Sarah Myers digs into the story of Pihu – now on Netflix – and finds out how it was done, from writer/director Vinod Kapri.
We’ve all been there: scrolling through Netflix in search of the perfect film, yet not finding anything that tickles our fancy despite the huge library. It’s moments like that when we turn to our trusty My List that we have filled with items to watch but still failed to play. And that’s how I came to watch Pihu. Many people will be unaware of Pihu, an Indian film hidden in an obscure corner of Netflix UK, but it is not a film to be dismissed. I can only describe it as equally the best and worst film I have seen in a very long time.
But to clarify, ‘worst’ is not to suggest the film is bad. Quite the opposite. It’s a brilliant film, however is difficult to watch due to the very real nature of the storyline. A few internet searches have shown genre descriptions such as thriller, social thriller, and suspense. But it’s not a film easily bracketed, and all the better for it. The only real way to explain it is to call it every parent’s worst nightmare.
In short: how would your child survive if you passed away, unexpectedly? This is the unasked question posed by the film.
Pihu is an adorable two-year-old girl who awakes the morning after her second birthday and finds herself in the company of only her mother, who we soon come to realise is not sleeping. During the night, her mother, Puja, has taken her own life after a seemingly violent argument with Pihu’s father. Pihu’s father, Guarav, is away on business and exists in the film only as a voice during occasional phone calls. Pihu follows the title character as she navigates a day at home, alone, blissfully unaware of the many dangers she’s in. As she plays with her toys, enjoys some television, plays with her mother’s lipstick, and plays with the leftover balloons from her birthday party, Pihu inadvertently puts herself in harm’s way many times. From the entire apartment having marbled floors and stairs, to the sink overflowing with water that’s perilously close to electrical sockets, and an iron that has been left on, everyday dangers are no longer monitored and prevented by her parents.
This is the aforementioned ‘worst’ element of the film; all the hazards and close-calls. It’s a horror film to an extent. Any adult watching the film is likely to feel responsible for the toddler’s position in part due to the helplessness brought on by the harsh fact that this could happen in real life. In fact, it has happened and is part of the reason the film exists.
“I always wanted to do a film with a single character, and with a small kid,” explains writer and director Vinod Kapri. “I was not sure about the storyline. Then I got to know about this real-life incident in Delhi where one four-year-old boy stayed in a house with the dead body of his mother for a night. That was a ‘eureka’ moment for me.”
What’s striking, aside from the very real nature of the story and the dangers, is the behaviour of little Pihu. It’s no secret that children in movies are often given direction in order for the character to progress as the filmmakers want. But Pihu is a breath of fresh air in how naturally she behaves, from the way she sought the attention of her mother to the way she would pull faces. Either as a reaction to something or just in the innocent way a child does. The way young Pihu can be distressed at her mother’s lack of interaction one moment and be filled with childlike wonder and a need to enjoy herself the next is a real representation of a youngster’s understanding and attention span.
Vinod Kapri found working with such a young actor challenging, as well as creating a film that gives such an accurate portrayal of a two-year-old. “I was ready with my story and script before meeting Myra Vishwakarma (Pihu). She was hardly a-year-and-nine-months-old when I first met her. I decided to spend time with her, three or four hours every day for two to three months. Then I realised I was wrong; in fact I realised that I had made a blunder. I thought ‘how can a 40-odd-year-old guy get into the mind of a two-year-old and write a film?’”
“So I observed her for two to three months and changed my screenplay as per her behaviour. My only concern was that it should look natural. It should go with the storyline and natural behaviour of a two-year-old. It was really tough, especially when you know that kid is only two years old and you can’t make her understand even ‘c’ of ‘Cinema’. So it was like we were shooting some wildlife documentary. We used three cameras. We just put her in a situation and shot everything. At the end, we had 64 hours of raw footage, and out of that we made this 100-minute film.”
Pihu’s father, Guarav, is not the only character who only exists vocally: family friend Meera and various neighbours are also heard but not seen. This very much puts the focus on Pihu. As Vinod explains, “other characters were important, but showing their faces was not necessary in this film. I thought that the audience would know about these characters, about these people, but let the audience visualise them and make their own film.” That decision has a severe impact on the film as the audience connects with Pihu in their own way. The natural need to protect a child and inability to do so causes a sense of dread and fear in a way that few films are able to manage.
Sixty-four hours of raw footage as well as personal time spent with Myra Vishwakarma certainly gives authenticity to the way the story is told by the character Pihu, herself. Something Vinod Kapri is aware and grateful of. “I would like to thank Myra’s parents, Rohit and Prerna, for their unconditional support.”
Pihu is a film I believe is truly underrated and a must-see, but not for the faint-hearted.
So what advice would Vinod Kapri give to future filmmakers, knowing what he knows, now? “Just tell a story which you want to see on screen. Tell stories from your experiences. Don’t follow trends.” Had Vinod Kapri followed trends I doubt the marvellous Pihu would exist.
Pihu is available on Netflix UK now.
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