Cinema: The Dreams we Weave
Nil Battey Sannata is a life-affirming tale which is at its heart an ode to mothers. The film sends a strong message about the importance of education
Sonali Ghosh Sen Delhi
Chanda Sahay (Swara Bhaskar) is a working mother with a scrappy, rebellious teenage daughter. She wants her daughter to do well in school and, later, her career. Like all working mothers she is consumed by guilt and questions – is she doing enough for her child? Should she help her with her tuition in maths? Does her daughter study enough after she comes back from school?
There is just a teeny-tiny difference between her and other mothers – unlike most urban working women, Chanda works as a domestic help and in multiple menial jobs to make sure her daughter can attend school and achieve her ambition.
Chanda knows education is a bridge that can cross that chasm between the haves and have-nots. Unfortunately, precocious Apeksha or Apu (Ria Shukla) doesn’t quite share her vision. She doesn’t know how close she is to becoming another statistic in the endless line of school drop-outs in India. What’s more, she doesn’t seem to care. As she declares to Chanda, she wants to be a bai, after all. “Doctor ka beta doctor hota hai, engineer ka beta engineer hota hai, toh bai ki beti bai,” and Chanda suddenly confronts the reality: can a maid really dream of a better future for her child?
This is the serious message at the heart of Nil Battey Sannata that is handled with an empathetic and sensitive touch by debutant director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari. Tiwari doesn’t go all maudlin and preachy but endows the mother-daughter duo with a fighting spirit rarely seen, and creates two strong-willed characters refusing to budge an inch. Chanda knows that whatever social strata you might be from, teenagers will be teenagers and she will have to add a bit of anger, a bit of persuasion, a bit of laughter and a bit of challenge, to make Apu move her tush and study.
Goaded by her kindhearted employer, Dr Dewan (Ratna Pathak Shah, who is commendably magnificent) she enrolls in her daughter’s school in order to throw a spanner in the works for the lazy ambitions of Apu. It also gives the director a classroom canvas to explore ambitions and dreams, love and jealousy, hopelessness and hope. It is fable-like storytelling, which touches on a variety of subjects – be it adult education or fear of maths – without slipping up on the narrative or losing out on the movie’s inherent innocence and simplicity.
Bhaskar and Shukla capture the mother-daughter relationship beautifully. Their banter and arguments and silences are etched over TV, tiffin and chowmein. Their worry and love spoken through witty, lighthearted dialogue and their care and concern shown through a touch or a glance. Shukla makes an assured debut and plays off the talented Bhaskar with ease.
Their classroom stand-offs are also peppered with delightful characters like Principal Srivastava (Pankaj Tripathi) who is part puffed-up peacock, part stern, part gentle, and wholly endearing. Then there are the children. There’s Pintu (Prashant Tiwari) and Sweety (Neha Prajapaty), who meander through life delightfully rudderless, their childhood innocence still shielding them from their humble ambitions, and Vishal Nath as the class nerd and mathematician extraordinaire. Each will contribute and learn from Chanda and Apu and teach them a few life lessons too.
The screenplay reminds you of a Sai Paranjape film where gentle wit softens the harsh bite of reality, with characters that linger in your mind (even if it is Dr Dewan, who is hardly ever seen but remains a reassuring presence throughout the movie), and an Agra that could be everyman’s city, with Gavemic U Ary’s cinematography making it look gently real, like an illustration from a children’s picture book.
Of course there are places where the film falters, like the sub-plot of the Collector (Sanjay Suri), which seems to have been sketched in hurriedly over the more assured strokes of the primary story. Even the relationship of Dr Dewan and Chanda smacks a bit of bourgeois condescension. But that’s trying to read too much into what is a delightfully charming coming of age story of both Chanda and Apu, where they discover that gossamer-tipped dreams are not as fragile as they seem and all it needs is a bit of unconditional love to make them soar high up in the sky.
Nil Battey Sannata is a compelling story, told with warmth and humour. It’s a little Pandora’s box of a movie, that offers you more than entertainment — it offers you hope.