Dir: Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari Year: 2016
Director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari and her team of writers have created a simple yet heart-warming tale that goes down like a warm bowl of soup, making you feel good all over. It is also refreshing to see the kind of people whom you usually don’t get to see on screen: a domestic help or bai, her daughter studying in Class X of a government school, her school friends that includes a driver’s son and the teachers of such a school. The director is clear in her head about what she wants to serve us. She is not trying to give us a slice of life steeped in social realism. Her heroine looks young and pretty, dressed in clean clothes. There is not too much dust and grime at her home. The lady of the house she works in, a doctor, has a heart of gold. Yes, things are sanitized, so we, the multiplex audience can watch it as entertainment. After all, that’s what we go to a multiplex for, right? But the film has heart, intelligent writing, gentle humour and endearing performances. And I was charmed.
Nil Battey Sannta, meaning zero divided by silence, an idiomatic expression in North India to denote a good-for-nothing character, is about Apeksha or Apu and her mother Chanda Sahay, the bai of the film. Apu’s heaet is not in her studies as she thinks where is all this studying going to lead her. Like an engineer’s son becomes an engineer, and doctor’s son becomes a doctor, a bai’s daughter is going to end up as a bai. Even if she did manage to pass her tenth, will her mother be able to afford to send her to an engineering or medical college? Chanda is appalled at the idea of her daughter wanting to be a bai. She is working hard and saving money so that her daughter can do something better in her life. She seeks the advice of her doctor employer (played with characteristic ease by Ratna Pathak Shah). The doctor says that clearing Class X was a must before one could think of anything beyond. The problem Chanda faced was that Apu was dreadful in maths. The teacher at the coaching class won’t teach her unless she got 50% in the pre-boards and how was Apu to do that? Who will guide her? An ingenious solution to the problem is suggested by the doctor – Chanda can join the Apeksha’s class and teach Apu as she learns herself.
It is extravagant inventiveness like this that chugs the narrative along. A chance encounter with the district collector shows her a possible path to Apu’s future. She could become a collector without having to attend expensive colleges. But more than any big twists and turns, it is the charming narration that steals our hearts. Humour is teased out of ordinary sequences with witty staging. One such gem is the scene where the class is doing a prayer as the principal (played superbly by Pankaj Tripathy) keeps gesticulating to students asking them to stop doing things like slouching, sniggering, scratching one’s ear or picking one’s nose. Equally charming are the scenes of aman, the bright boy of the class, teaching Apu and Chanda, separately, the rudiments of mathematics. Sometimes he explains the fundamentals through real life examples and giant drawings, sometimes he illustrates how to memorize difficult formulas through homespun rhymes. “ Sachin ke bina cricket jaise tyre bina tube. Volume of a sphere is 4 by 3 pi aar cube ’’, is what Apu comes out with herself. This interesting, because this is how Leelavati and other ancient Indian mathematicians wrote verses in Sanskrit to summarize mathematical formulas and treatise. There are some dramatic confrontations between the mother and daughter related to their performance I school as well their differing attitudes to life. But things are sorted out without tooo much melodrama and we leave the theatre with a smile on our lips and a warm, fuzzy feeling in our hearts.
A big part of the credit for this must be given to the trio who anchor the narrative : Pamkja Trioathy as the principal, Swara Bhaskar as the mother and Ria Shukla as the daughter. Swara is earnest and charming while Apeksha brings out the edginess of her character convincingly. We can empathize with her bad-girl act, realizing that her tantrums are her rebellion against her situation. Only by being nasty to her mother can she be convinced of the depth of her love for her. Sanjay Suri does a faultless cameo as the good-hearted collector.
But in the end, it is the genuine warmth at the core of the narrative, the witty writing and the director’s lightness of touch that wins us over. It is a small film. But it’s a gem.