'Piku' writer Juhi Chaturvedi explains how she created the year's most talked-about film

How the digestive problems of a 70 year-old man and his relationship with his daughter became a story that put a smile on India's face.

A critical darling, a money-spinner and a cultural touchstone – and to think that Piku is about bowel movements and death.

Its creator, Juhi Chaturvedi, is everybody’s favourite screenwriter for the moment. Her humourous and often touching exploration of the frayed ties between Bhaskor Banerjee, a cantankerous and constipated 70-year-old Bengali gent, and his unmarried, harried daughter Piku, is this year’s most unlikely family outing movie. Cinemas across the country are swelling with kids, parents and grandparents, many of whom relate all too well to the movie’s themes of inter-generational conflict, anxieties over ageing and death, the difficulty of taking care of ailing parents, and the necessity of handling bodily malfunctions without emotion or embarrassment.

Directed by Chaturvedi’s regular collaborator Shoojit Sircar and starring Amitabh Bachchan, Deepika Padukone and Irrfan as the outsider who wades into the family muck, Piku has cemented Chaturvedi’s reputation as one of the most empathetic and astute chroniclers of middle-class India. Her Twitter timeline is filled with encomiums on how she has held a mirror to basic social realities, and wherever she turns, she is told by admirers of how Bhaskor is so uncannily like their own silver-haired kin.

“The film appears to have touched a nerve – adults can relate to the stress and the guilt of what Piku is going through, while kids like the potty conversations,” she said. “Finally, somebody is talking about potty! But the film also deals with the insecurities of old age that parents cannot directly talk about with their kids. And Shoojit shot it all so beautifully.”

The soft-voiced writer has previously worked on Sircar’s Shoebite, starring Bachchan and made in 2008 but shelved after a copyright battle between its producers. She first came to notice for her witty screenplay for 2012’s comedy Vicky Donor, which starred Ayushmann Khurana and was about another taboo subject, sperm donation. Vicky Donor marked Chaturvedi as a writer to look out for, but Piku might prove to be career-altering for the 40-year-old former advertising professional. One of the sparks for Piku was a conversation between Chaturvedi and Sircar about the pressures of taking care of ageing parents. “We spoke so much about it that he said, why don’t you write something and see what happens? And shit happened!”

The daughter who was a mother

Chaturvedi based Bhaskor’s character on her grandfather, who stayed with her family while they were living in Lucknow, but a deeper inspiration for the issues discussed in Piku is her late mother. Mridula Chaturvedi died three years ago after suffering from various ailments for 30 years, and her daughter had to step into the roles of nurse and parent far too early. “My mother had hypertension and then suffered a hemorrhage when I was in the second standard,” Chaturvedi said. The hemorrhage eventually led to kidney failure when Chaturvedi was in her late teens, and one of the side effects of the medication was depression.

Chaturvedi’s elder brother was in boarding school, so the task of helping nurse her mother fell on the daughter. “You become an oncologist, a cancer specialist, a nephrologist, everything,” Chaturvedi said. “Humour held me together. When you are sitting in a hospital corridor for hours, how much can you grieve over things?”

Juhi Chaturvedi.

She was a “very quiet” child, who kept herself occupied by helping her grandfather with the gardening. Her eye for observation and ear for conversational dialogue were sharpened by years of being in an attendant’s position. “When I would go to other people’s houses, I would entertain myself by looking at their photo albums and observing how they kept their houses,” she said.

Her grandfather, Dinanath Chaturvedi, and her father, Dhirendra Chaturvedi, were both in the state education department, so her childhood was spent in capacious government accommodation and characterised by the Nehruvian imperative of simple living and high thinking. Chaturvedi is from that generation of middle-class Indians whose exposure to the movies included squatting in front of the television set on Sundays afternoons and taking in the best of Indian language cinema. She describes her growing-up year as being suffused with an appreciation of the arts and literature and a disdain of mainstream cinema. Satyajit Ray, one of Chaturvedi’s favourite filmmakers, was perfectly acceptable, but popular Hindi films were not.

Fortunately, her grandfather loved Hindi film music and Tabassum, the feisty television hostess from the 1980s, so the film music programme Chitrahaar and the weekly chat show hosted by Tabassum, Phool Khile Hai Gulshan Gulshan, were permitted. “Going to the cinemas was not a done thing,” Chaturvedi recalled. “I remember there was this movie called Mangal Pandey, starring Shatrughan Sinha as a dacoit, and my grandfather thought it was about the freedom fighter and took us kids along to the theatre. We, of course, enjoyed it.”

Although Chaturvedi spent her formative years in what she calls a “role reversal”, she didn’t let her situation stifle her ambitions. “The good thing was I had this streak in me – I made sure I lived my life,” she said. “I didn’t want to go around feeling sorry for myself.”

Ad men and mad men

Chaturvedi studied fine arts at the Lucknow College of Arts and Crafts, and moved to Delhi in 1996 and later Mumbai to work for the advertising company Ogilvy. The member of the young set whose parents espoused Nehruvian values but that was equally at ease with the consumerism introduced by the market-oriented economic policies of the 1990s found the advertising world swarming with people who wanted to tell stories through their commercials. Among the people Chaturvedi worked with as an art director and copywriter was Piyush Pandey, the influential adman. If some of Chaturvedi’s dialogue hits the sweet spot just the way a smart advertising punchline does, it has to do with the 13 years she spent at Ogilvy, picking up the skills to make commercials that were slices of life and dripped with everyday details and relatable characters rather than plastic backdrops and artifice.

“The emphasis of greater realism and character sketching came from Piyush Pandey,” Chaturvedi said. “The accent was on humour and making the advertisements clutter-breaking. The chiselling of characters, the fine-tuning of lines, the respect for any world you are putting in a commercial, all of this comes from advertising. Piyush will not take a minute to say, ‘kya bakwaas hai’ (what nonsense) and that voice is always there at the back at my head.”

Chaturvedi worked in several companies after quitting Ogilvy, including Bates Chi&Partners, where her husband, Asheesh Malhotra, is president and Mumbai head, and Leo Burnett. She quit the world of hard-selling last year, after having written three films for Sircar. “I had made up my mind to write films, and my heart wasn’t in advertising anymore,” she said. “I was drawing a salary but it felt so wrong.”

Chaturvedi had met Sircar when his company produced Ogilvy commercials in the early 2000s, but their first real collaboration was on a series of Titan commercials featuring Aamir Khan. Sircar made his debut with the Kashmir-set Yahaan in 2005, and when he embarked on Shoebite in 2008, he asked Chaturvedi to write the dialogue and contribute to the screenplay. “I had no ambition or inclination for Bollywood,” Chaturvedi said. “When you are in advertising, it seems a better place.”

When she went on the sets of Shoebite, she realised just how much larger the scale and scope of film production was. “After doing films, even writing ads felt limiting,” she said.

When she pitched the idea of Vicky Donor to Sircar, his initial reaction was understandably muted. “The starting point was the one smart idea of a donor who goes around donating his sperm but can’t have his own children,” she said. “When I told Shoojit about it, he laughed and said, I don’t know what you are on, but it sounds like fun.”

The larger world explored by the movie – the infertility industry, adoption, the lengths Indians will go to for the sake of a family – opened up as Chaturvedi started fleshing out the screenplay. “The story suddenly wasn’t about Vicky anymore,” she said. She met a few infertility experts such as Aniruddha Malpani while working on the screenplay, but many of its observations about the quirks and foibles of south Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar neighbourhood came from the time she lived there while working in Delhi from 1996 to 1999. “We used to live in a house behind Amar Colony, and the whole thing was exactly like in the film,” she said.

The comedy, which Sircar started with his own money until the actor John Abraham came on as producer, was a surprise sleeper hit. Piku was her way of assuring herself that she could repeat the feat. “I had to see if I could do it again,” she said. “That’s why I needed Piku, to assure myself that I wasn’t a fluke.”

Mirror, mirror

Chaturvedi also wrote the dialogue for Sircar’s Sri Lanka-set Madras Cafe, loosely based on the plot to assassinate former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. The 2013 production was duly noted by critics, moviegoers and awards juries, but it also suggests that gritty political material is not quite Chaturvedi’s forte. “It wasn’t my story and screenplay, and I only contributed the dialogue, but the good thing is that I stretched myself to another kind of writing,” Chaturvedi said. “Because it was a political subject, everything had to be carefully written, and I could not write anything straight.”

Madras Cafe involved many rewrites, but the movies that emerge out of Chaturvedi’s consciousness involve less recasting. What they do involve is conversations with the self. Chaturvedi writes in a room in her tastefully decorated apartment in south-central Mumbai and rehearses her lines with herself committing them to the page. “I talk and blabber to myself, and my maids sometimes walk by to check if I am okay,” she said. “My writing time is not much as much as my character build-up time. I work out the characters and lines in my head and the actual typing comes after that.”

By talking to herself, she also tests the efficacy of the dialogue: does it sound arch or as though it might have been uttered by real people? “If a line doesn’t come out naturally in spoken language, it will not work,” she said.

Since Piku emerged from her own experiences and memories, the rehearsal process was more draining than usual. “I had alopecia while working on the movie – I was crying while I was writing parts of it,” she said.

The comfort she shares with Sircar has contributed immensely to the movie’s ability to fuse her concerns with his vision. “Other than films, we have so many things to talk about, and we are on a similar wavelength,” she said. “We have very similar family structures, and the middle-class fears are the same. Shoojit is neither swayed by Bollywood nor his success. These days, he lives mostly in Calcutta and even when he isn’t there, he will be ordering pizza over the phone for his wife and kids.”

Putting the silver lining to the dark cloud

One of the characteristics of Chaturvedi’s writing is her insistence on placing a silver lining to dark matter. It worked just fine for Vicky Donor, in which adoption is presented as a solution to infertility. In Piku, cheeriness prevails even during potentially sobering passages, such as Bhaskor’s selfishness in clinging on to his daughter, or her inability to have meaningful relationships because of her domestic situation.

In the immortal words of British writer Meera Syal, life isn’t all ha ha hee hee. “It is important to say these things in a light-hearted way so that you are able to deal with them,” Chaturvedi reasoned. “It would have been a different movie – it is already dark enough. I don’t want a parent to watch the film and come out feeling, I am a burden. Or, a child to watch Piku and say, I am not prepared for a parent’s death. And when you see somebody else living the same life, you feel a little light yourself. You are not alone, you are not the chosen one, and everybody is going through this.”

Her writing seeks to lower the distance between the big screen and the hundreds of eyes plastered on to it, she added. “I don’t want to write regressive stuff, hypothetical stuff, glorify murders and killings,” Chaturvedi said. “Two hours of somebody’s time in today’s day and age, it’s very precious. If, in the process, I have audiences on my side, and they can identify themselves with that they are watching, that is what I want. The barrier between cinema and the audience should not be there.”

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