Director: Karishma Dev Dube
Writer: Karishma Dev Dube
Cinematographer: Shreya Dev Dube
The short film Bittu starts and ends with a close-up of a little girl. The film opens before the school day has begun. Bittu and her best friend Chand are reciting cheesy film songs to entertain young men who seem like tourists – one is about red lipstick and a svelte waistline. The last frame of the film is also Bittu's face. It's now night. The day is over and so is her friendship – in a tragedy that plays out with chilling inevitability. Bittu's face bookends the film.
And what a face it is. Hair askew, dimpled cheeks, a smidgen of snot and eyes that gleam with defiance that refuses to be crushed by her threadbare circumstances or the school authorities. Bittu is not even 10 but she's fierce, street-smart and determined to seize the day. Which gets away from her. She has a fight with Chand. The headmistress punishes her. And then the unimaginable happens. At school, the children are repeatedly asked, 'Acche bacche kaise hote hain?' The kids immediately put their fingers to their lips to indicate that good kids are silent kids. Which takes on a new and horrific meaning at the end.
There is little scenic beauty. Instead, DOP Shreya Dev Dube captures the starkness of the landscape, the rubble of the road and the brown, barren mountains that foreshadow doom
Bittu is inspired by an infamous poisoning accident that took place in a government school in Bihar in 2013. Debutant director Karishma Dev Dube reimagines the story in a village in the Himalayas – the film was shot on location in Koti near Dehradun. But there is little scenic beauty. Instead, DOP Shreya Dev Dube captures the starkness of the landscape, the rubble of the road and the brown, barren mountains that foreshadow doom. The striking wide shots are offset by close-ups of the faces – the children, achingly innocent and unaware of how little their lives matter and the adults, most of them, careless and casually corrupt. The men in the opening sequence who are watching little girls dance are creepy. But Karishma doesn't underline the commentary. With a skillful restraint – notice the minimal use of music – she nudges us to consider the consequences of inequity. Especially for girls.
Karishma's triumph is the casting – especially Rani Kumari as Bittu. There is zero artifice about her. She has what Christopher Nolan describes as visual empathy. You instantly invest in her. Bittu's intelligence, her fervor and her anger reminded me of Jabya in Nagraj Manjule's brilliant debut film Fandry. Of course, Jabya is older but both Bittu and him defy their setting. And at the end, like Jabya, Bittu also picks up a rock to demand that the indifferent world stop and pay attention.
Bittu is steeped in poignant lyricism. In one scene, Bittu's teacher, one of the few adults in the film who cares for these children, calls her Jhansi ki Rani. With education and opportunity, what could Bittu and countless Indian girls like her, become? That question will haunt you. So will Bittu's face. Do find the film when it's out.