Cute. That’s the word that kept flashing through my mind while watching Ashwini Iyer Tiwari’s Nil Battey Sannata. The film is about a domestic help named Chanda (Swara Bhaskar) – she does a number of other odd jobs as well – who despairs that her daughter Apeksha (Ria Shukla) isn’t interested in studies, and an early scene shows Chanda attempting to rouse a sleeping Apeksha. The girl rubs her eyes and complains that had her name not begun with an A, she’d not be at the top of the attendance roster; she could go in a little late. Chanda smiles and replies that she should probably change her name to “Zandu Balm.” That’s the kind of cute I’m talking about. Much later, we get the scene where Chanda goes to the district collector’s (Sanjay Suri) house and is turned away by the security guard. We get the scene again. And again. And again. Finally, when the collector notices her and asks her in, we learn that she’s there to ask him… how one can become a collector. Couldn’t she have asked someone else? Did she need to go to the collector to get an answer to this question? But then, that wouldn’t have been as… cute. Even the central conceit is cuter than cute, with Chanda enrolling in Apeksha’s school, in the same class, in order to learn the same lessons so she can tutor the girl. If this film were a child, you’d be pinching its chubby cheeks.
The problem I kept fighting through the film wasn’t this cuteness, this deliberate distance from gritty reality. After all, Kaaka Muttai was about people from a similar social stratum, and it was button-cute as well. But there’s a difference. Kaaka Muttai was a boys’ own adventure presented as a light comedy, but we sensed the darker layers underneath – the film did not trivialise or judge any aspect of these lives. The film was just a fleeting episode, whereas Nil Battey Sannata is about Apeksha’s life, her future. Apeksha does not like studies because she feels she’s destined to become a bai like her mother, and this upsets Chanda. Chanda dreams big, and she’s dismayed that Apeksha marvels at someone getting a sarkari naukri at Rs. 8000 a month. (Another kid in Apeksha’s class wants to learn English so that he can drive an air-conditioned cab – wearing a uniform.) The film never answers the question: So if Apeksha wants to become a bai, then why shouldn’t she become a bai?
Apeksha is a Ranbir Kapoor fan, and it’s hard not to think of Wake Up Sid, where the audience – middle-class and upper-class multiplex-goers, largely – was encouraged to empathise with an upper-class boy whose parent wasn’t allowing him to do what he wanted to do, even if the boy did not know what he wanted to do. I was vaguely troubled by the fact that the same middle-class and upper-class multiplex-going audience – largely the target for this film, too – is being encouraged to empathise with the parent, this time, who wants Apeksha to become a collector. I certainly understand that Chanda wants this. And I can understand if Apeksha had a natural aptitude for whatever makes a collector a collector, something that needed coaxing out, something that Chanda saw and saw fit to encourage, like how the Madhavan character saw the innate aggression in the Ritika Singh character in Irudhi Suttru/Saala Khadoos and decided that unless he intervened, she’d continue to waste her life away.
But the film just takes the position that being a bai is a horrible thing. (The last scene, with Apeksha all grown up, drives this stance home with a sun-rises-in-the-east ring of certainty.) And we just don’t see why it’s such a bad thing. This is where the film’s cuteness works against it. The director doesn’t want to get her hands dirty, so we don’t see Chanda sweeping or mopping floors, or scrubbing a mountain of dirty dishes. Chanda has the best employer ever, a supremely compassionate Dr. Dewan (Ratna Pathak Shah, who appears to be having the time of her career). Her duties seem to consist of helping with the gardening, or manicuring nails, or administering a head massage – and it’s easy to see why Apeksha thinks this isn’t such a bad deal. Look, I’m not saying that one shouldn’t aspire to become something other than a bai. I’m just saying that one cannot automatically impose one’s wishes on a young girl either, through a series of cute contrivances, without talking things out. I’m saying that if we’re okay with an upper-class Sid being something of an aimless slacker, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge a lower-class girl who just wants to be a bai in an upper-class household, make enough to get through the month, and watch a lot of TV.
The director probably knows she’s preaching to the converted – and what a tragedy that the real audience for this film, the audience that needs to watch it, isn’t going to get the chance – and her sensibilities match those of the multiplex audience that wants a bit of reality but not enough to sour the taste of popcorn. So she sands off all the rough edges and situates the empowerment message in a warm-and-fuzzy “feel-good” zone. We can feel good about applauding this girl’s escape from bai-hood. The film is beautifully staged – though perhaps too much so, with a gauzy yellow light that softens the squalor and music that’s like a warm bath. Chanda works in a mill, a shoe factory, a roadside food stall – and everyone around is super-nice to her. Even when an employer fires her, he doesn’t raise his voice, and even when she loses all her savings, you don’t feel her loss. (By then the film’s feel-goodism is so entrenched, you know the crisis will pass quickly.) And I doubt there have been kids this tolerant of a grown-up in their class. A few giggles on seeing her, a small jab about her height – and that’s it. They’re all soon best buddies.
The feel-goodism extends to the dialogues too. “Tere paas sawaal bahut hain. Tumne kabhi jawab dhoondhne ki koshish nahin ki.” It’s a great line. It feels right. And it’d look great on a greeting card. But it’s uttered to Apeksha, who isn’t really questioning her life. She just wants to get her mother off her back. Elsewhere, Apeksha looks accusingly at Chanda and says, “Apne sapne mujh pe thop rahi hai,” and we get a response much later, when a wise-beyond-his-years classmate tells Apeksha, “Uska to sapna hi tum ho.” Again, the line melts the heart – but how is this any justification for Chanda’s actions? Even the casting of Swara Bhaskar is a feel-good decision. She is a warm, easy-to-like presence, with no shades of prickliness – even her cusswords come off like cute endearments.
If there is some frustration with the facileness at its core, it’s because Nil Battey Sannata isn’t a stupid, lazily made, one-note message movie, like the recent Chalk N Duster. There’s a ton of atmosphere, flavour, nuance, gentle humour, and the film makes a strong case for what I felt was its real message: that we need more women filmmakers. They craft female characters in ways that many male filmmakers simply don’t. (Or maybe it’s just that male filmmakers choose to tell very different stories.) If Dr. Dewan’s husband is relegated to the background, the way mute wives of powerful men in feudal dramas are, there’s barely a mention of Chanda’s absent husband. And despite the film being set in Agra, with the Taj Mahal looming as a constant reminder of love, Chanda doesn’t seem to be bothered that she’s not in a relationship. Even the handsome (and single) collector isn’t roped into the movie for a love angle. In the absence of these “traditional” pairings, the film’s central relationships – between Chanda-Apeksha, Chanda-Dr. Dewan – shine brightly. Chanda calls Dr. Dewan didi, and there’s the suggestion they are some kind of soul sisters. It’s not hard to imagine that Chanda is at least as important to Dr. Dewan as her husband is, the way it is with domestic helps and mistresses in so many households. In contrast, Chanda and Apeksha have a more combative relationship, that of equals. “Maa hoon teri,” Chanda says. “To baap banne ki koshish mat kar,” warns Apeksha, who seems to have happily fallen in line with a patriarchal mode of thinking that only fathers should make the really important decisions. The film could have used more of these screaming matches, and fewer of the messagey sessions (though the latter don’t grate all that much, given the fact that a parent would say messagey things to a child).
As Apeksha, Ria Shukla is astounding. She captures both the unwitting cruelty of children and the feeling a recalcitrant horse must feel when someone is trying to break it. Watch the look she throws at Chanda after solving a problem in maths, her weak area. (Now you know where the cute title comes from.) It’s a look that hovers between “shit, this stuff is fascinating; I now know what you were going on about, wanting me to study harder” and “I can crack this; I’ll get more marks than you and put you in your place.” The kids around Apeksha – the actors who play Pintu, Sweety, Aman (who’s called in a little too often to patly resolve complicated plot points) – are all fantastic. And Pankaj Tripathi walks away with the movie as the headmaster, prone to sitting in the lotus position in exam halls. It’s a delightfully cartoony performance, and you sense a man so bored with his job, with the bratty kids, with the platitudes he has to spout, that he decided to liven things up by putting on a show. He’s another reason you cannot easily dismiss films like Nil Battey Sannata. If nothing else, they exist as showcases for severely underused talents.
- Nil Battey Sannata = a useless person, a dunce
- Kaaka Muttai = see here
- sarkari naukri = government job
- Wake Up Sid = see here
- Irudhi Suttru/Saala Khadoos = see here
- bai = domestic help
- “Tere paas sawaal bahut hain. Tumne kabhi jawab dhoondhne ki koshish nahin ki.” = You have many questions, but you haven’t looked for answers.
- “Apne sapne mujh pe thop rahi hai” = You’re forcing your dreams on me.
- “Uska to sapna hi tum ho” = Her dream is… you.
- Chalk N Duster = see here
- didi = elder sister
- “Maa hoon teri” = I am you mother.
- “To baap banne ki koshish mat kar” = Then don’t try to become my father.
Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.