Nil Battey Sannata perfects the arithmetic of filmmaking

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We often hear stories of rickshaw driver’s son becoming engineer or the obvious chaai waala’s son becoming PM, but what goes into making such success stories? ‘Strive’, ‘struggle’, ‘obstacles’ are words that flood your mind right now, isn’t it? Why watch a modern-day ‘Mother India’ and sob story about a kaamwaali baai and her daughter when a certain Kapoor family or fanboy can assure bang for your bucks?

Wrong. Nil Battey Sannata is far from a sob story and inspires you to believe in your dreams. The core message of the film is ingrained within the film and one needs to figure it out – just the way its character, a mathematics geek student would like to put it – mathematics ke sawaal mein hi jawaab chupaa hota hai. This particular character’s passion for mathematics is so contagious that you’d want to revisit your SSC textbooks. In know it’s terrifying, but it’s true.

Swara Bhaskar morphs herself into Chanda, a house help who also works at dhobi ghaat and sweatshop to raise her teenaged daughter Apeksha/Apu. There’s not a single moment where Swara Bhaskar lets you feel that she’s a well-educated (JNU) woman and belongs to the upper strata of the society. Such is the realism she brings on the silver screen.

Ria Shukla, who plays her daughter is indeed a revelation here. Her role is no cakewalk, as the entire film revolves around her. Be it the classroom scenes or the face-off with her mother, Ria Shukla passes every test with flying colours, unlike her character Apeksha in the film.

Ratna Pathak Shah, as Chanda’s employer, hits the right notes and breaks the stereotype of how ‘maalkins’ are depicted in our films. Here is a woman with benign smile, worldly-wise wrinkles and wit of a veteran. The interactions between Chanda and her employer is redolent with sheer camaraderie. One can smell the hair oil in a champi scene or the earth in a gardening scene. There’s a thin line between maalkin and naukraani, and it’s this line that seems to bind these two beautifully-written characters.

The actor who actually steals the show is surely Pankaj Tripathi. As a school principal who also doubles up as a mathematics teacher, this gem of an actor wins your heart with his nuanced performance. Be it the constant grin on his face, the gait, the walk, Pankaj Tripathi does it with the ease of a pro.

Sanjay Suri plays a cameo of a Collector with his heart in the right place and makes his presence felt, despite brief appearance. Music by Amit Trivedi acts as the film’s narrator, rather than being deterrent or ‘breaks’. The ‘maths mein dabba gul’ and ‘mujhko mein achi lagti hoon’ linger on your mind for a long time after watching the film.

Cinematographer Gavemic U. Ary captures the essence of the film with a touch of reality, especially the school sequences. His camera cursorily glances at the Taj Mahal during a key scene towards the end of the film. As audience, you’re too engrossed in the mother-daughter scene to care about the monument. Taj Mahal never seemed so ordinary, and it takes an ace cinematographer to make you feel so.

Debutant director Ashwini Iyer Tiwari’s Nil Battey Sannata is easily one of the finest Hindi films you’ll watch this year. The story unfolds at a leisurely pace, yet keeps you stay invested throughout its duration of 96 minutes. Even when the tension builds up, the screenplay ambles its way to the end with the calm of Buddha, leading to an enlightenment that can only be experienced and not explained. Not every director can pull off a plot that simple, with message such profound.

Nil Battey Sannata (A phrase which means ‘zero divided by anything is zero’) perfects the arithmetic of filmmaking, but might not be able to break box office records. Because Iska maths mein dabba gul!

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