Cast: Swara Bhaskar, Pankaj Tripathi, Ratna Pathak Shah, Ria Shukla
Director: Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari
Nil Battey Sannata is UP slang for good-for-nothing. The good-for-nothing here is Apeksha, a 15-year-old girl living in Agra. Apu likes Ranbir Kapoor, watching TV and dancing. She’s fiery and funny. She also has a temper. Apu is, as her mother Chanda puts it, a ‘ziddi ghodi’.
Apu gets especially furious when Chanda starts talking about math. Apu can’t grasp numbers and she refuses to invest her energy in deciphering them. Because Apu is a realist –Chanda is a maid and Apu knows that the daughter of a maid has little chance of becoming anything more than a maid.
At one point, she mournfully declares that poor people shouldn’t have dreams. But Chanda isn’t as willing to succumb to their circumstances. With great resilience and courage, this single mother proves that math, poverty, lack of opportunity – all obstacles can eventually be overcome if you work hard enough.
It’s a sweet, sanitized and somewhat simplistic story that debutant director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari tells with a light touch and a lot of heart. The film’s emotional center is the relationship between mother and daughter. They are friends but also foes who compete and fight bitterly. Writer Nitesh Tiwari nails the fault lines in their bond and both Swara Bhaskar as the mother and Ria Shukla as the daughter deliver strong performances. Swara movingly portrays the anguish of a mother who is desperate to give her daughter a better life.
I also enjoyed watching the quietly hilarious Pankaj Tripathi as the principal of the school where both mother and daughter enroll. The principal doubles up as the math teacher. In one class, he calls Apu a fused bulb but his voice is more concerned than cutting.
DOP Gavemic U. Ary captures the beauty of Agra – the river, the Taj Mahal, the roadside vendors selling jalebi and lassi – all become part of the narrative. The supporting characters are also nicely cast – Ratna Pathak Shah plays Chanda’s advisor, guide and boss. And keep an eye out for Apu’s friend Pintoo – a boy whose attitude and hair style contradict his mundane ambition to be a driver. But despite its many strengths, Nil Battey Sannata stumbles because the story is too slim. Even at 100 minutes, the film feels stretched.
In the second half especially, it feels like we are treading the same ground. There are big problems but kindly, helpful people appear and solve them. The local collector is such a decent man that he has tea with Chanda and patiently answers all her questions. Ashwiny keeps the tone resolutely optimistic and inspirational. Yes, there is grief but it never gets grim. Which keeps the stakes low for the audience. I never felt overtly concerned for Chanda and Apu because I knew that eventually, the knots would unravel.
Nil Battey Sannata comes off as slight in places but it does leave you with a sense of hope – and is there any downside to that?