‘Aadmi do cheezon se banta hai. Ya toh kismat, ya mehnat.’
NB: The article has spoilers in store. Please don’t read further if you are planning to watch it.
Movies like Nil Battey Sannata come once in a lifetime. And I begin with this because there is no other way I could describe the magic this film has woven. The way the story, its representation, music, acting, and cinematography are stitched together, you find no flaws. There are weak points, but so small and negligent that you blink and miss.
A mother, Chanda Sahay wants to educate her girl, Apu. Apeksha Sahay, Apeksha has spoken with a lisp. And Chanda wants to leave no stone unturned to make sure she does educate Apu. She fears her daughter will fail tenth boards. And she is afraid about that like any other parent would be. It is not because of what society will say. No. But because of what Apu will end up becoming if she does fail. For any family in India, middle class or upper-middle class, or poor, or even the rich, educating their kids remains the single most important work, the most achievable and doable aim.
Chanda, played by Swara Bhaskar, fits in this role of a single mother somewhat unconventionally. She is poor. And so poor that when one of the neighbor’s son gets a job of 8,000 rupees per month as a peon, her daughter exclaims at that! Yet the mother is not ok with her daughter going gaga over that job of peon. Because for her, dreams matter. More than anything else. And she tries to instill this thought in her daughter’s brain. And her friends’ too. She tells them that dreaming about becoming a driver is not a dream at all. She tells them that if they want to achieve something, they too can. For that, they must work hard, so that others copy them, instead of it being the other way round. She fails, most of the time during the movie. She has her own set of fears. They do not overpower her. She loses to them once in a while but never gives up. The one time she wins, she seals the deal. Once and forever. The film brilliantly manages to show her struggle without exaggerated attempts to show them hungry or without clothes. It does not show them coughing blood because they are poor. Or being cheated on and molested. Yes, it does show Chanda being heckled by the powerful, but she does not give way to that. She fights them in her own way, slowly but surely.
Apeksha Sahay, or Apu, portrayed by Ria Shukla has her own world. Like any other fourteen years old, she has dreams. They are mostly bubbles. Bubbles that will pop at the first encounter with the harsh realities of line, of the summer outside. In spite of that, she knows the real world. She is very aware that she has to become a domestic help because her mother does not have the wherewithal to teach her after secondary school. She does not protest that. Perhaps she is conditioned to think like that by seeing around her home. Perhaps she has seen the world more than her mother thinks she has. Yet, she does not hesitate one bit while spending all the money her mother has saved over food, pizza, clothes, and a stiletto. Because after all, she is a 14-year old who wants to extract revenge from her mother. She is still a kid who does not know and does not care where the money comes from. She loves her movie posters, songs, and television. She loves chowmein and that’s about it.
The only central male character in this movie, Principal Srivastava, played by Pankaj Tripathi is a laughter riot. He is a quirky character, who has his pet dialogues, that he keeps drilling and repeating throughout the movie. He loves discipline and remains very dedicated to his work, but never overdoes it. He punishes the kids who come late to the school assembly but never physically. And that is important because he is the principal of a small government school in Agra. But he never asserts that position. For him, his work, and mathematics remain his priority.
Most people who have watched this movie, or will watch it in the coming days, will inevitably end up thinking this movie is about Maths. They cannot be blamed. Maths represents their fears of the mother-daughter duo. It is their hope of hiding behind the ‘what-will-the-world-say’ phenomenon. It is the relation of a mother with her daughter, the daughter with her own dream and the realities of those dreams, the relation of the mother with the city she lives in, and the doctor (played by the oh so beautiful Ratna Pathak Shah!) she works for as domestic help.
The directory, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari has roles crisply cutout for all these women. She has made sure the women speak their minds without fear or apprehension. I liked the fact that she does not try to sugarcoat the movie. She does not try to expose the raw nerve either. She shows a crude version of life, minus the graphic, gothic details that can be repulsive in normal day-to-day life.
In the dialogues that are spoken, Ashwiny has made sure the characters break barriers of relations, of respect and fear when they are angry or confronted with. How the daughter challenges her mother if she has the capability to educate her beyond secondary school even if she manages to pass is commendable. I would not hesitate to say that only a woman director could bring out the various kaleidoscopic angles that Ashwiny has in this movie. The treatment of the story is outstanding. The script never stands in one place. It moves ahead and keeps pace with the brilliance of Ratna Pathak Shah, Swara Bhaskar, Riya Shukla, and Pankaj Tripathi.
Chanda Sahay. Saajan Fernandes. Gaurav Chandna. Sardar Khan. Faizal Khan. Ramadhir Singh. Bhikhu Matre. Names like these come once in a lifetime in movies. Nil Battey Sannata. Lunchbox and Fan. Movies like these come once in a lifetime. And they transcend, from celluloid to our life, from reel to real, the way we think and react, reach out to people and talk to them. These characters shape lives, albeit on a very small scale. Perhaps one or two or ten, in a world with more than six billion people. It is equally rare that a movie leaves you fighting tears. Happy tears. Because you loved the movie. You lived with the characters. You experience their pain, laugh at their struggle, but relate to it.