Sunday, April 24, 2016

Nil Battey Sannatta Movie Review

Long ago when SMS was a thing, I received a forward that was something like “Happiness is when your family becomes friends, and friends become family”. Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari seems to have drawn some inspiration from this schmaltzy SMS forward for characterizations in her debut film Nil Battey Sannatta.

To start with, take the mother-daughter relationship portrayed in the film between Chanda (Swara Bhaskar, the mother) and Apeksha (Ria Shukla, the daughter). The daughter referring her mother as “Tu” and not “Aap” might surprise a few. Nirupa Roy’s on-screen sons have talked to her like this, but never an adolescent daughter to her mother. The friendly nature between a single mother and her teenage daughter is inevitable. But they do fight as well, like enemies. The mother, at a point, even says to her, “Tujhe teri aukaat na dikha di na toh dekhna…” This is more shocking than the daughter saying the same to her. That’s because they are hardly playing by the rules of a mother-daughter, but that of two friends. Whereas her friends come to console or support her with the most heavy worded lines any kid of that age could come up with, making them look like the family elders she never had.

 This reversal-of-role, of sorts, is integral to the story – the mother takes admission to the same class as her daughter’s to learn maths so that she could teach the subject to her arrogant daughter and help her pass the board exams.

Her mother is her new classmate (The New Classmate is also the film’s English title). Hence their frenemy nature works in this arc of the story. But did we see that coming? For the first twenty minutes of the film, the most pressing issue that Chanda faces, and we are told of, is that Apeksha, now in her tenth grade, is poor in maths, and has no interest in studying or pursuing a career seriously. So this solution – offered by the doctor of the town (played by Ratna Pathak Shah) whose house she works as maid at – that Chanda herself should join the school, and still continue doing her several part time works that she does to keep the kitchen going, seems little… impractical.

This sets for good arcs for the two opposite natured central characters of the film. But the film begins to take easy turns to make realise the underlying theme of the film. Quite serendipitously, they are asked to write an essay on their dreams. When we could see that one has no dreams whatsoever and other is brimming with them, they erupt into mouthing lines like “Gareebon ko sapne dekhne ka haq nahi hota” (Poors have no right to dream) and “Gareeb woh hota hai jo sapne nahi dekhte” (Poor is one who does not dream) making it too verbose. This is like the film is reviewing itself.

But these lines do give an insight into the characters. It is the mother who is more hopeful despite of facing the practicality of daily real world and bearing its brunt to somehow manage their ends meet. And the girl who spends entire day in a room full of posters of Bollywood heroes dancing and singing in front of television – the machine responsible for most of the impossible dreams of small town India – has no dreams at all. The film sets this tone, visually, in its very opening shot – an image of old Bollywood posters peeling off the walls of shanties in Agra.

Set in Agra, the small-town residential intimacy that ‘the doctor knows the school-principal and the collector knows the doctor’ is well observed, but the colloquial dialect is very uneven in the dialogues. For example, the word central to the film, “bai” (maid), is purely Marathi and nowhere to be heard in this side of the country. There’s use of another Marathi phrase too (“Izzat ka bhajipala”) and also the Bhojpuri-Hindi word “Kandam” (last heard in Masaan, meaning useless, and not derived from “condom” which Varun Grover, the writer of Masaan, believes it is) is more Benarasi than that of Agra. This is nit-picking, sure, but at filmmaking level when the Bombay filmmakers set out to make a film riding on the wave of small-town-India-is-the-new-cool, these details do matter.

The film gets the other artistic details quite well. Look at the plastic plates which they use to only have Maggi and Chow-Mein but not regular dinner. Maggi and Chow-Mein are special foods, hence special plates. Chanda brings street-side Chow-Mein only when they want to have a “party” (Oh, also look at the quantity of Chow-Mein at their respective plates! This is the only instance where you’ll see Chanda as the typical Indian mother than a friend).

There are two cuts of the film – one for international distribution, one for Indian. The difference is understandable given how different both the cultures are. But since the film has been distributed more in urban areas which are anyway as alien as the international audience about the small town, lower class India, the makers could have easily done away by a single cut… preferably the international one as the opening credits tell me the main difference in both the cuts is in the background score (Naren & Benedict for the international one, Rohan & Vinayak for the Indian), and by that we would have been at least spared by the image of a weeping mother with a weeping sitar in the background. This tells about the makers’ half understanding of the home audience which makes them compromise with the tone of the film and letting a melodramatic shot seep in, disturbing its fabric.

The film has a light-hearted tone, otherwise, and a rose-tinted vision – which is not bad since the film talks about dreams… dreams to aspire big no matter what rung of the economic ladder you are at. It is a film about the people who are so enamoured by the upward mobility that they tend to demean or belittle their job. At one point, the daughter cheekily complains, “Iss desh mein bachhon ko apna career decide karne ka haq hi nahi hain”, mocking the films that took this line as their theme seriously (3 Idiots, Udaan, Tamasha) and telling us how choiceful career is only for the privileged.

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