"Nil Battay Sannata" is a lovely pocket sized marvel of a film. It tells us old tales of how hard work pays and reinforces the self sacrificing mother trope, yet does it in such a winning way that it leaves you all gooey inside. Debuatant director, Ashwini Iyer Tiwari, take a bow, you've certainly arrived with a splash!
The protagonists are a mother-daughter duo played effortlessly by Swara Bhaskar and Riya Shukla; the latter has to be the find of the year! She plays Apeksha aka Appu, with aplomb. Having missed the promos on TV, I decided to watch Nil Battay Sannata based solely on the rudimentary storyline on its IMdB page. That it featured Swara Bhaskar, was an added incentive.
I've watched her on the big screen and admired her tremendously. In earlier forays, such as Tanu Weds Manu she has played second leads with little screen time, yet has managed to hold her own.
It was a gamble richly rewarded. Swara, an accomplished actor, proves with every frame, with nuanced gestures, as each pitch-perfect emotion flits over her face, here's a performer to be reckoned with. Here she is in her element as Chanda Sahay, who enrols in the same matriculation class as her daughter so she can teach her maths, and also motivate her to continue her education.
Chanda works very hard at multiple jobs, to save money for her daughter's education. She works as a household help in the home of a rich couple, of whom the wife, is played by Ratna Pathak. Ratna plays a doctor while the husband is probably retired, apparently unemployed. Intrestingly, the gent is ignored, he's not named and barely given two lines in the whole movie. The one time the couple are shown leaving home, it's Rattan's character who drives the car. It doesn't signify much because upper class women drive cars all the time, but somehow this little detail of the effaced husband delighted me :-)
Chanda, works two other jobs, apparently one as a "dhoban". She's shown washing clothes on the banks of the river, but there's no mention of it otherwise in the rest of the movie. The river bank provides for a stunning, colourful backdrop to a couple of scenes, with clothes spread out to dry. She also holds down a part time job in a shoe factory.
Chanda is shown almost always working or worrying about her daughter. She has no life of her own. Apparently, she has no friends either, save in one scene towards the end when she discusses her daughter with a neighbour. She could be an average middle class parent in her single minded devotion to her daughter's education. The unbroken sequence of self sacrificing mothers of Hindi cinema continue. Probably unfair to expect too much?
At last a movie, in which the central character is not a high flying NRI or the rich upper class! A movie which showcases the struggles of a working class woman and her aspirations. Not sure if the script writers consulted or listened to real people in the making of this movie but the voices sounded authentic to me. Of course, that's not saying much.
Alhough Chanda is depicted as self-sacrificing and turns repeatedly to her employer for guidance, but she is also an independent woman, making her own decisions. Perhaps the lack of a husband was a necessary plot device for this purpose. Towards the denouement, Chanda's employer leaves town, and I heaved a sigh of relief. I'd like to believe the departure is designed to give Chanda complete freedom to decide the future course of action for herself, and she sails through. Here's a glimpse of how good cinema can be feminist, too, and the fact only adds to the sparkle.
It's far from perfect as a film. I cringed when Chanda visits the Collector played by Sanjay Suri and he assumes she's come looking for a job. It's only a confident Swara with a nuanced performance who saves the scene with the right mix of confidence when she tells him the real purpose of the visit. But then I'm watching the movie from the vantage of an upper class savarna. Did it look jarring to others? I'd like to know.
Where the movie faltered, in my opinion, was in totally ignoring the voice of the child. Appu is a spoilt brat, but which teen would like her mother to infringe on her personal space, enter her classroom and -to her mind- "steal" her friends? Also the physical violence is glossed over. The assumption that parents have a right to hit children, is carried forward unquestioningly.
On balance the movie makes for an immensely enjoyable experience, setting aside its flaws. This is as close to a feminist movie as Bollywood is going to give us in the near future. If you haven't already seen it, go watch Nil Battay Sannata!