Directors: Devanshu Kumar, Satyanshu Singh
Cast: Vedant Raj Chibber, Vinay Pathak, Tillotama Shome, Seema Pahwa, Bisha Chaturvedi
Streaming on: ZEE5
Chintu Ka Birthday, a chamber drama about the tensions of yesterday, inadvertently reflects the India of today. The 80-minute film depicts a day in the life of a migrant family stranded in an alien land, unable to reach home, abandoned by their own government during a crisis. The haplessness is familiar, but the optics are slightly different: It's 2004, Baghdad, Saddam has fallen a year into the US invasion of Iraq. The Indian government claims that all its nationals have been evacuated from the burning country. But Madan Tiwary (Vinay Pathak), a Bihari water-filter salesman saddled with a Nepali passport, is yet to find a way out for his family: his wife Sudha (a superb Tillotama Shome), daughter Lakshmi (Bisha Chaturvedi), mother-in-law Sarla Devi (a reliable Seema Pahwa), and son Chintu (an adorable Vedant Raj Chibber).
The Tiwarys, as illegal immigrants, are merely miscellaneous expenses in the cost sheet of a war that's not theirs: They had nothing to do with Saddam, and even littler to do with Bush. The film opens, unfurls and closes in their household – it's little Chintu's 6th birthday, and the entire family is determined to shut out the noise and throw him a party. Bombs and helicopters and alarms can be their chorus. They hope to forget, by giving the boy a day to remember. With no way to escape, this is their escapism: Cake, balloons, gifts and laughter are of utmost importance. But it's not long before the geopolitical reality of their situation strikes. Certain "guests" – a generous Iraqi landlord, two under-siege American soldiers, a local teenage hustler – threaten to derail their plans.
The film may not completely follow a child's gaze, but the gaze of a man who channels the idealism of a child to redeem himself
At first glance, the film hints at the makings of a time-tested genre – observing war through the eyes of a child. A simplistic worldview is inherent to this form. The adults go to great lengths to protect the boy from bad news: School is "closed", the neighbourhood baker is "shut". The local hustler kid speaks like a smartass straight out of a Jojo Rabbit-style satire. Chintu imagines the family's backstory as an animated cartoon: Saddam was quirky, George Bush is the big villain for ruining his father's thriving business, Bush is so happy that he has "forgotten" to recall the young American troops, all three sides (the civilians, the soldiers, the protagonists) suffer different degrees of abandonment. None of them belong here. It soon becomes evident that the angles are too many for a six-year-old's gaze, and it's to the film's credit that the lens abruptly widens once things go south. Truth slips through the cracks of their fiction.
In many ways, Chintu Ka Birthday plays out as the consequence of The Great Indian Family Movie quite literally entering uncharted territory. Within four walls, with no indication of an outside, the Tiwarys seem to be subconsciously imitating some of their favourite Bollywood family melodramas – the characters are annoyingly upbeat, constantly in denial, hopelessly hopeful, putting on a show when nobody's watching. This is the only "image" they know of; it's the only reference point they have. The doting mother even silences the room by breaking into a lovely folk song for her son. But context inverts the genre of their story.
The direness of being caught in the crossfire of history lends meaning to their orchestrated joy. The pretense suddenly acquires purpose – the same performative family melodrama now becomes a slice-of-death tragedy. The stress of soldiers invading the house looks contrived, because they react in a way that's deliberately meant to binarize the ambiguous morality of war: The black soldier is empathetic, the white newbie is hotheaded. The chain of events that makes them misread the intent of the Indian family feels forced. But I understand the point of this narrative device. It's to spotlight the persona of the film's central character, Madan.
Ever since Bheja Fry, there has been a unidimensional tone of buffoonery to the way Vinay Pathak interprets noble masculinity. He's long been typecast as the middle-class simpleton who tries to communicate in the language of grating goodness. In Chintu Ka Birthday, I found myself irritated with Madan's overt Pathak-ness. He makes unnecessary small-talk with the soldiers, borders on playing the fool, and speaks in broken English the way most Indian actors do – they mix up tenses and singular-plural nouns instead of altering their accent to suit the characters' rustic roots. At one point, in that typical mera-naam-martyr tone he remarks, "My personal problem is small compared to this country problems". And then: "Your parents must be proud of you being in army". It's all very overbearing – until I realize that Madan actually has good reason to be this person. As a father, a husband, and the proud patriarch of a small-town family, Madan is racked with guilt. They are trapped in a warzone during the kids' formative growing-up years; he has failed at his duty to keep them safe. As a result, every day for him becomes an exercise in overcompensatory example-setting.
The stress of soldiers invading the house looks contrived, because they react in a way that's deliberately meant to binarize the ambiguous morality of war: The black soldier is empathetic, the white newbie is hotheaded
Madan wants to show Chintu, on his birthday, that kindness is humanity's most potent weapon. He behaves like a live moral-science textbook with the Americans so that his son learns the value of integrity and loyalty in the face of violence. The reaction shots of his family evoke this picture: The camera cuts to the mother shielding the boy whenever Madan is punished, but she lets him watch when Madan refuses to yield to the pressure of verbal aggression. His power – though derivative and difficult to watch – is his penance. Guilt drives him: Any other Indian male might have felt humiliated with his ego belittled, but Madan has no other way to be his family's hero anymore. With the schools bombed, this is the only education his kids are getting.
These little touches explain the self-righteous nature of the film. It may not completely follow a child's gaze, but the gaze of a man who channels the idealism of a child to redeem himself. We sense early on that, no matter what, the cake – even if it's fake – will be cut today. The ending will be happy, because that's what birthdays are supposed to be. Like an oasis in the middle of a desert, it's a comforting illusion. But it's the 'tomorrow' that most movies are made of. Once the lights go out, the wait for the next birthday begins: a boy dreams, and a heroic man is reduced to a sleepless refugee perched at the corner of his bed. Even in hiding, there's nowhere left to hide.