Verdict: Nil Battey Sannata is well-intentioned and heartfelt for the most part. Swara Bhaskar breaks, then wins your heart!
It would be incorrect to label director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s debut film Nil Battey Sannata as merely a coming-of-age tale. Yet, perhaps many can identify with the character of a rebellious teenager whose mother fervently hopes that her child will clear the tenth standard and scale great heights, even when it’s evident that the kid is not at all academically inclined…and happily so.
This sensitively written and directed film follows Apeksha (Ria Shukla) as she finally grows up, but it’s as much the journey of Chanda (Swara Bhaskar) and the sacrifices she must make so she can realize her dreams of giving Apu a better future.
Chanda is an uneducated domestic help who lives in a basti in Agra, supplementing her income by working in a shoe factory, a pickle shop, and at the dhobi ghaat. All her hopes are pinned on her flighty daughter, who studies at a government school. Apu is a typical backbencher, with an aversion to books. She couldn’t care less about being pulled up and punished, whether for coming late to assembly or for being a poor student. Besides which, it looks clear that Apu will never be able to pass in Maths, her weakest subject. Chanda is at her wit’s end, trying to straighten out her stubborn child, who announces that she’s happy to become a ‘bai’ like her mother. It’s Chanda’s no-nonsense, yet sympathetic employer (Ratna Pathak Shah) who comes up with the novel idea of the mother going back to school, so she can motivate her daughter to study.
Tiwari injects just the right dose of humor and empathy into Nil Battey Sannata. The film is directed with a light touch, yet realistically – you can see the careful details that have gone into creating the world that the characters inhabit, and the conversations they have. The film subtly addresses prejudices and makes a strong case for educating girls, but does so without preaching. The portions at the school are the most entertaining, thanks in no small part to Pankaj Tripathi, who plays the idiosyncratic school principal and maths teacher, whom the students love to make fun of. A scene in which Ratna Pathak Shah’s character appeals to him to admit Chanda in the same class as Apu sparkles with humour.
And yet the film that shows such promise in the first half, limps towards a predictable finish. The plot wears thin, and some bits – like Chanda’s chance meeting with the kind local collector (Sanjay Suri) and their repeated encounters – come off as contrived in an otherwise convincing story. Good thing the performances keep you invested in the characters. Ria Shukla, as the feisty yet selfish Apu, has an undeniable screen presence, and succeeds in making you care for her even when she’s at her most petulant.
But at the heart of the film is Swara Bhaskar as Chanda who refuses to give up on her dream and her daughter. Not one note out of place, she grabs your attention, be it in shining hope or in crushing disappointment. Tiwari directs the film as a touching ode to motherhood, even if it does seem to labor the point towards the last half hour.
I’m going with three out of five for Nil Battey Sannata. Translated literally, the phrase means zero multiplied by anything equals zero. It’s commonly used to imply blankness, or the notion of knowing nothing. Ironic, considering the film leaves you feeling rewarded and just a little bit wiser.