Piku was always about a father-daughter relationship – Juhi Chaturvedi
Listening to Juhi Chaturvedi was just like watching one of her films – straightforward, organic and spontaneous. Read on to find out what goes on in the mind that wrote cult films on subjects like sperm and shit, Vicky Donor & Piku, to be more precise.
First, it was ‘sperm’ and now it’s ‘shit’. How and when do these thoughts come to you?
(laughs) Now that you say it, even I’m thinking about what exactly goes on in my head? But honestly, as far as Piku is concerned, the agenda was not to make a film on constipation. Vicky Donor began as the story of a sperm donor who donated his sperm to the world but couldn’t make babies of his own. Piku was always about a father-daughter relationship. Constipation and shit are only aspects of it that came along as I wrote.
I’m extremely curious to know how a typical brainstorming session must have happened. Were there long discussions about it?
Yes but not all the time. The idea came to me from my experiences with my grandfather. And as one gets old and frail, they tend to become like Bhashkor. We had bounced the concept off with Mr. Bachchan and he laughed. He said, “I don’t know what you’re going to write about this.” Neither did I, at that point. But I knew that if we had to narrate a script to him, it had to be done in a nice way. I was very conscious of this while writing. To think about it, this could have gone all wrong and turned out extremely offensive. But my endeavor was to make this as clean as possible and handle the subject with utmost care.
Sperm and Shit are the most organic and basic substances but no one’s ever spoken about them like this. How do you camouflage them so beautifully into your writing?
Like I said, I didn’t set out to write a film about constipation. My film was about this aging father and his devoted daughter who took care of him, like most independent girls of today. As one grows old, there are various physical problems that one goes through and this seemed like the right one for this hypochondriac, eccentric father to have. It just didn’t seem wrong. Think about it, the digestive system is a very important part of our bodies and lives. Its normal function is one of the biggest indications of good health. I didn’t find anything gross about it. What do all mothers tell their kids everyday? ‘Beta, hua? Theek se hua?’ or ‘Go sit on the pot. Ho jayegia’ It’s an organic process and an important part of our daily routine.
Even the whole angle about Bhashkor being aware of his daughter’s sex life and her being comfortable with it was very normal according to me. If my parents produced me, they obviously know that I would grow up to have the same basic needs. The father openly declares Piku to be a virgin and accepts her relationship as ‘only a physical need’, which is the way it should be. I find it extremely strange how the world knows everything about who’s doing whom and the parents don’t. I feel it’s the most natural and right thing for your parents to know and accept this. That’s how I have grown up and I didn’t find anything wrong in talking about it. Not that we discuss the colour of potty on the dinner table but you know what I mean, we’re comfortable speaking about it.
That’s true and I love the way you put it so simply, just like the film. It is such easy viewing, so real and relatable that I could never imagine how you penned them down into a script. Was it a bound script or did you just write it along the journey.
Everything you saw was written in the script. In fact, Shoojit doesn’t move ahead without a bound script. He considers the script to be an extremely important part of the process and gives it utmost importance. In fact, the script was an extremely long one. But when you see the film, you will realize that in a lot of scenes, the dialogues are overlapping. All the scenes were long on paper. But the way Shoojit executes them makes it very real. The dialogues are all written but not said one after the other. You’ll see chhoti maashi talking while Bhashkor and Piku are reacting simultaneously. It’s all happening at same time.
We had many rehearsals and everyone knew what he or she was going to do in the final scene. There were days when the actors would come on the sets and say, ‘Aaj sirf rehearsal karenge.’ That was exactly what the script required them to do. Shoojit was more than happy to take this route even if it meant a day of shoot wasted. That said, when you have such amazing actors like Mr. Bachchan, Irrfan and Deepika, each of them brings their own nuances to the script.
So did you write the film keeping the current cast in mind or had you imagined it otherwise?
I wrote Bhashkor keeping Mr. Bachchan in mind. So yes. It was written for him. Shoojit had worked with him in a lot of ad films and I had also written the dialogues of our previous film Shoebite. With an actor of his stature, one wonders when one can work with him again. So I was extremely happy when he agreed to come on board. The character of Rana was also written for Irrfan. I don’t think anyone else could have carried off the role with as much ease. For Piku, I never imagined anyone while writing it but I knew that she had to be a dutiful daughter. When Shoojit told me he wanted to cast Deepika, I was not too sure initially but as the film progressed, she just became Piku for all of us.
Also, contrary to a regular film set where the actors are stars when we’re not shooting, Shoojit has a unique style of working. The actors are not playing pranks on each other. Even when the shot is not on, they are still in their characters. Deepika is an inherently dutiful daughter, which is why it looked so easy on screen. When actors like Mr. Bachchan and Irrfaan are on the sets, it’s delightful to see them bring your script to life. A lot of things are written, but the way they react makes you realize how well they know their craft. We would always talk about the subject of the film. Deepika shared her experiences while Mr. Bachchan had so much to tell us. I would share instances about my grandfather and the atmosphere was always charged up just enough to help the film.
Coming back to the writing process, is there any specific technique you follow while writing story, screenplay and dialogues? Do you go about writing each one differently?
I never aimed to be a feature film writer. Vicky Donor just happened and so did Piku. I don’t follow any specific technique while writing. I have to write an entire scene right from the start. I can’t function with the typical one page concept, then outline and then move on to the screenplay etc. If my first scene is not setting the tone, I don’t know how I will take it forward.
Also, for me, what is more important than the story, screenplay and dialogues are the characters. They have to be strong enough and fleshed out so well that they take the film forward. After a point even the story is left behind. The characters do it for me. It’s all about how they would react in the given situation.
The actors have indeed nailed it in Piku. This brings me to the captain of the ship – the Director. Tell us about your relationship with Shoojit Sarkar. This writer – director duo has given us two gems one after the other.
Shoojit and I go back a long way. I come from an advertising background and so does he. Ever since I have known of him, he has always wanted to do good work. For me it was more like, ‘when would I get to work with him?’ I never wanted to write films but Shoebite came along. He asked me if I would write dialogues and I said, why not? I had nothing to lose, if people liked it, great, if they didn’t I would go back to doing what I was.
I only work with people I am comfortable with and are at the same wavelength as I am. Shoojit is one of those people, which is why he made both my films. The best part is that we don’t talk work all the time. Its just great how I can hang out in his office when he is here and talk about everything under the sun. It’s hardly ever work related.
One thing that struck me while watching Piku is the silences in the film. The interval, I thought, was one of the most clever ones I’ve seen. It was unexpected and yet a welcome breather. Just like probably stopping over on a road trip. I can keep talking about these moments. Were these also written or was it more of Shoojit’s treatment?
When you write a film, you tend to get attached to your script. So there are times when you watch a scene and a certain dialogue that you thought was amazing but has been edited out. At such times, one cannot argue with the Director because for someone like Shoojit, he knows exactly when to cut. For instance, the scene when Boodan sits in the front seat and Irrfan doesn’t move was handled so well. It was simply a line. The actors brought their own pauses into the scene and Shoojit knew exactly when to cut. I had to trust him because he is visualizing the film as a whole.
Moreover, we’re working with mature characters here. Piku is a girl in her thirties, Bhashkor is a 70 year-old man and Rana is in his 40’s. It had to be handled in a more evolved manner. Everything didn’t have to be said. It’s like watching a slice of someone’s life. This is how it is. We are not judging anyone here. Even the scene where Piku discusses her sex life with maashi is the way it is. We never discuss about it being right or wrong.
Going back to Vicky Donor, as a viewer and a cinema lover, I would say it had a well-written script. However, while watching Piku, I couldn’t see a script. It was loaded with moments!!
That’s true. Vicky Donor was written like a film in that sense. It had its pre-decided highs and lows. It had a beginning, middle and an end. But Piku is like you’re standing and watching someone’s life go by. If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, you don’t.
Let’s rewind even before Vicky Donor. You come from an advertising background. What is the difference between writing for ad films and a full-fledged feature film?
There’s a world of a difference between the two. In advertising, you’re always charged up. You move on from one thing to another. Also when you work with people like Piyush Pandey, you’ll know that he doesn’t accept anything but the best. So you’re always on your toes trying to outdo yourself. Films are a much longer process. You breathe and live with characters that don’t even exist for over two years. As I said, my agenda was never to be a film writer. But once I started working on Vicky Donor, it didn’t let me go. The same happened with Piku.