Thursday, April 28, 2016

Parents, children and changing equations in Nil Battey Sannata

This week sees the release of The Man Who Knew Infinity, about the great – and tragically short-lived – mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan’s stint at Cambridge a century ago. Not having watched the film yet, but having read the source book by Robert Kanigel, as well as David Leavitt’s novel The Indian Clerk – and having more than a passing interest in Ramanujan’s work – my heart sinks a little at the thought of Dev Patel playing the lead. (Slumdog Arithmetician?) Still, it should be fun to see a film tackling that most seemingly non-cinematic of subjects, math.

Coincidentally the young Ramanujan came to mind when I watched scenes involving a supporting character in the new film Nil Battey Sannata. “Maths ko apni zindagi se jod do,” says the savant-like Amal as he helps his classmates make order out of blackboard scrawls, much like Ramanujan once did with new expressions of pi. “Maths se dosti karo.”

This film isn’t about mathematics, but it is about someone trying to bring order to a chaotic life: Chanda (Swara Bhaskar), a single mother leading a hand-to-mouth existence in Agra, doing everything she can to ensure that her adolescent daughter Apu (Ria Shukla) gets a proper education and sets her sights high. Math figures obliquely in this story. Early on, to her dismay, Chanda learns about the “ganit” involved in getting concessions at coaching classes. (Only students who have already scored 55 percent or more are eligible, which seems strange; surely it’s the others who need tuition more.) Later, as the students grapple with the twin demons of sine and cos, there is a math song: the lyrics mention quadratic equations and such, and build on the amusing device of Chanda – who has joined her daughter’s class – relating new concepts to everyday things (“tyre, tube” can be rhymed with “square, cube”, for example).

These are quirky scenes, and I wish there had been more such, but Nil Battey Sannata is that scary thing, a resolutely well-intentioned and good-hearted film. I’m being facetious, but only just. Like many good-hearted films, it has some lecture-baazi, some overt displays of progressiveness and affirmation: Chanda gets support from a doctor (Ratna Pathak Shah) whose house she works at; encouragement comes from a local collector, so munificent and sunshiney that the halo above his head is nearly as bright as the flashing light atop his car. And like many such films, its best moments occur in the cracks between the sermonizing, when the characters are allowed to just relax and chatter: scenes like the one where Chanda hilariously compares the experience of being in a classroom full of children (including her embarrassed daughter) to accidentally slipping into a jeth’s (brother-in-law’s) bed instead of her husband’s.

Then there are the interactions between the two protagonists. The film opens with Chanda coochie-cooing over Apu, who is reluctant to get out of bed – “meri son pari, she says, tickling her gently – but then becoming more abrasive when the tea almost boils over and she realises that too much time is being wasted. Bhaskar looks a bit young to be Apu’s mother (even if one conjectures that Chanda got married at 14 or 15), but perhaps that is part of the point, enabling us to see these two in shifting roles: they are friends, snapping at each other, tossing profanities around in lighter moments (the banter includes exchanges like “Chudail kahin ki” and “Paagal kissko keh rahi hai? Gadhi saali!”), but there are other times when Apu’s hard-edged stubbornness become difficult to deal with, and Chanda’s fears and responsibilities take centre-stage; the banter becomes edgy, you aren’t sure where playfulness ends and despair begins.

Given this dual-sidedness to their relationship, I found myself wishing that the film had more closely explored another possibility: that attending school – and getting a fillip from Amal the math wiz – lights a serious competitive spark in Chanda that is quite independent of her parental concerns, and more about self-realisation. Instead of the script underlining the point that everything she does is with Apu’s long-term interests in mind.

It’s possible that I’m engaging in one of the biggest no-nos for a critic: dwelling on the film that he wanted to see rather than the one the filmmakers set out to make. (It’s possible too that I would make a very bad parent to a human child.) But in my defence, there are things in Nil Battey Sannata that lend themselves to this alternative scenario – starting with Bhaskar’s vibrant performance as a woman who may be leading a very hard existence but who is palpably alive inside, capable of responding to stimuli, to new experiences; capable of being selfish once in a while. We don’t learn much about Chanda’s early life, but we know she didn’t get the chance to complete her own education, and it’s easy to imagine that this woman would relish a second bite of the cherry. I was reminded of Shashi, played by Sridevi in English Vinglish, her decision to join an English class a response to jibes from her daughter and husband – but the new experience becoming more about herself in the end.

As anyone who closely follows Hindi cinema knows, the depiction of parent-child relationships has become more varied in recent years, having moved away from many of the noble-sentimental archetypes of the past. Nil Battey Sannata usually steers clear of those clichés too, but how cool it would be to see a film where the dominant mode of the relationship is competition, where a woman can wag her thumb mockingly after getting higher marks than her daughter in a class test, not because she is trying to motivate her but simply because…she feels good about it. A mathematician might call that an identity transformation.


P.S. In the end, the film offers what I felt was a mixed message. There is nothing wrong with failing, it says, as long as you at least make the effort to follow a dream – so far, so good. But there is also the implication that some dreams are acceptable while others aren’t: it isn’t cool to dream of being a driver, for instance (even if the dream involves wearing a uniform and driving a posh car) – you should aim higher. Nor is it okay to be a bai, even the high-end sorts who get called “nannies”; set your sights straight on civil service (and hope that you get the right advice from an honest, helpful, self-made government officer. In the scene where a hopeful Chanda approaches the collector’s bungalow, look at the facile divide the film sets up between the two lower-class watchmen who try to shoo her away – they are doing their job, after all – and their beaming employer who comes personally to the gate to rebuke them and show her inside).

“Nil Battey Sannata” is a phrase that is defined here as “jisska kuch nahin ho sakta”, but there was a moment in the film where I wondered if there was some wordplay involved in the title. The words have a phonetic link with “neel batti” or blue light, like the one on the collector’s car – a light that must seem like a symbol of hope and inspiration to Chanda. Near the end, the collector takes Chanda and Apeksha for a ride in his car – they sit in the back, with him, but I kept thinking about the uniformed chauffeur in the front seat. And about other bais earning honest livelihoods. And about the watchmen outside the collector’s bungalow, who become soft targets for a story that turns out to have conditional empathy for genuinely unprivileged people.

[Did a shorter version of this for my Mint Lounge column]


  1. What an insightful analysis,sets you thinking as a parent.

  2. I really like this post, thank you. I think it is the parents who are most themselves, if you know what I mean, rather than those driven by narratives of what parents should be, who can let their children just be. Even if they become less than successful. I know that this sounds like you are consigning your children to a terrible fate, but it need not be so. About the film, I feel that there is something inherently problematic about saying that you should be content in the milieu you were born in. At the same time, I find its simplistic opposite equally problematic: perform, attain success and that is the measure of your life. There is always more to life, perhaps between the cracks as you say :)
    PS: I've read your posts about Foxie. No way are you going to be a bad parent to a human child!

  3. Exact my sentiments about 'some dreams are acceptable while some are not' point. In the overzealous attempt to put forth a 'progressive, feel-good, message-oriented' movie, one can see that the makers succumb to being a tad too moralistic in the process and in the bargain reveal their own biases. I like to call this malady 'Hiranititis'.

  4. You make very interesting observations! I was tremendously excited to watch this film – having been told about it by someone who worked in it – but it was not the uplifting, pro-education film that I had expected it to be.
    That scene at the collector’s house was perhaps the most ridiculous in the film. The only reason we, the audience, can see that Chanda wants her daughter to be collector is that collectors get flashy cars, chauffeurs and posh bungalows. Is that the only reason to aim high – the frills?
    Another thing that rankled (and this might be something of a spoiler) was Apu’s eventual justification for wanting to be in government service – ‘kyunki main bai naheen banna chaahtee’. This suggests two equally problematic ideas: first, that Apu doesn’t really want this job, she just wants to escape being a maid; and second, that being a bai is job beneath her dignity!
    I wasn’t entirely satisfied with this film. Thanks for the piece, I enjoyed it!