That works for me.

And later, when discussing why he thinks getting married is a “low IQ decision” for a woman, using as evidence his wife’s own experience and the unhappiness the related loss of freedom caused her as a result:

Bhaskor: All her life she just wanted to please me. That was her only purpose. No aim for herself. I wanted her to be independent. But no, she surrendered herself in my service.

And when questioned “so what’s wrong with that?

Bhaskor: Everything is wrong! Throwing away your identity, respect, brain, in the fire whilst taking the seven vows and then leading your life that way, well that is a low IQ decision. I don’t want Piku to take that decision.

Why he is even commenting on the matter rather than leaving the decision to Piku can be attributed rather to his overall personality and lack of tact or diplomacy – as he states “I am a critical person. Brutal and honest.”

His definition of “nice” is not that Piku isn’t moody or a virgin, rather he is proud of Piku for the following reasons, as he describes to a potential suitor:

Bhaskor: She has her own business. She’s financially independent. She’s sexually independent. Need based. Just looking for emotional partnership. So is this ‘nice’ according to you?

Whilst on the journey to Kolkata, Rana is introduced to Bhaskor’s unusual stance on marriage after Piku responds to Bhaskor’s complaining about her buying bangles during a rest stop:

Piku: You’re not going to let me get married. Let me enjoy my bangles at least.

Rana: Seriously? Most people would marry their daughters off they day they are born and he doesn’t want you to get married?

            That’s strange.

            This doesn’t happen even in Western culture.

Bhaskor: Western culture is not the benchmark of progress. Is that clear?

                    We were ahead of them always.

Bhaskor is not short of female historical figures he admires, and can list a number quickly off the top of his head. These are the figures he has raised Piku to try to emulate, rather than valuing marrying and having children above all else. His stubbornness about this issue is to force Piku not to want things because society tells her that she should just because she is a woman:

Bhaskor: That, err, Rani Lakshmibai, Sarojini Naidu and Kandimbini Ganguly, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Annie Besant, all these fine women spent their whole life serving their country. And all she wants to do is please a boy?

Piku: How many times I have told you that Annie Besant wasn’t Indian?

Bhaskor: Still she fought for our country’s independence!

Rana: But all these women were married

Bhaskor explains he is not opposed to marriage per se, but rather marriages which see women sacrifice their other aims and purposes in life in favour of the needs of their husbands:

Bhaskor: Yes, but with a purpose. Marriage is not wrong but it must have a purpose. All a husband wants is that a wife should serve food during the day and sex at night. But is that what a woman is made for? No! That is why marriage without any purpose is low IQ.

When Rana’s reaction is to say that not all women are selfless individuals who willingly sacrifice their needs for others (in the case of marriage – their husbands), and that some are manipulative or scheming, Bhaskor justifies such behaviour by holding women to the same standard as men (and almost revolutionary [given its infrequent nature] yet simple, idea:

Rana: Fine but not all women are nice and simple. You don’t know. Many of them are very manipulative and scheming.

Bhaskor: Women should be scheming, it’s not wrong. Because men are like that. That’s why it’s alright for [Piku] to be scheming.

Case against the motion:

In fact Bhaskor is opposed to the idea of Piku marrying at all. Ultimately this is limiting her ability to make her own choices, or at best, putting undue pressure on her as his daughter to respect and follow her father’s wishes. How this as such in any real sense differs from Nandini’s father in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, or Simran’s in DDLJ who oppose their potential love marriages in favour of ones arranged by them is questionable. In all three cases it is the father’s opinion that matters and determines whether his daughter marries and who.

This means that despite Piku’s assertive and opinionated character, there are certain boundaries she is unwilling to cross. She is not prepared to genuinely challenge her father on the matter of getting married in particular, and this is addressed in the subtext of conversations with Rana, including the one below during the overnight stay in Varanasi, where there is an obvious comparison made with the freedom to drive. Given Rana’s character has returned from working in Saudi Arabia, where women aren’t legally allowed to drive, it addresses the issue of women’s empowerment and whether Piku is determined enough to stand up for her own freedoms and choices. It starts when Piku questions why Rana has categorised some women as ‘scheming’:

Piku: you were calling someone scheming?

Rana: Not you

Piku: Better not

          I would have thrown you out of the car

Rana: How would your Dad have gotten to Kolkata then?

Piku: I would have driven

Rana: Really? Well had I known this earlier, I could have stretched for a bit

           Now you drive tomorrow?

Piku: [shakes her head]        

I don’t like driving

Rana: Why? What do you mean? Women in Saudi are fighting with the government for the right to drive. Even getting themselves in jail. And you say you don’t like driving. It’s weird.

Piku: Not really. Those countries are like that.

Rana: Your country is like that. Moreover, driving liberates a woman.

Piku: Are you saying all this to impress me or you really do respect women?

The next morning Piku is shown in the driving seat and Bhaskor is napping in the back of the car. When he wakes, he is both shocked and irritated to see she is driving the car rather than Rana. She attempts to convince him she is fine, but Bhaskor interjects that she’s never driven on a highway, insists she stop and switches place with Rana. After Piku pulls the car aside and gets out, he encourages her to come back by saying he was only testing her. Whilst this is Bhaskor’s way of apologising, it also sees Piku return to the car but only after handing the keys back over to Rana. In this argument she has given up.

At the end of the film, Piku is confronting her father (shouting through the bathroom door of course), finally questioning his interference in her love life and unconventional approach:

Piku: Yes I have had physical relationships but is this something he needs to tell every man I meet? Meet my daughter, she is not a virgin. Which father does this?

It is interesting to note this is when Bhaskor finally is able to go to the toilet, and after this release he passes quietly in the night. Bhaskor prided himself on supporting his daughter’s independence, frankness and outspokenness, even with him. So when she confronts him about the flaws in his approach, on the issue where she had accepted his perspective as her only possible reality, he is relieved both physically and intellectually. He has his ‘best motion’ ever and is at peace.

Exhibit D: The naming of the film after Piku, the prominence given to Deepika Padukone’s character as the definite protagonist, and the seemingly supportive cast and production company as regards issues of women’s empowerment, freedom to make their own choices and decisions, and unconditional love of families in this context. By putting the daughter centre stage, and committing to discussing such issues within the context of the film, which revolves around Piku and Bhaskor’s relationship, the cast and crew appear committed to putting across new ideas.

Case for the motion:

All of these factors look like they are clearly determined to set a new paradigm. That this superhit film, starring the internationally successful Irrfan Khan (seen in Life of Pi, Jurassic World, Slumdog Millionaire, and internationally acclaimed Hindi film, 2013’s “The Lunchbox”), and Hindi cinema’s greatest living legend in Amitabh Bachchan, is even considered a “heroine-oriented” film is somewhat remarkable.

Yet it is accurate.

Piku is the protagonist, it is her viewpoint we as an audience see most clearly, and the journey she goes on (non-literally in this meaning) is mirrored by those watching in terms of understanding her relationship with her father. Outside the film itself, Deepika Padukone was the bankable star that allowed this film to be the big success it was, drawing in huge audiences who had enjoyed her performances in previous blockbusters.

Check the collections of recent Amitabh Bachchan or Irrfan Khan movies (with Pink excluded as an outlying exception). Talvar, Madaari, Wazir, Shamitabh or Te3n did not gross anywhere near the same kind of figures as Piku. Padukone’s releases meanwhile, see there is a spike in collections wherever she features, in a way that some of her most bankable contemporaries such as Anushka Sharma (Bombay Velvet) and Kangana Ranaut (Katti Batti) have not even been able to match. Padukone is a bonafide superstar that justifies her fee and status as Bollywood’s highest earning heroine.

Shootjit Sircar and Amitabh Bachchan, meanwhile, by making and acting in “Piku”, and now mostly recently also the film “Pink” – which even more explicitly covers issues around gender equality, have set themselves as “allies” on the subject of women’s empowerment.

This stance puts them in a category with others such as ‘Cocktail’ director Homi Adajania, who also cast Deepika in a short video on women’s empowerment which released around the same time as Piku, titled “My choice” (see below):

Case against the motion:

My choice, Pink, and for the purpose of this discussion, of course “Piku” as well, arguably present themselves as providing a platform for women’s voices by putting them centre stage, but ultimately their direction and often also their words are determined by men. How a reality exists where male directors and actors are unquestionably celebrated for supporting women’s empowerment and female actors are, for example, considered as ungrateful and greedy for even mentioning the drastic pay disparity, makes it difficult for films which are directed by men and which prominently feature male icons of cinema such as Amitabh Bachchan to truly enable a platform for rather than silencing of, women’s voices.

Notably, the already beloved Mr Bachchan received his forth National Film Award for Best Actor, and superstar heroine Padukone was snubbed, a missed opportunity to award a strong performance and continued bold career choices whilst at the peak of her fame, popularity and earning potential. The role of Bhaskor Bhanerji is certainly a showier one than that of Piku, but I am going out on a limb her to give a bold opinion that Deepika Padukone’s performance is more complex, nuanced, creates a more realistic and believable character as a result, and as such was ultimately even more deserving for recognition.

Director Shoojit Sircar was also celebrated for his efforts in the film, catapulting his career to greater heights. Story, screenplay and dialogue writer Juhi Chaturvedi received less high-profile acclaim (although notably Piku won National Award also for Best Screenplay/Dialogues, these were shared with Tanu Weds Manu Returns). Whilst this is somewhat typical of an industry unaccustomed to recognising and rewarding scriptwriters, for this film in particular it is notable given the strong writing necessary for what is a character-based drama with comedic elements on a taboo and unusual subject. It is also meant that Sircar and Bachchan were celebrated for putting a woman’s words on screen in the mouth and viewpoint of a woman in Padukone as Piku.

Piku is also the only particularly prominent female character. Her two aunts, whilst memorable personalities, feature rather seldomly, and their discussions relate to Bhaskor and his attitudes or Piku’s marriage prospects and love life. That is, their discussions are about men.

Closing arguments:

Against the motion (the old paradigms still stand):

Piku is a well written, acted and entertaining movie. However, it does not establish any meaningful new ideas around the father-daughter relationship. The daughter in Piku is still constrained by her father, and his life choices, opinions, and needs come above hers and limit her freedom to do the same. Her father still believes he knows what is best for her in decisions around marriage.

Additionally, despite casting Padukone in the lead role, the film itself sees limited interaction between Piku and other women, and arguably fails the Bechdel test as a result. All of Piku’s conversations with other women in the film (with the maid and with both her aunts) revolve around discussing her father. So is it really that paradigm shifting to cast one of India’s most bankable superstars as the lead in a film just because said star happens to be a woman?

In this light any such conclusions that the director Shootjit Sircar’s and co-star and film icon Amitabh Bachchan’s support for the film and for the issue of women’s empowerment should be viewed. Whether they are genuine allies is irrelevant, as they operate in an environment where even the appearance of attempting to set new paradigms is celebrated as bold and brave for men, yet women speaking for change (such as Pakudone or Chaturvedi) are, at best, ignored, and at worst, delegitimised and demonised.

This film doesn’t represent changing father-daughter relationships any more than DDLJ does – in 1995 every Indian father didn’t suddenly start approving their Simrans to marry Rajs as Amrish Puri does at the end of the movie in a radical shift towards love marriages or in the case of Piku in 2015, a raft of fathers accepting their daughter’s professional success and not wanting them to sacrifice this freedom in favour of a husband, for example.

To return to the film, that the movie concludes with Piku free to establish a relationship with Rana due to her father’s passing is damning evidence that ultimately, her father’s wishes continue to come before hers.

The case against rests.

In favour of the motion:

The character Bhaskor Banerji is not a perfect person, or a perfect father. He is, as in his own words, a “critical person”, who is “brutal and honest”. At times this makes him particularly insensitive. His need to share his judgements and opinions at all times, even when he is seemingly sticking up for Piku or for her freedom to make her own choices and against her being held to a double standard due to her gender, can be seen as at times unnecessary at best, or at worst, patronising “mansplaining”.

Arguably the film recognises this contradiction in Bhaskor’s perspective and for the astute viewer, the irony of its portrayal can cause a sly smirk or laugh in a few key scenes. Despite all this, Bhaskor’s radical approach to raising his daughter should not be downplayed. It is through his opinionated critiques that the audience is introduced to several key arguments around the double standards many women face: when it comes to what they are prepared to sacrifice in favour of a husband, in terms of speaking their mind openly, in terms of whether they can and should be “scheming” and in terms of what is “nice” or desirable for a woman to be. These are all important points that quieter and more diplomatic male characters are curiously silent about.

Bhaskor has raised Piku to be the tough and uncompromising character that we see in the film. That she is reluctant to fully challenge him over issues which are potentially very sensitive to him such as her choosing to marry (and potentially leave the home as a result), is not necessarily something Bhaskor craves to be the case. Rather he is relieved when she finally does.

Whilst Bhaskor does not leave Piku total freedom to make her own choices, and does assert his opinions on her, he does so from a position of not wanting her to internalise society’s expectations of her due to her gender or to want something because she “is supposed to”.

One interesting example of this stubbornness against societal expectations occurs when Piku discovers Rana about a knife she discovers in the back of the car, after pondering the decision for a moment and her father evening warning her “this is very dangerous”. She appears confident in doing so. After discussing the knife’s origins, Bhaskor strongly insists Rana throw away the knife, but is confronted by Rana’s need to protect Piku.

Rana: I can’t throw [the knife]. The whole journey is left and there is a girl with us. How can I throw it?

Bhashkor: Girl? She’s my daughter.

Rana: Fine. But how can I throw it? She’s also my responsibility.

Bhashkor: You will. Otherwise I am not going.

Rana: Keep screaming.

Piku: FINE! [throws the knife herself on the ground]

OK? Now sit inside.

Bhashkor: What? No you tell him to pick this up and throw. Throw it otherwise I am not going.

Rana: I am not throwing it.

[Piku sits in the car and waits]

[After some time]

Piku: Why won’t you throw it?

[Rana looks at Piku, shakes his head and throws the knife into the field to the side of the road]

In this we see that indeed Bhaskor’s personality is dominating, he gives both Rana and Piku little room for manoeuvre. But he does so to insist his daughter is not treated differently do to her gender, even if this is supposedly “well-meaning”, as in the case of Rana seeking to protect Piku, well aware of the prevalence of gender-based violence (given they are on the highway at the time – perhaps he watched NH10!). Bhaskor rather prefers for Piku to be smart and resourceful, independent and able to take care of herself, even if this increases the risks she may be exposed to as a result.

Irrespective of these redeeming features of Bhaskor Banerji in terms of his love and respect for his daughter, it is through his flawed persona that these ideas and viewpoints are able to be heard without becoming a preachy, self-righteous public service announcement. Now that is due to astute writing, smart directing and quality acting. These things don’t happen in a vacuum and don’t happen without effort. There is therefore, a clear intent to redefine father-daughter relationships through a humanised portrayal of one such relationship, with two flawed and therefore relatable and complex characters. That the film is entertaining, well-made and acted, enables “Piku” to successfully accomplish this attempt to redefine the father-daughter relationship beyond its portrayal in any other Hindi film.

The case in favour of the motion rests.

So my jury, have you reached a verdict? (comments welcome below!)

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