As most Bollywood fans focused on Thugs of Hindostan, an award-winning film hitting cinemas this weekend has slipped under the radar. Pihu is the story of a two-year old girl alone at home – and surely the nearly eight million people who have watched the spine-tingling trailer will be curious about the film, but many say they will not be able to watch it, as they are too worried for the child.
The film's writer-director Vinod Kapri's candid message to a potential audience is: please do not watch it if you feel this way after watching the trailer. And he must really mean it, as he has a lot invested in people watching this film: he spent three years of his life making it.
"It is not a horror movie, but it is scary and they may not be able to watch it. It is not for the faint-hearted," Kapri said last week in an interview to Filmibeat.com. He says the film is a social thriller.
A former television journalist, Kapri took the plunge, quit his job and made his first film, Miss Tanakpur Haazir Ho, in 2015. The critically acclaimed film received appreciation from veterans such as Amitabh Bachchan and directors Rajkumar Hirani and Madhur Bandharkar.
Despite the decent response, Kapri struggled to finance his next project, and so Pihu was a case of necessity being the mother of invention. "I didn't have money so I decided to make a movie on this girl where Pihu is the only protagonist. I reduced the budget further from 3 to 4 crores (Dh30 to 40 million) to just one, but still there were no takers for the unusual subject," Kapri told The National.
Kapri's first film:
"Kirshen Kumar agreed to foot 60 per cent, but then he passed away and I did not have the money to market the movie." Pihu, in many ways, shows Kapri's skills for adaptation and marketing.
The director took his brainchild to film festivals, and after Vancouver, the film was slotted in as the opening act at India's biggest festival in Goa last year, where it won accolades and attention from Siddharth Roy Kapur, who got Ronnie Screwwala on board – they are both heavyweights in the entertainment business.
A disturbing marketing ploy
"Goa was a lifeline for me," Kapri tells us. "I had started working on my next project when things started rolling again on this one." The flipside of big producers coming on board was that the movie is not without its share of controversy. As part of the marketing, people started getting calls where a girl's distressed voice speaks out before getting disconnected abruptly. When people call back to help, the trailer link and movie info is sent to them. This invited the wrath of many.
Kapri defends the film's marketing team: "I know it could have been upsetting, but I understand the view of the marketing team. What's the point of making this film, and why will people come if no one knows about it? Let's face it. I don't have a big star cast."
The film has been submitted to the Guinness Book of Records as the only film with just one two-year child artist as the main lead – being touted as one of its kind. If the feat is recognised, that would be just reward for Kapri, who has gone through a meticulous planning, shooting and then post-production process over three years to come up with a film which is only 100 minutes long.
The disturbing true story behind the movie
The film is based on a true life incident from New Delhi in 2014 - where a child was left at home with dead parents: "I could have told the story from a parent's perspective, but I chose to tell it from Pihu's point of view.
"It was not easy because I cannot make a child act. I had cameras all over the place and let her act in daily life. I spent two months with her, just becoming part of the family."
Even the film crew stayed for two weeks in the small flat of Myra Vishwakarma, who plays Pihu, when she was just two years and 5 months old. "I met Myra when she was one year, 10 months. I spent a lot of time just befriending her. When the crew came over, we introduced each member as paternal uncle, maternal aunt ... relations that she would recognise as her own.
"Everything used on the sets – right from the home to her own clothes and toys, even the furniture like water heater, etc is from the Vishwakarma household."
The much-talked about trailer ends with Pihu perched precariously on her balcony: "Without giving much away, there was an ending I had in mind and we shot, but during the process, we realised Myra in her personal domain had a habit of going to the balcony and calling out loudly to people. She loves to talk from there randomly. So we changed that to what you see in the trailer."
Kapri's first film Miss Tanakpur Haazir Ho was satirical, while Pihu is being touted as a social thriller. And while the latter has had some credit at film festivals, it will ultimately have to rely on word-of-mouth testimonials after its release today to see success. We will have to wait and see.