In the world of Nil Battey Sannata, directed by Ashwini Iyer Tiwari and starring Swara Bhaskar and Ratna Pathak Shah, ambitions lack meaning and scale. In fact, they’re used as fillers in conversations, like asking about weather to sustain a boring chat. Chanda (Swara Bhaskar) works as a maid, in addition to holding two other jobs, to pay for the tuition of her daughter, Apu. Studying in a government school in Agra, Apu (Ria Shukla) wants to become a maid. Why? She offers this as a way of explanation: “Like a doctor’s son becomes a doctor, and an engineer’s son becomes an engineer, similarly, a maid’s son becomes a maid.” Apu can’t get inspired by her friends, either. One wants to become a driver—“not any regular driver though, someone who wears a uniform and drives an AC car,” he says—and the other wants to get married and become a housewife. Another scene in the film has Apu being awestruck by her neighbour who has managed to bag a government job as a peon that would pay him Rs 8,000 per month. “8,000 rupees just imagine!” She tells her mother. “What all can one afford in that amount.”
Apu’s too young to understand and internalise the fact that India lives in a cluster of gated communities, both social and educational, which allow entrance to only a select few. But Nil Batte Sannata, at least to begin with and for the major portion of its runtime, isn’t an ‘Us vs Them’ narrative. Here, quite refreshingly, the children are cynics, while the adults are hopeful about the future. Tiwari also nicely sets up the contrasts between Chanda and Apu — the mother who knows her past, the daughter who is oblivious to it; the mother who is looking forward to the future, the daughter who’s indifferent to it; the mother who saves, the daughter who splurges; the mother who is even willing to go school, the daughter who can’t wait to run away from it.
Conflicts of class
In a film like Nil Batte Sannata, whose story revolves around the conflicts of class, the director’s gaze is especially important. Given that making films in a country like ours is still largely a marker of privilege, it becomes critical to see whether the director herself, even though unintentionally, is not playing to the gallery, smoothening the rough edges of her characters’ lives, trivialising their tribulations, patronising their viewpoints. Tiwari succeeds for the most part, but there are occasions when she gives in to the temptation of playing a few scenes just for the laughs of her audience (which would, undoubtedly, comprise well-off, educated urbanites). So when Apu complains to her mother about her name — it beginning with ‘A’ means that she gets called early for roll call, thus robbing her of a few minutes of sleep — Chanda tells her that she should consider changing it to something that begins with a Z: Zandu Balm, for instance.
It is quite unlikely that Chanda, who has only studied till ninth grade and hasn’t kept touch with her limited education for obvious reasons (someone who also struggles to correctly pronounce “maths” and “doctor”), would know that Zandu Balm, pronounced as ‘jhandu’, is spelled with a Z. This joke is between Tiwari and her audience, at the cost of excluding her character.
In another scene, Apu, failing to persuade her mother that wanting to become a maid is also a meaningful ambition, says that in “this country children aren’t given the freedom to pursue their careers” — this again is an observation that seems to come from the filmmaker not her character, a carefree teenager in tenth grade indifferent to the notions of a career, let alone a calling. This bit, too, like the previous one, plays out between Tiwari and her audience.
Having said that, Tiwari, at other times, shows an acute understanding of the film’s setting and its inhabitants. She is aware that she’s an outsider in this story, and this is evident from the way she shoots some of the key moments in the film — particularly the conversations between Chanda and Apu — where the principal camera at often times frames the two characters through a visible barrier, a grilled partition in Chanda’s hovel.
Nil Battey Sannata, especially till the first half, is barely one-note: there’s much humour in this world; Tiwari also lets the children be themselves — jovial, foolhardy, endearing and clueless. But the film’s shining light is an actor who is cast as a peripheral character: Pankaj Tripathi. Tripathi’s role of a school principal and teacher is quite similar to his part in Masaan, someone who is correct, polite, sensitive and unintentionally funny. Trying to make sense of his students’ limited ambition and interest, Tripathi enlivens the movie by doing so little.
But then Nil Battey Sannata suffers from the same flaws that undo a lot of promising Indian ‘indie’ productions. The movie starts off well, builds an engaging world, carefully raises the stakes, but transforms into a different kind of a film for the major portion of its second half. If the curse of the second half is a thing in Bollywood then so is curse of the climax. Most new promising Hindi-film directors get so burdened with giving a defining climax to their movies that they end up abandoning the very stories they had original set out to tell. Nil Battey Sannata, unfortunately, is no different.
After a point, Tiwari seems more interested in dispensing a solution, so she begins sacrificing the complexities she’d wonderfully woven into the film earlier. In a bid to show her characters learning Math in an interesting, cinematic fashion, she makes them eschew the actual difficulties of understanding the subject, which is at the heart of this story. Though she does show both mother and daughter befriending a nerdy kid in class who teaches them the subject, the ease with which they warm up to something they so feared — that too through mnemonics — is a gross simplification that sits at odds with Tiwari’s other impressive directorial choices. In these portions, the film also becomes uni-dimensional and explanatory, its unwavering somber tone not helping it one bit; the kids inexplicably resort to constant sermonising; a forced subplot crops out of nowhere designed to propel the film towards a particular, predictable end. As opposed to the carefree, jubilant and heartfelt film we saw in the first half, Nil Battey Sannata’s second half, for the most part, shows a director disowning her own film.