Saket on Nil Battey Sannata
(Mild Spoilers inside)
From the onset, Nil Battey Sannata picks a less travelled route in Hindi Cinema. In a patriarchal society like India, and within a male-dominated Bollywood, the movie focusses its attention on a mother-daughter story. There is a bigger, more empowering message in the film and its import is so heavy that we tend to lose track of this small detail – there just aren’t too many Hindi films exploring this particular relationship. One can find father-son movies in Bollywood or even father-daughter ones, but try searching for a mother-daughter film and one immediately draws a blank. It’s a crying shame, really, and I for one am quite happy to finally see a film explore this beautiful familial bonding in a nice, thoughtful manner.
In the film, Chanda Sahay (Swara Bhaskar) is a housemaid who dotes on her only daughter Apu (Apeksha) but is horrified to know that her daughter dreams of becoming a bai (house maid), just like her. She discusses the situation with her amiable employer (Ratna Pathak Shah) who advises her to join Apu’s school, complete her own education and also help Apu in clearing her 10th Board exams. The idea simply shocks Apu, who’s scared of the social consequences of her mother’s presence in the same classroom, and this leads to an inevitable rift in their relationship. What happens next is for the viewer to watch, but suffice it is to say that in a feel-good movie, the end is always pleasant.
That said, even if the end is crowd-pleasing and formulaic it’s the journey towards that end that matters. And on that front, Nil Battey Sannata passes the test (pardon the pun!) – quite handsomely. There are questions that crop up about the film’s authenticity – there are no genuinely bad characters in the film – and sometimes it appears we are watching a fairy tale unfolding, but one can take solace in the fact that not all people in this world are evil. One has to sometimes believe in the principle of a universal good that propels this human race forward. That within this inherently imbalanced social structure there exists a world where even if there lies poverty, the moral and spiritual fabric hasn’t worn out…just yet.
Set within this world, we get to see a story of great resilience, courage and ambition, which thankfully, is narrated with a lot of elegance. The cinematography is exquisite; the music is mellow and sweet; the performances are heart-warming – it’s almost as if we are watching a Rajshri film, but with a far more capable director at the helm. It’s essentially a feel-good story with an overriding message (think big, not small; and once that bridge is crossed, chase your dreams) that informs the film’s ambition and even though there’s a certain fastidiousness to this approach, it’s a message that resonates strongly with the viewer.
The “catch” though is that the message – and the film – will most likely not reach its intended audience, given that this is a multiplex film and even if it weren’t, the intended audience, usually speaking, does not show any interest in vanilla feel-good cinema, shorn as it is of Bollywood’s innate (and alluring) glitz and glamour. This is not the film’s failing – it’s the public mindset that could do with a bit of a shakeup. Still, the central theme of the movie could serve as a source of inspiration for any age group, any section of society that needs its daily dose of honest motivation. If a charmingly narrated story about overcoming environmental odds – set in an India that remains largely preoccupied and apathetic to the state of the poor and downtrodden – can’t arouse you, then chances are your heart and spirit needs a tweak … or two!
P.S. Some critics have argued that the film accomplishes the opposite goal that it sets out to achieve – that it actually suppresses Apu’s internal ambition of becoming a bai. What’s wrong with becoming a bai and watching television all your life, if this is what makes Apu happy, they argue. The problem with this line of reasoning is that one is then applying first-world logic to a third-world problem. There are different tiers involved in any evolutionary process – for instance, a child can’t run before it starts to walk. Similarly, it makes sense for Apu to first graduate from the situation that she finds herself in – gloomy poverty – to a state that guarantees her financial security, before she can even think about the question of choice. Maybe Apu’s daughter could choose to become a writer instead of an IAS officer, or even an actress, seeing how Apu is fond of Bollywood. If Apu forces her will down her daughter’s throat (after securing financial independence) then that would be decidedly wrong. But even in the latter case, the probability of Apu’s daughter wanting to become a bai would be close to zero.