Pihu movie review: A two-year-old's incredible solo act keeps this survival saga riveting even through its missteps
Pihu is determinedly realistic cinema in a highly believable setting that, the makers acknowledge, is inspired by a true story reported in the press
A two-year-old girl wakes up the morning after her birthday party to find the house in a mess, her father missing and her mother motionless in bed. The trailer describes the situation as "every parent's nightmare", but that is hardly apt when parents themselves are responsible for their child being stuck in these circumstances. What it is, is pretty much every watching human being's nightmare. Because as tiny Pihu's struggles in her home unfold, the realisation dawns that there are few things in this world our species fears more than physical harm to babies and children.
Last year, director Vikramaditya Motwane gave us Trapped in which Rajkummar Rao's character accidentally gets locked in a deserted high-rise building in a bustling metropolis. The turn of events in Pihu's life is not accidental at all, nor is she an able-bodied young man — the helplessness of a child her age makes the circumstances all the more terrifying, the poignancy of her predicament exacerbated by a personal tragedy that we, the viewers, become aware of while she does not.
Writer-director Vinod Kapri's Pihu is Home Alone without the pointed effort to be comical, Baby's Day Out without the intentionally farcical tone. It is determinedly realistic cinema in a highly believable setting that, the makers acknowledge, is inspired by a true story reported in the press. It is not easy to watch as the film builds up a heightened sense of awareness of the dangers held out by everyday items in a modern household. A clothes iron that has been left on, an exposed wire, a running tap, a gas stove, a flight of steps, a balcony in a multi-storeyed complex - if adults tend to be careful around these, imagine the experience of watching for approximately 90 minutes a toddler alone with them.
Kapri's achievement is that he recognises the drama intrinsic to the state of affairs in which Pihu finds herself and does not try to exaggerate it artificially. Yogesh Jaini's cinematography plays along with the director's vision, observing and following the child protagonist quietly without trying to whip up a supernatural eeriness or stereotypical thriller scares. The camera does not feel exploitative in its gaze on the girl or her mother's prone body, which is crucial to the film's sensitivity. Vishal Khurana's music does bear familiar ghostly strains we have heard before, but these are just small snatches in the overall restrained background score.
The film's remaining audioscape is occasionally problematic though. The director should have found a way to convey monologues from people calling Pihu's mother's cellphone without putting the phone conveniently on speaker mode each time, such that Pihu seems able to hear everything they say and at one point even has a long conversation (to the extent that she is capable of having conversations) with one of them. This calls for a suspension of disbelief that the rest of the film does not demand of us as viewers, and marginally dents its otherwise authentic feel.
The voices we hear of neighbours and guards in Pihu's building too sound by turns loud, mannered and/or caricaturish in what feels like an effort to establish a point about the impersonal nature of high-rises in urban concrete jungles. This effort ends up making the narrative in the second half somewhat less effective than the gripping pre-interval portion.
(Spoiler alert begins) We all know that padosis in such complexes are often apathetic, but it defies believability that such individuals would not budge even when they are themselves affected — in this case, they do nothing beyond grumble and complain to the building management for hours after water starts flowing out of Pihu's flat and on to the common area outside. (Spoiler alert ends)
Films of this nature, ranging from Bollywood's Trapped to Hollywood's 127 Hours and Castaway, are odes to the human spirit via tales of survival against all odds. Kapri tries to expand Pihu beyond the conventions of the genre with a touch of social commentary, and stumbles on that front. Apart from the faulty treatment of the neighbours, there are the hints dropped about Pihu's parents' relationship.
(Some readers may feel this paragraph contains a spoiler — proceed at your own risk) The mother's body bears injury marks which, when coupled with what the husband says on the phone, implies that there may have been domestic violence involved. If so, it was incumbent upon the filmmaker to take into consideration the impact of her trauma on her decisions. Did the husband strike her or was this just another case of a couple unable to get along? Were her injuries self-inflicted or caused by him? Was she then depressed? Who knows. Yet in the end, the film's tone appears to suggest that both parents had been equally selfish towards their child when, in fact, if indeed theirs was an abusive relationship, then there can be no equivalence between the two persons involved. Alternatively, were her bruises the result of a medical condition or caused by some substance she had consumed? Pihu would have been a remarkable film even without this added element. The attempt to make it profound has ended up subtracting from its worth, because, having alluded to the possibility of DV, Kapri does not handle the issue with the requisite empathy. (Spoiler alert ends)
Kapri's debut feature, Miss Tanakpur Haazir Ho, was marked by the same tendency to bite off more sociological profundities than he could chew.
Pihu also suffers from some serious continuity issues. An indulgent viewer may argue that the child may have affectionately pulled a sheet on to the mother's body at some point when the camera was not watching her or in shots that were edited out to keep the film short, but how indulgent must we be to excuse the child's inexplicable transition from being messy — with the soles of her feet blackened and her face covered in food, makeup and more — to a clear face and far cleaner feet? Without giving anything away, I must say too that the child's condition when she is finally found defies logic.
These are unfair distractions from an otherwise riveting tale.
While the film is firm on its feet and even through its missteps, Myra Vishwakarma as Pihu remains incredible — is this a performance or is she just being herself? Perhaps a bit of both is what we must conclude from the director's interviews and considering that she has been credited for "additional screenplay" along with Abhishek Sharma.
Kapri deserves applause for the manner in which he has directed her without needlessly trying to underline her cuteness. At no point does she appear to be acting. And Ms Vishwakarma is such a darling that it is impossible not to be invested in Pihu from the moment the camera first zeroes in on her. I found myself occasionally smiling at her antics, in awe of her inventiveness, charmed by her apparently spontaneous reactions to her dilemmas and confusions, admiring Kapri's ability to capture all this, and clenching my fists out of concern for her welfare, so paralysed with fear for her that I could not look away from the screen till the very last second of the film. Now excuse me while I get my blood pressure examined by my doc.
All images from YouTube.
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