Directors: Devanshu Kumar, Satyanshu Singh
Cast: Vedant Raj Chibber, Vinay Pathak, Tillotama Shome, Seema Pahwa, Bisha Chaturvedi
Streaming on: ZEE5
Chintu Ka Birthday is a modest film with an outsized heart. Debutant directors, brothers Satyanshu Singh and Devanshu Singh, who've also written the story, don't let their limited budget get in the way of their ambition. The film is set in Baghdad in 2004, post the fall of Saddam Hussein but the action is confined to one house. Visually there is little to play with and yet Satyanshu and Devanshu keep us hooked. This is a film brimming with sweetness and innate human decency. Which often doesn't make for good cinema because bad behaviour is plot. But here, it works.
At the center is a six-year-old boy named Chintu played with heartbreaking innocence by Vedant Chibber. Chintu's serious stare, his dimples and his simple desire – all he wants is a memorable birthday – puts into sharp focus the brutality unfolding outside the house. It's almost as if this home is the last bastion of humanity left in this desolate landscape. Chintu's doting parents, his nagging but loving grandmother and his older sister are determined to give Chintu a celebration that he can remember but the school has been bombed, the baker is dead. The odds are daunting.
In places, the big ideas in the film are stunted by the small scale. We don't see what's happening outside but the smart sound design by Bishwadeep Dipak Chatterjee creates an atmosphere of battle. However, the two American soldiers who storm into the house are less effective. They are bland and come off as stock characters who were pieced together after watching Hollywood films. Which is in sharp contrast to the family. The Tiwarys, who have been transplanted from Bihar to Iraq, are etched with affection and precision. Their language, mannerisms and ways of dealing with each other are rooted in authenticity. The directors construct a lovely moment of grace when Chintu's mother sings a song for him and his grandmother joins in. It's almost as if time and violence stand still.
Chintu's father's name is Madan Tiwary. Madan, he explains to the soldiers, means the god of love. Which is desperately sad, given the loveless circumstances these people are in. But the earnestness in Vinay Pathak's face allows us to believe that this unlikely story could come true and perhaps compassion can conquer. And that's a glimpse of hope that we can all use right now.