For a second, let us talk about the act of going to the theater to watch movies. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of films- the magnum opus, larger than life stories which you must see unfold on the "big screen", and the smaller, more intimate ones that you don't mind waiting around for- it will find a home among the abundance of streaming platforms. The decision of whether to go to the theater or not is made on the basis of trailers, promotional videos, and promotional interviews. Given all of this, it is hard to make sense of a film like Chintu Ka Birthday.
A movie with no trailer, and no promotional budget, where the directors and producers negotiated individually with theaters for screenings, where the audience got to know of the movie playing by word of mouth, or the modern equivalent of that- twitter retweets and mentions, Chintu Ka Birthday is first an act of enduring courage- a film that is almost ten years in the making, and finally out in select theaters in select cities.
The film is set inside a house in Iraq. It has almost been a year since the American invasion of Iraq. It is also Chintu's birthday, and he is afraid that like the previous year when America invaded Iraq, this year too, his birthday would be ruined and go un-celebrated. He is turning 6. His family, illegal immigrants from Bihar, are unable to get the Indian government to believe that they indeed are Indian and need to be flown out of this war zone. The family includes Chintu's father (a guilt ridden Vinay Pathak in his element), Chintu's mother (a simply marvelous Tillotama Shome), Chintu's grandmother (an alternatively endearing and frustrating Seema Pahwa), and his caring, instructive sister (a moving Bisha Chaturvedi). Vedant Raj Chibber plays Chintu, the center of this plot, who is aware of the efforts being put into celebrating his birthday, and is hopeful for an evening celebration of cake and tinsel.
The whole film takes place inside the home, over the course of a day. As a result, the tension feels immediate, but is alleviated by the first shot- a birthday cake being lit with candles, and Tilottama's hands wiping the hot wax before it falls on the cake; you know that eventually, a cake will be cut. Vinay Pathak's inherent goodness, where he is unwilling to fight with anyone, strikes as odd until you realize that he finds himself responsible for the family being stuck in the eye of the maelstrom. This is the kind of one-tone goodness that is born from guilt.
Small joys are often what gets people through the days fraying with bloodshed and minefields. This film is a celebration of these small joys. It keeps the bigger questions of goodness, badness, the futility of war, and illegal immigration in the background as mere ornaments to the narrative.
This character sits oddly among other figures dabbling with the good-bad dichotomy. At one point, you have two American soldiers inside the house, and the children (Chintu and his friend, a street smart boy who peddles in porn and popularity) wonder if they are good people or bad people. They surmise, that they are American, an identity that doesn't fall so squarely into the binaries of good and bad. There is also their landlord, a renegade of the violent regime- both of Saddam Hussein and the American Military Industrial Complex, whose ability to put this family at risk, and his questionable affiliations makes you question his "goodness".
The short duration of the film keeps the tension tight. The tension itself feels so frivolous when you articulate it, (A child wants to celebrate his birthday as his family scrambles amidst intruding soldiers) but when shown on screen, it is given the gravity of a larger, more sinister issue. Nothing is too small or too inconsequential in this world. A chart that Chintu's sister tries to make is given adequate run-time. Small joys are often what gets people through the days fraying with bloodshed and minefields. This film is a celebration of these small joys. It keeps the bigger questions of goodness, badness, the futility of war, and illegal immigration in the background as mere ornaments to the narrative. It's simple, intentional, and it works.
There are limited shows of Chintu Ka Birthday in Bangalore, Mumbai (Bhandup), Delhi, Hyderabad, Pune, Thane, Vadodara