In simplest terms, one of the greatest things about Ashwini Iyer Tiwari’s Nil Battey Sannata is that it passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. The tenth standard mathematics test may be an important plot point but Bechdel is a different matter. The test is never indicative of the quality of a film but it points to the film’s disposition and its intent. In Nil Battey Sannata, the conversations are usually between the mother (Chanda played by Swara Bhaskar) and her daughter (Apeksha played by Ria Shukla) or Chanda and Dr. Dewan (Ratna Pathak), the grande dame of the Dewan household where Chanda helps. They are all about Chanda’s life, her dreams and aspirations, all of which pivot a single entity – Apeksha.
The scenes between Dr. Dewan and Chanda are particularly revealing. It’s not just the lines but a lot of offhand details that Tiwari slips into them. We wonder if Dr. Dewan’s interest is just cursory sympathy like it is for most employers over their house helps but there is a scene where she is literally sitting on the streets with Chanda as her friends walk by. They ask why she didn’t show up the previous day and Dr. Dewan says mood nahin tha. She feels genuinely invested in Chanda’s life. The other detail is the role of Dr. Dewan’s husband. He is there in the background when these two women are talking but it often feels like he’s dissolved into a void. He is there just to make some funny remark or getting called out for his condescension. When he adds, intending to help Chanda, that President means rashtrapati, Dewan is quick to retort, utna samajhti hai woh. Even their car is driven by Dr. Dewan.
Apeksha plays a mini version of the role of Madhi we watched Ritika Singh play earlier this year in Saala Khadoos. They are both hot-headed, thankless and the shoot-first-ask-questions-later kind. Like Madhi, Apeksha too is directionless and can give back as good as she gets. She is no milquetoast and Tiwari is careful in not drawing her as one of those cute and endearing kids we see in the movies. Therefore the mother-daughter exchanges can make you squirm. Apeksha doesn’t mince words and when Chanda swears back, Tiwari tries to underline where she gets all that from. It may also explain her wanting to be a house help like her mother. That’s all her world is even as Chanda works towards breaking her out of it.
Tiwari, at times, cannot help but go a little overboard with the camaraderie of the school kids. Some of the scenes are winners, like when Chanda quips at Pintu – the resident back-bencher – tumhare baal dekh ke nahin lagta hai tum aage ki sochte ho. Or the scenes where the kids come up with labels like double sardard and uska battery hamesha full charge main rehta hai for the class nerd and topper, not realizing that they are all of the same class in every sense of the word and each kid has a hidden back story. As does Chanda. But Tiwari also uses some scenes as little montages along with some manipulative background score. Like the unsolicited advice about how to learn mathematics, Nil Battey Sannata also gets preachy by the end. The message dispensing tone almost undoes every good thing Tiwari stuck to in the first half.
That’s when the performances keep the movie afloat. Pankaj Tripathy, whom we know as Sultan in Gangs of Wasseypur and more recently as the talkative Sadhya Ji in Masaan comes up with a showy but effective portrayal of a Principal, an embodiment of every stern but achingly funny teacher you come across in middle school. The kind that have to wear a facade over their real selves so as to do their job because by nature they are not cut of that cloth. Watch him at the school assembly, controlling students just by his hand movements. And then watch him deal with Dr. Dewan and Chanda in his office (or should we say, get dealt by?). Ratna Pathak as always is an earnest presence but it is Bhaskar who conveys her fears and insecurities by not conveying them at all. Because that is who Chanda is. She locks herself up to the insides and opens them, if at all, only to her trusted lieutenant, Dr. Dewan. She is the odd one out in the classroom, she is the odd one out among women like her. She knows she is alone in her fight. Even if Nil Battey Sannata takes the easy route at times, Chanda’s struggle is real.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)