“Pikoo” - Satyajit Ray (1980)

Pikoo (Pikoor Diary, 1980) is a short (25-minute) film by Satyajit Ray that he made for French television.  Based on Ray’s own short story, “Pikoo’s Diary”, the film follows a day’s activities of an innocent six-year-old boy in the context of troubling family circumstances.  Because much of the focalization is on the six-year-old boy, the film’s view of worldly concerns has a dreamy, but ultimately melancholy, perspective. 

The story has a single setting, the residence of a well-to-do Bengali family, whose young son is Pikoo.  It begins in the morning with Pikoo’s father getting dressed for work and speaking to his wife (played by Aparna Sen).  From their conversation we learn two things – (1) because of an unexpected school holiday, Pikoo will be staying home for the day, and (2) their marital relationship is stale.  In fact the father indicates that he knows his wife is having an illicit affair.  

After Pikoo watches his father drive away, he hears some persistent dog barking.  So he yells at the dog to be quiet, and, surprisingly, the dog stops barking.  Later when the home phone rings, Pikoo picks it up first and recognizes the voice of “Uncle” Hitesh (Victor Banerjee), who is evidently his mother’s paramour.  Then when the mother picks up the phone, she tells Hitesh that even though Pikoo will be at home, he should come over anyway.

Pikoo then goes into the room of his aged grandfather, who is bedridden from some recent heart attacks. Pikoo worriedly, but innocently, tells his grandfather that he had heard his parents angrily quarreling the previous night.  The grandfather is disturbed to hear that he was also a subject in the parents’ quarreling. 

Soon enough Hitesh arrives and gives the delighted boy a coloring kit with a set of colored pencils. Since the mother and Hitesh clearly want to be alone, the mother assigns Pikoo some busywork – he is to go out into the family garden and paint all the flowers he sees in accordance with their true colors.  So Pikoo runs outside to pursue his assignment, while his mother and Hitesh retire to the bedroom.

There is now an extended sequence showing Pikoo wandering about in the garden and enmeshed in the lush complexity of nature.  Finally he comes to some white flowers that present a problem for him.  He has no colored pencil for the color white.  So he calls out to his mother, who is upstairs in bed with Hitesh, to explain his predicament.  Pikoo’s mother, of course, is very disturbed by the required context switching from passionate love to doting mother and back.  Her reaction disturbs the self-centered Hitesh, too, and he angrily gets ready to leave.

In the end Pikoo solves his problem by outlining the white flower with a black pencil.  But then some raindrops start falling, smudging his drawing, so Pikoo comes inside.  When he enters the house, he hears from outside their bedroom his mother and Hitesh still arguing, so he yells out for them to be quiet, and again the noise stops immediately.

Pikoo now goes in to see his grandfather and discovers that the old man has just died from a heart attack.  The film ends with Pikoo sadly sitting in a chair and crying, while his guilt-ridden mother looks on. 

Much of the film’s appeal for me comes from its atmospheric juxtaposition of guilt and innocence, with the primary perspective being that of innocence.  This relates to the main theme of the film, which concerns our problematic modern tendency to isolate our involvements in the world from each other. This means that we fractionate and compartmentalize our responsibilities within these involvements.  So Pikoo’s mother isolated her involvements with Hitesh, Pikoo, and the grandfather, and she found herself distressed when these involvements overlapped.  Pikoo, on the other hand, lived in an integrated world, as we all do when we are young.  We learn to fractionate as we get older.  In this connection, and more specifically, Ray remarked [1]:
"Pikoo is a very complex film. It is a poetic statement which cannot be reduced to concrete terms. One statement the film tries to make is that, if a woman is to be unfaithful, if she is to have an extramarital affair, she can't afford to have soft emotions towards her children, or, in this case, her son. The two just don't go together. You have to be ruthless. Maybe she's not ruthless to that extent. She's being very Bengali. A European in the same circumstances would not behave in the same way."
There are also some more overtly symbolic elements in the presentation, though, which may attract your attention:
  • Early in the film, Pikoo dials some random phone numbers and gets connected to some random businesses.  He doesn’t understand the specific contexts of those businesses and so doesn’t know how to talk to the people on the other end of the phone.  This is a symbolic example of how we can be superficially connected and yet still be isolated.
  • When Pikoo yells “hush!” to the dog and later to the quarreling lovers, his trial command works on both occasions.  So he may think he has learned a universal command concerning how the world operates.  But we know that he will soon discover the world is more complicated than that.  In fact he may later find himself heading down the path towards more isolated involvements, too.
  • When Pikoo draws the white flower by outlining it with a black pencil, there may be a suggestion that moral purity can only be identified by the absence of and in contrast to black tarnish. Also, when the raindrop smudges his drawing of the white flower, it may suggest that the complex workings of nature tend to blur the moral boundaries that we artificially make in the world.
There is no ultimate prescription in Pikoo that I could see; only melancholy resignation to life’s mysteries.

  1. Satyajit Ray, Cineaste magazine interview with Satyajit Ray”, Ray on Ray, SatyajitRay.org, (1982). 

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