In the recently released Piku, written by Juhi Chaturvedi and directed by Shoojit Sircar, two people are at the receiving end of Bhaskor Banerjee’s obsession with his digestive tract. One is his young daughter, Piku. The other is Bhudan, the family retainer. Piku has become so inured to her father’s constipation that she talks about fecal matter on a date (not at all unusual for children who have to care for parents with long-term health conditions). Poor Bhudan (played by Balendra Singh) has the lousier end of the bargain. He must accompany his crabby employer to the facilities and is put in charge of a toilet-friendly chair (called The Throne). In one of the movie’s more sharply observed slice-of-life moments, he waits outside the latrine at a highway stop and obligingly makes the appropriate sounds as Bhaskor urinates inside, as the parent of a brat would.

Bhudan marks the return of the domestic-worker character that used to be a regular feature of Hindi movies. The helper is often male and is frequently called Ramu Kaka. (Hence the name of a most cleverly named website for domestic services in Hyderabad.) He is as emblematic of feudalism as the horse-riding patriarch and the bedecked matron. He is usually unmarried, white-haired and dressed in what appeared to be the same short-sleeved kurta and dhoti with which he first entered the house decades ago. He materialises out of the inner recesses of the kitchen when summoned, concern for his master writ upon his face and deference radiating from his spine. His supplicatory manner and level of intimacy suggest that he has been around for decades. He functions as a dinner gong, a relationship advisor, a non-judgmental witness to his employer’s worst excesses.

This integral part of the screen household (he's sometimes a driver, often named Ram Singh) is one of Hindi cinema’s biggest clichés, along with its police officials who always arrived too late to catch the criminals, silver-haired gangsters, curd-white heroes and simpering heroines. But like all clichés, Ramu Kaka and his peers provide immense comfort to movie fans. When Ramu Kaka emerges into the frame, wiping his hands on a towel and solicitously inquiring after whether the hero/heroine has eaten, you know you have come home.

Help is on its way

In a well-written movie, the impact of the domestic worker is measured not by the duration of his appearance, but the quality of screen time. In Bimal Roy’s version of Devdas, made in 1955, the eponymous anti-hero slowly and painfully self-destructs through alcohol abuse, self-pity and neglect. As Devdas aimlessly crisscrosses the country by rail, the terrible task of being substitute parent and ferryman falls on family retainer Dharamdas, played by seasoned character actor Nasir Hussain. The movie’s powerful closing sequences are as much about Dharamdas’s desperation to save Devdas as they are about the alcoholic’s journey towards his eternal rest.

These working-class characters know their place, and step out of the background only when the plot requires them to have offspring who have the temerity to punch above the weight of their class. When their sons and daughters dare to fall in love with the daughters and sons of their employers, it is time to roll out another one of Hindi cinema’s standards: “How can you dream of marrying the maid’s son/daughter?!”

These class and caste battles are usually resolved in the best of the mild socialist traditions that were in place till the 1980s: the wedding takes place after the moneybags have realised their narrow-mindedness, lord and serf shake hands, and the revolution is postponed.

New and old staples

Over the last two decades, several storytelling clichés have been mercifully buried at the depths of the Indian Ocean. Filmmakers are attempting to infuse greater realism into their films, whether it’s in the acting, the cinematography or set design. They are also repackaging the elements that are a vital part of the entertainment formula, such as comedy (situational and conversational), action (greater violence that is better choreographed) and romance (less contrived, bolder). They are sometimes more direct about the caste or religious orientation of their characters.

One of the biggest changes in film writing and direction is the end of the innocence (some might call it willful naïveté) that characterised the cinema of the ’60s and the ’70s. The late-arriving policeman is now a bribe taker who has been paid to delay his entry. Male and female leads are self-aware and not as coy as their predecessors. Smart and socially sensitive filmmakers will think twice about creating a Ramu Kaka character: it’s difficult to justify a servile retainer unless the plot demands it. Besides, what are the chances ‒ and consequences ‒ in real life, which some of the better movies seek to emulate, of a memsaab falling for her cook? Ramu Kaka also makes little sense in a city like Mumbai, which is both a muse as well as a market for the movie trade, unless the narrative is set in an affluent household that is large enough to accommodate a live-in worker.

The new emphasis on real-ish settings works in strange ways. The increased economic gap makes poverty more brutal and difficult to ignore. Perhaps in response to the unbearable truth about present-day India, the average Hindi movie character seems to have been plucked out of one of those gated communities with Italian names into which every middle-class urbanite aspires to move. Domestic workers are actually far more crucial to maintaining the double-income-and-kids lifestyle. But writers and filmmakers have been slow to wake up to the possibilities of re-imagining and relocating Ramu Kaka.

Piku’s Bhudan is a serviceable update of a stock character. His senior employer is an old-fashioned curmudgeon who believes in paying less and extracting more, but his younger employer is a conscientious, liberal urbanite who treats him nicely and fairly ‒ and as equally as the situation permits. When Bhaskor, Piku and Bhudan set out on a road trip from their Delhi residence to Kolkata, Piku makes Bhudan sit in the front, but swaps places when Rana, the car service owner who has been forced to transport the family, objects. When Bhaskar has to go, Bhudan goes with him. His spine hasn’t been bent out of shape, but he is still shovelling the shit.