Equal parts horror film and guilt-trip drama, Vinod Kapri’s Pihu revolves around three characters. One is lying lifeless on a bed. The other is a snarling voice at the other end of the phone. The third is alive but is always in harm’s way, partly due to the actions of her parents and partly due to the heavy hand of the filmmaker.

Will Pihu (Myra Vishwakarma), who is all of two and only a little taller than the bed on which her mother (Prerna Sharma) lies, survive the ordeal of being left alone, defenceless – and very hungry? As Pihu wanders around the house for milk and sustenance, switches on every single gas burner, jabs merrily at the buttons of the microwave oven and dangles over the balcony railing, the movie slides deeply into exploitation territory. It isn’t exactly Home Alone. Such cuteness as there is emanates from the tousle-haired, angel-faced Pihu, who is completely innocent to the tragedy and, at times, seems unaware that a movie is being made.

Pihu (2018).

Vinod Kapri has previously directed a documentary on sanitation, Can’t Take This Shit Anymore, and the rural satire Miss Tanakpur Haazir Ho, about a man accused of sexually assaulting a buffalo. Subtlety isn’t his strong suit, and at several moments in Pihu, you cannot help but wonder about his motivation in sending families on the biggest guilt trip of their lives. Pihu forces parents, both real and prospective, to confront one of their worst nightmares – a child left to its own devices in a house filled with dangerous objects. The director makes his little lead actor work very hard to achieve his goal. One can only hope that Myra Vishwakarma will carry no scars from the gruelling shoot into her adult life.

Myra’s lack of artifice and seemingly unrehearsed actions – she has been given a credit in the screenplay – lends her situation the required poignancy. Pihu’s inability to string together complete sentences and tendency to get easily distracted keeps the movie on a trot for much of its 93-minute running time. The heart-stopping moments leave their mark even when their outcome is known, and it’s a relief when the endurance test, both for Pihu and audiences, comes to a halt. This has been a year for comedy at the movies, but Vinod Kapri has delivered a bona fide suspense thriller that doubles up as a parenting lesson. Effective, yes, but also unsettling? Always.