There are two ways to go with a story about a toddler left alone to fend for herself — tragedy or comedy.
The’90s slapstick farce “Baby’s Day Out” was an example of the latter, the touching French little-girl-lost drama “Ponette” a classic of the former.
You’d be hard pressed to find a version of this tale darker than “Pihu,” an Indian melodrama based on a true story about a child of two left to her own devices in a modern, electrified and cluttered high rise condo.
It’s a horror movie, with a hint of exploitation about it, premised on that old adage that parenthood is basically “being on suicide watch for 18 years.”
Pihu (Myra Vishwakarma) is an adorable two-year-old imp whom we hear before we see.
The sounds of her second birthday party play behind the chalkboard drawing animated opening credits. She’s a smart child, speaking Hindi (with English subtitles), singing “Happy Birthday” to herself in English.
She awakens the next day, crawls out of bed with Mummy all bright-eyed and raring to go, collecting the paper (she recognizes Gandhi’s photo on the cover), counting every step as she walks up and down the flight of marble stairs in the apartment.
But chaos surrounds her. The walls are covered with a child’s magic marker scrawls. Decorations, including strings of lights, are entangled left and right. Balloons randomly pop, alarming Pihu. There is party debris everywhere, with breakables scattered all over the floor, booze bottles on every table and counter-top.
The sink is running. The TV has an astrologer droning on and on.
Calling for “Papa” is in vain. He’s nowhere to be found. And Mummy? She won’t wake up.
Pihu calls for “Mummy” repeatedly, and occasionally breaks out bawling — sometimes with good reason, sometimes randomly. Because she’s two.
She can’t quite reach the faucet, even though she’s found something just tall enough, and teetering, to get her close. She can’t reach the door knob, which considering the accidents waiting to happen all around her, is tragic. Or not.
At her height, we can see cords plugged in, willy nilly, wiring violations and nothing-absolutely-nothing has been “child-proofed” in that Western “helicopter parent” tradition.
No dear, that bottle of white liquid you fetched from the cupboard isn’t milk.
“Pihu” tracks the child through a long day, almost falling off this, almost tipping over that. For the Love of Mercy, you think, DON’T go on the balcony!”
Dad calls to chew out Mummy, but “Mummy is asleep.” He doesn’t figure this out right away.
“You females are the worst things in any man’s life!”
He calls back to apologize. He is distracted, trying to deal with an airline, a business meeting and later a taxi, struggling to cajole Pihu into putting Mummy on the phone every time he calls. Something went down after that party.
There’s a nasty, lengthy screed scrawled on the bedroom mirror in lipstick. Uh oh.
We can see that we’ve come at a bad time, that this is a climactic act in a domestic tragedy that can only get worse with a child too young to know any better fending for herself. The microwave’s a dangerous place to heat up your toast. A gas stove?
Don’t get me started.
Writer-director Kapri Vinod is better at playing with the anticipation of peril than doing much with the suspense built-in to this situation. There is no music to heighten suspense, just the terrors of daytime Indian TV for a soundtrack.
He has us one step ahead of Pihu, seeing the potential disasters in every climb up a counter, every trip out to that balcony, every blithe, barefoot stroll through a minefield of potentially debilitating cuts.
Dad barking on the phone that he rushed out and “left the iron on” is an easy one.
“Mummy, what’s that smoke?”
Spilling Mom’s prescription bottle all over the floor, overloading the notoriously DIY in-house power grid, blowing at the flames trying to toast bread on a gas burner has produced trying to put them out? That’s mayhem-in-the-making of an altogether higher order.
Vinod nicely folds all this within the clever child’s daily routine — brushing her own teeth, potty breaks, etc. Keeping the camera in tight, filming most everything from Pihu’s close-to-the-ground point-of-view, Vinod manipulates and toys with us, veering his picture from frightening to just-plain-cute.
The little girl is utterly natural and amazing, as they all are at that age. Vinod had the child’s real parents on set playing her Mummy and Daddy on the phone.
Too much of this any parent anywhere in the world would recognize, a string of your worst paranoid fears about what could go wrong if you turn your back or get distracted when there’s a toddler in the house.
There’s not a lot to “Pihu,” but as Vinod’s waking nightmare plays out, he drags us into the story simply by dint of recognition. Yeah, we had this or that close call in our house. Did we child-proof that cleaning fluid cabinet? And who needs irons, anyway? A few wrinkled shirts and skirts, and a whole lot less risk.
MPAA Rating: TV-14
Cast: Myra Vishwakarma, Prerna Vishwakarma
Credits: Written and directed by Kapri Vinod. A Roy Kapur/Netflix release.
Running time: 1:29