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Nil Battey Sannata: A lesson to learn

There is a school assembly scene in Nil Battey Sannata (slang for a good-for-nothing person) in which the school principal, Mr Srivastava, is picking on late-comers, asking them to stand in a corner with their hands up. Simultaneously, he is silently gesticulating to the other students, to stand straight and still, to not pick their noses.

It is a scene and a character that, in the hands of a lesser actor, could have slipped into a caricature, offering an opportunity for some buffoonery but Pankaj Tripathi plays it with such nuance, care and likeability that it leaves you smiling for his knack of connecting with the audience. He is genial even when he is sarcastically asking his students to choose between becoming a ghoda ya khachchar (a horse or an ass), effortlessly taking us back to school and all the quirky teachers who refuse to get erased from our memories.

He excels yet again when Didi (as Ratna Pathak Shah's character is called through the film) is persuading Srivastava to admit her maid Chanda (Swara Bhaskar) to Class X in which a’s Chanda’daughter Apeksha is also studying. The idea is to offer some competition to the daughter, who refuses to study, so that she can come up trumps in her crucial board exams. The headstrong, cussed Shah and a befuddled, cornered, unsure Tripathi are in perfect sync. And then, there is a wry smile on his face each time he encounters Bhaskar, making one wonder if their relationship is in the same unspoken zone as the one which his character Sadhyaji shared with Devi in Masaan .

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s small, simple, straightforward and fuss-free film rides on well-etched characters and relationships which are brought alive by a nicely put together ensemble cast. Of course, the centrepiece is the mother-daughter pair of Chanda and Apeksha (Ria Shukla), though one must say they look more like sisters. A maid’s dream to see her daughter do well, her love, banter and conflicts with the teenager, resonate.

Bhaskar is consummate, but it is newcomer Shukla who surprises with her spot-on act of a film-obsessed rebel without a cause. Kids do have a way of hurting the parents most, the way she does. We have all done that too at various points in our lives. The way Chanda seeks strength and support from her employer is just as believable and real. And it’s nice the way Tiwari keeps Didi’s husband in the background, a perennial presence who rarely intrudes or speaks up in the Didi-Chanda universe.

The dialogue is another interesting aspect of the film, the way it plays with the UP lingo, the Hindi sayings ( kangali mein aata geela, jab jaago tabhi savera, and many more). It is a small but telling detail that the word ‘prayaas ’ (attempt) doesn’t become the usual filmi Hindustani ‘koshish. Here the character, in keeping with his shuddh Hindi, sticks to prayaas. Another nice detail is in the way the daughter addresses her mother as tu instead of aap ; it is so true of a lot of UP, Uttarakhand, and even Maharashtra perhaps, a sign of intimacy with the mother rather than disrespect.

Of course, there are bits that get preachy. For example, how maths can be simple to learn if you link it up with life or when you decide to become friends with the subject.

There are plot points you could nitpick on but at the end of the day Nil Battey Sannata remains a warm, feel-good film which offers hope and the promise of upward mobility that doesn’t depend on the social strata you come from but your own will and diligence.

Nil Battey Sannata

Director: Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari

Starring: Swara Bhaskar, Pankaj Tripathi, Ratna Pathak Shah, Ria Shukla

Run time: 96 minutes

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 9:05:40 PM |

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