Every so often, there is a film that offers up a contradicting bouquet of flavours, confounding and captivating audiences with equal competence. Nil Battey Sannata is a film of that breed. Insightful commentary and often-heard platitudes intermingle in the narrative of the film, to weave a story that is both, real and cathartic.
Nil Battey Sannata literally means nothing divided by silence (or in this case, zero). The choice of title is emblematic of the central point the film is trying to make- the repetitive and divisive nothingness of poverty and lack of education. It succeeds, quite charmingly, in exposing the layers of desolation that poverty can pile on. It loses its effervescent charm, quite sadly, when it tries to hammer in the importance of chasing dreams.
Nil Battey Sannata is mostly about Chanda Sahay (Swara Bhaskar), a bai who has big dreams, all of them tied to her daughter’s education. Her daughter Apeksha (Ria Shukla) however, is interested neither in chasing her mother’s dreams nor in weaving her own. She is quite content to loaf about, scraping through in all her subjects and barely managing even that in her nemesis- Maths. While Chanda struggles to get her daughter to study and make something out of herself, Apeksha (or Appu) rebels with sharp consistency.
“Just as a doctor’s child will become a doctor…a bai’s daughter will become a bai,” she says, with disarming matter-of-factness. The jolt that this announcement gives the mother and the indifference of the teenager’s sentiment are both disturbingly real. Children are coaxed, cajoled and convinced to believe that they must follow their parents’ footsteps. Of course, this tenet is not as widely indoctrinated as it used to be, but it is still persistent enough for that scene to probably resonate with several Indian teenagers.
Chanda shares her dismay at her daughter’s apathy with one of her employers, Dr. Deewan (Ratna Pathak). Her relationship with the doctor is beautifully layered. Chanda looks to her employer for advice and direction. Dr. Deewan cares for Chanda, the way most humane employers care for their bais (or after this film, would like to think they do), and perhaps even cares more than most. Chanda looks after her employer consistently and casually.
Their relationship is strangely equal. Strange, because that is not the sort of equality we are used to. They are not equal in class, education, income or in the control they are able to have over their own lives. Their equality stems from what they do for each other, when their contractual agreement does not demand that kind of affection and care. Although their conversations are mostly about Chanda’s child (we perhaps need a different kind of Bechdel test for this, but that is a separate point) their friendship shines through in the way they casually hug and touch, and in the way they are comfortable in pulling each others’ legs.
Dr. Deewan listens to Chanda talk about Apeksha, offers sympathy and advice. She eventually reaches the conclusion that Chanda must study at Apeksha’s school itself, so that she can supervise her daughter’s progress. In a wonderfully crafted scene, Dr. Deewan secures admission for her bai by using her social influence. It is Dr. Deewan’s education and privileged social position which pave the way for Chanda’s education.
Apeksha is upset at the thought of her mother invading her school- a space she is naturally territorial about. She does not want to acknowledge that it is her mother who is the new the ‘auntie’ in class, as a kid calls her. The child uses the word ‘auntie’ in a tone that is ripe with condescension. That tone is particularly instructive of the way that the word is used- often pejoratively.
Chanda eventually becomes popular with Appu’s friends, learns maths herself and goads her daughter into outdoing her at the subject. The daughter is often cruel to the mother, but this rings uncomfortably honestly as well. When Appu finally stands up for Chanda, her monologue is almost an ode to her mother, glorifying the sacrifices that Chanda has made for her daughter. It stops just short of being trite, but the intention behind the speech is somewhat troublesome. Is a mother special only because she sacrifices? Because she works herself to the bone for her child’s happiness? Can she not be special because she is, quite simply, just her?
There are several little stereotypes that the film incorporates, and for the most part, they fit. For instance, Apeksha warns Chanda not to ‘try to be a father’ when her mother gets stern and dictatorial with her. It is a startling statement on how gender and parental roles intersect in the minds of children because of what they see and hear. But a stereotype that actually irks and sticks out of the atmosphere the film creates, is the one that asserts that females are not good at maths.
Dr. Deewan casually states that maths is the enemy of all women. The point is reiterated many times in the film, including the final scene. Of course, one may argue, that it is essential to make the point that the doctor is bad at mathematics to maintain the believability of the plot. If Dr. Deewan was good at the subject, she would have offered to teach Apeksha herself, effectively ending the story. But why tar all females with the same brush?
Several studies trace the cause of girls’ inability to tackle mathematics to the intense social assumptions that surround the subject. Researchers are now advising parents to stop reinforcing stereotypes around subjects so that children can approach their studies unencumbered by gendered baggage. It is particularly dangerous, therefore, for a film that depicts the pursuit of a girl’s education to parrot this assumption.
It is arguable that Apeksha’s final choice of career is designed to smash that very stereotype, but that contestation rings hollow because of the regularity with which the stereotype is enforced throughout the film. Apeksha’s eventual success in Maths is seen as an inspiring aberration, not a causal norm. This stereotype jars because the film otherwise does a marvellous job of portraying women as eminently capable.
Despite this imperfection, Nil Battey Sannata often refreshingly steers clear from other common tropes. Apeksha’s close circle of friends includes a boy and a girl and they interact with each other in wonderful simplicity. They are platonic friends and none of their genders are ever remarked upon. Also, Dr. Deewan’s companions’ role is conspicuously sparse. The story never furnishes much explanation about what happened to Chanda’s husband either- the film is about these women, not about their husbands.
There also are moments of beautiful social commentary embedded in the narrative of the film. At one point, Chanda speaks to a coaching class instructor so that she may get some help for her maths-challenged daughter. He explains the mathematics of such institutes- only brilliant kids get a discount because they are testimonials of the effectiveness of the coaching class. At a time when coaching class advertisements feature kids’ percentages in a font size larger than their name, alongside their passport style images, the comment is illustrative of the economics of the education industry in our country. Chanda has trouble understanding this equation; and this is no wonder, she is bad at maths.
In yet another wonderful scene, Dr. Deewan tries to tell Chanda about Dr. Kalam. Chanda finally understands who she is talking about when his hairstyle is described to her. She links Dr. Kalam to Salman Khan’s trademark center-parted hair from the film Tere Naam. The film contains other such instances that that illustrate how cinema has woven itself into the fabric of Chanda’s and Appu’s lives.
Nil Battey Sannata is ostensibly about finding your dream and then chasing it, about the impact of a good education and about the convoluted, often competitive, relationship between a daughter and her mother. These larger elements of the story sometimes come across in preachy ways. But as the narrative of the film unfolds, little lessons spill out from its fabric. These smaller, more elemental issues that the film shakes out, almost like afterthoughts, are tackled with far more sensitivity than the larger points it is trying to make. And finally, it is these little moments, tucked away in the recesses of Nil Battey Sannata, which make it a winner.