Nil Battey Sannata (#14 of 52)

Background : I first noticed Swara Bhaskar in Tanu Weds Manu II or Returns, a movie I found tremendously overrated and little patience for. I found her character as Kangana Ranaut’s friend to be the high point of the film – someone for whom you could use all the cool sounding adjectives like zesty, spunky, bubbly and high-spirited without them seeming force-fitted. I then followed her on Facebook where she seems to make the right noises and appears to be a balanced individual who has a life and voice outside the characters she plays, not yet a part of the caricatured B-town swish set and hence perhaps a little more refreshingly open. An article in support of some of the JNU vaudevillans was heartfelt and well thought-out, even if you chose to disagree with the basic premise. It’s through her then that I found out about this release called Nil Battey Sannata, and initial week word-of-mouth snippets and Facebook/Twitter sentiments seemed positive. I’m always game for an experiment – especially when the core protagonist is one you like in real-life as well as reel-life. But the issue with such ‘smaller’ movies is you rarely get a chance to view it again if you miss the first week. And so Baaghi released, and Nil Battey Sannata was wiped out and chalked down to one of those missed opportunities.

And then a few weeks later, a random high-spirited Friday evening, a friend very strongly recommending even travelling a huge distance to watch this movie. The next day, casually flipping through the mobile app – surprise surprise, it’s actually playing in a multiplex right down the road : word-of-mouth actually did work. And hence, off we went – without watching a trailer, without understanding the meaning of the title and still without an iota of an idea about what the movie is even about.

When you enter with that blank a canvas, it allows you to paint really experience it without tripping over any serpents of anticipation. And Nil Battey Sannata really draws – no -sucks you in.  Apeksha isn’t a great student – especially in Math, and her mother Chanda is obviously concerned at her belief that she should never aspire to be more than a ‘bai’, since that’s what her mother is. Chanda dreams many a dream which her daughter isn’t interested in. Enter the helpful employer Dr. Diwan who provokes Chanda to join the same school – and class! – to keep an eye on and drive Apeksha on to the right path. I will not bother into getting into the minutiae of the story here, but it’s a film full of cuteness and sweetness as the premise indicates.

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I thought one of the most unique things about the movie was the fact that a mother-daughter relationship was explored in a non-stereotypical, non-patronising manner. We’ve seen a lot of father-son relationships (Udaan, Wake Up Sid are a couple of recent ones which come to mind), but that a youngish mother and teenage daughter are more peers than a hierarchy is wonderfully refreshing and positive. At the same time, it doesn’t hold back to show how mean (and not just ‘difficult’) kids can really be – I feel that while they can be honest and empathetic and unpolitical in a way adults can’t, they can also be really difficult and insensitive when they want to – and a part of that hit really hard in some scenes here. As a lot of people have pointed out, the fact that there’s a woman at the helm stands out in the way women are shown to be central characters and males in the background, contrasting to movie stereotypes. So Dr. Diwan’s husband is seen but hardly heard – as are most Indian men with their household help in my experience, and we’re I absolutely loved loved the fact that the fact that Chanda is a single mother is conveyed through a couple of normal, everyday anecdotes and it’s not milked for the difficulties it brings in. I generally stay away from writing about acting and performances beyond the perfunctory Level 1 analysis (see Kirk-Patrick), but in Nil Battey Sannata it’s unfair to separate the movie and the characters from the actors playing them. Swara Bhaskar and the young girl Riya Shukla have a stunning chemistry, great control over the local tongue and do really moved me in the powerful solo scenes they get as well. And no praise is enough for whom I believe is the stand-out hero of the film – Pankaj Tripathi – who does a role with quirks and eccentricities without making a mockery of it. His principle is what Boman Irani should have been in 3 Idiots, Anupam Kher & Rishi Kapoor in some other movies I can’t recall where their portrayal was simply put – insensitive.The scene in the assembly right in the beginning is perhaps one of the high points of a film which really has some incredible scenes which do stand out.

It’s also a movie which I felt keeps its distance from realism in more ways then one, taking essential cinematic liberties to what I believe the director must feel essential to ‘drive the message home’. The whole joining the same class – while explained – is a bit of a stretch, the other kids are too nice and where do the extra hours of the day suddenly come from is never explained? I also felt it veers towards trivialising and infantalising 16 year olds – surely that’s an age where love, sex and drugs lurk closer than these extremely sanitised kids. And a couple of cliches towards the end which really took the film from the ‘potentially great’ to the ‘good’ category for me – the lazy stereotype of the all-knowing, well-meaning nerd who brings about a hriday parivartan which in itself came about way too easily. And the last flash-forward, an IMO unnecessary attempt to wrap the bow neatly on top of the movie to make it picture perfect with the ‘kyunki mein bai nahin banna chahati thi (sic)’ a tad condescending.

The unfortunate part is that this is a movie (or story actually) that needs to reach a large audience. The reality is it’s likely to reach primarily multiplex and metro audiences. And it’s been packaged for this audience as well (which is why I used the word ‘story’ in the previous line) without making anything seem to dirty, or insurmountable. All said and done, the harsh realities of a lower economic class lifestyle have been romanticized and kept pretty lest it hit to hard and not be a feel-good, nice family movie. Nothing wrong with that of course, except that it gives urban metro dwellers a faux sense of ‘things are moving’.

Alas, I wish I hadn’t got into that digression. The honest review was what I tweeted after watching the movie calling it the nicest, sweetest and most touching one of the year. And despite the over-analysis, that does still remain stand. It will bring some tears to your eyes and a smile to your face that will stay.

★★★★

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