Sunday, April 24, 2016

REVIEW 385: NIL BATTEY SANNATA


Release date:
April 22, 2016
Director:
Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari
Cast:


Language:

Swara Bhaskar, Riya Shukla, Pankaj Tripathi, Ratna Pathak Shah, Cameo: Sanjay Suri
Hindi


WARNING: LONG REVIEW AHEAD

A struggling single mother, an only child who takes her for granted and a supportive employer – three bright women lie at the heart of this film by debutant director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari.

Nil Battey Sannata is a reminder that there is no such thing as a life less ordinary. We are, after all, the heroines of our own existence. Writers who plagiarise are clearly not looking around them. If you must lift an idea, lift from life. Chanda Sahai is not the sort of person who would attract a second glance if she passed us on a street. Her sweet face is overshadowed by drab saris and a boring hairdo. Yet Tiwari, her co-writers Neeraj Singh, Pranjal Choudhary and Nitesh Tiwari stopped, not just to take a look but to weave an entire screenplay around her.

It is a good thing their collective imagination did not go in search of the millionaires, billionaires and bhais that Bollywood is so pre-occupied with. In telling us the story of a bai (housemaid) instead, they have ended up creating a unique, inspiring and exceedingly moving Hindi film.

Like many impoverished mothers, Chanda works relentlessly to make ends meet, holding down multiple jobs to supplement her income as a maid in Agra. Her daughter Apeksha a.k.a. Apu barely notices her labours though. Apu is in Class X and has been scraping through all her tests so far. With Mathematics, she does not even manage that (hence the song Maths mein dabba gul, meaning: useless in Maths) and Chanda fears the subject will cause her to flunk her finals.

Worse, Chanda is shocked to discover that none of this matters to Apu because she has no career dreams. Just as an engineer’s kid becomes an engineer and a doctor’s kid becomes a doctor, so also a bai’s kid becomes a bai, the girl tells her mother nonchalantly one day.

The lady of the house where Chanda works, the kind Dr Diwan, suggests that she return to school herself, in fact to the Xth (the class she failed as a student) in Apu’s school. This would put her in a position to help Apu with her work and also monitor her.

The film takes us through the ensuing tension between mother and daughter, the effect of the increased demands on Chanda’s time and how this decision alters the course of their journey.

Nil Battey Sannata literally means zero divided by absolute silence, stillness and desolation, which is a mathematical metaphor for hopelessness or an existence that could amount to zilch. Chanda is determined that she and Apu will add up to more than that.

It is a charming tale told with good humour, sensitivity and confidence. The characterisation of both the leads and the supporting players – including Apu’s classmates – is richly layered and plausible. They all come across as real people from a real world.

Even Apu’s extreme nastiness towards Chanda is straight out of reality. Is there a kid out there who has never ever been hatefully mean to a sacrificing, loving parent?

The team of Nil Battey Sannata wisely recognises that there is no need to artificially heighten the drama in their film when life is a drama in itself. The result is a minimalist directorial style that is apt for the realistic story at hand. Both are complemented by a background score so gentle that you could forget it is there. Just as you forget cinematographer Gavemic U. Ary’s camera that is self-effacing and self-erasing to the point that a viewer might believe she has herself entered the frame and is watching Chanda and Apu from the margins of their lives.

The film does falter occasionally. First, the girls-are-not-good-at-Maths stereotype is stated as a truism by a seemingly liberal character. The continuing worldwide prejudice against women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics related professions) is not an imagined problem and it hurts when a sensible film casually perpetuates gender typecasting.

The other off-key point comes in the end with Apu’s response to the question of why she wants her chosen profession. Her answer is rather thin and poorly thought out. Surely the idea is not to belittle bais but to have worthwhile goals and sound, specific reasons for zeroing in on them.

Besides, the ode to mothers in the climax is out of sync with the rest of the film’s non-schmaltzy tone. There are plenty of crappy parents (mothers included) out there. The point should be to acknowledge great parents because they are great, not merely because they happen to be parents.

These portions are especially jarring because they rear their heads in an otherwise lovely venture.

The film’s dialogues, for instance, are uncommon on the Bollywoodscape. There is a lyricism to the language these characters speak and Chanda’s vocabulary in particular. While the use of “bai” may have been more convincing in a western Indian setting, it is not unknown in north India with this meaning. Besides, there is such pleasure in hearing words like “kantaap” (slap) and “kandam” (useless) that so rarely find their way into Bollywood scripts. My pick of the film’s phraseology though is “nil battey sannata” and how it smoothly rolls off Chanda’s tongue.

It helps that the actress playing her is brilliant. With Nil Battey Sannata, Swara Bhaskar – a memorable satellite player in Raanjhanaa and the Tanu Weds Manu films – gets a lead role in a worthy project. A city-bred, educated woman herself (Bhaskar is an MA from JNU) she subdues her naturally sophisticated body language to slip into this role without becoming a cliche.

Riya Shukla is a flaming ball of energy and well cast as the little spitfire Apu. She is a discovery.

Ratna Pathak Shah plays the elderly doctor-householder who helps Chanda along with her ambitions. She brings warmth, empathy and dignity to the role which, incidentally, is vastly different from the part she plays in Kapoor & Sons that is still running in theatres.

She is the sort of employer about whom newspaper articles are not written because the media, justifiably so, is focused on those who ill-treat their domestic help. While their cruelty, casteism and classism ought to be chronicled and condemned, it is also good to be told about this benevolent memsaab who goes out of her way to help her bai, because such people too do exist.

Pankaj Tripathi is a scene-stealer and showstopper as the school principal and Maths teacher Srivastava Sir. Despite the thoroughly entertaining, quirky mannerisms and mincing speech, it is to Tripathi’s credit that he does not reduce Srivastava to a caricature. In this performance, it is impossible to spot the bloodthirsty Sultan Qureshi he played in Gangs of Wasseypur 1&2.  

The writing of his character too is nicely shaded. Srivastava is well-intentioned, yet humiliates his weak students, perhaps thinking, like so many Indian teachers do, that he is motivating them. Extreme portrayals are easy, the challenge lies in the middle path. Nil Battey Sannata reminds us that as with all categories of people, among teachers, parents and children too there are the good, the bad and the ugly, and sometimes the entire spectrum within the same person.

The film’s finer details though are what make it an all-round interesting experience. Such as the unspoken caste, communal and gender equations. Dr Diwan’s husband is sweet but stays in the background and no information is offered about Apu’s father. Whatever happened to him apparently no longer warrants discussions. Chanda’s singleton status also adds dimensions to the story, such as the relationship of equals as much as mother and child in the household.

Even the use of the Taj is refreshing. Most films mindlessly latch on to architectural landmarks as city identifiers. Example: a character who lives and works in south Delhi passing Red Fort in north Delhi on her way from home to work. In this film, the Taj first makes a fleeting – and logical – appearance, and in the end forms the backdrop to a long monologue Chanda delivers to Apu. It feels right. If you have visited the Taj you would have experienced the calming effect of the monument which, here, matches Chanda’s sedate words in Bhaskar’s velvet voice.

Nil Battey Sannata has a light touch, yet is serious as hell. Despite the frenzied pace of Chanda’s days, the film itself has an air of composure. To see it merely as a lesson in the importance of education would be to limit it. This is an uplifting film about the importance of having dreams.

Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, where have you been hiding all this time?

Rating (out of five): ****

CBFC Rating (India):
U
Running time:
100 minutes


Photograph courtesy: (1) https://www.facebook.com/NilBatteySannata/ 

Friday, April 22, 2016

REVIEW 384: SANTA BANTA PVT LTD


Release date:
April 22, 2016
Director:
Akashdeep
Cast:





Language:
Boman Irani, Vir Das, Vijay Raaz, Sanjay Mishra, Lisa Haydon, Ram Kapoor, Neha Dhupia, Johnny Lever, Vrajesh Hirjee, Ayub Khan, Guest appearances: Sonu Nigam, Vikas Bhalla and Manmohan Singh
Hindi


Santa Banta jokes are a national treasure. Their long survival is, in a sense, an ode to the country’s Sikhs who are among the few Indian communities with the ability to laugh at themselves (an image that terrorists and sections of the clergy have been consistently trying to undermine, ever since bombs were exploded in theatres showing Jo Bole So Nihaal in Delhi in 2005).

Hindi cinema has also been guilty of unfairly exploiting the Sikh sense of humour by lazily and unintelligently stereotyping ‘Sardars’ as belligerent loudmouths and buffoons even in spaces where laughter is not relevant. There’s a thesis begging to be written here. Suffice it to say for the purpose of this review that director Akashdeep’s Santa Banta Pvt Ltd comes to theatres bearing the burden of a formidable legacy.

The film stars Boman Irani and Vir Das as small-time crooks Santeshwar Singh and Banteshwar Singh from Patiala. The two are mistaken for a duo of renowned and skilled spies going by the nicknames Santa and Banta, and are consequently roped in by India’s RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) to solve the kidnapping of the country’s High Commissioner to Fiji, Shankar Roy (Ayub Khan). Since the agent responsible for the confusion – a guy called Arvind played by Vijay Raaz – cannot afford to admit to his faux pas, Santa and Banta are packed off to Fiji.

There they meet the ambassador’s wife Kareena S. Roy (Neha Dhupia who also plays the love of Santa’s life, Billo), the wealthy antiques trader Sonu Sultan (Ram Kapoor) who is also the Roys’ friend, a RAW agent called Akbar Allahabadi (Sanjay Mishra) who is Santa-Banta’s pointsperson in that country, an undercover RAW operative called Queenie Taneja a.k.a. QT (Lisa Haydon), a Nepalese underworld don (Johnny Lever) and the gangster Antonio Kapoor (Ranjeet).

The multiplicity of characters introduced in quick succession justifies the text plates flashing on screen with their names and photographs in the beginning. You might assume that confusion over who is who would be the risk this film runs. That ends up not being the problem at all. The problem Santa Banta Pvt Ltd ends up with is: who cares who is who?

It is perhaps illogical to expect better from a  film that takes itself so casually. When the opening Hindi voiceover speaks of “Hindu, Muslim, Isaai, Sikh”, the English words flashing on screen are “Hindu, Muslim, Catholic, Sikh” (umm, Catholics are only a sub-set of Christians). Actress-model Lisa Haydon’s name is spelt differently in the opening and end credits. And Ram Kapoor suffers from inexplicably inconsistent lighting and makeup – he is pink and perspiring in early scenes, after which his face seems to be cast in shadow. These are not crimes, as less finicky folk may point out, but they reveal a lackadaisical attitude towards the filmmaker’s own product which is bound to be in evidence in the rest of the film too.

And so it is. Irani and Das have personable personalities, good comic timing and the ability to let their hair down on screen. The film’s best scenes are the ones that bring them together and focus entirely on them. Oddly enough, the writers seem not to recognise that they and humour are Santa Banta Pvt Ltd’s USPs and end up spending too much time on a boring plot involving the High Commissioner that gives too much space to everyone and everything else.

Not that the rest of the cast do not deserve to be on camera. As you can see, they are a roll call of some of Hindi cinema’s best comedians. But good actors can do little when the script is so limited, and this one in any case has too little comedy and an abundance of nothingness. 

Take for instance the sub-plot involving the Nepalese gangster. For some reason the man keeps getting phone calls from a voice addressing him as Bahadur and asking him to open the gate. Wit that draws on community stereotypes require high-IQ writing to be effective. This one is unimaginative and irritating and yet is repeated ad nauseam. Besides, if Lever contorts his face and body on screen one more time in his career, I think I might scream. 

With Santa Banta Pvt Ltd, I was too busy keeping myself awake to summon up the energy to do so.

The film’s initial scenes feature the sort of wisecrack that regular Santa-Banta consumers know well. When they squabble over how to split Rs 1,000 between them, one of them suggests that they go 50-50. Okay, says the other, but what about the remaining Rs 900?

It’s the sort of light-hearted nonsense that should have filled the film. There’s simply not enough of it. Every 20 minutes or so, there is one really good, enjoyably silly joke (which proves the writers’ potential for this genre) and then – yawn, yawn, yawn – it is back to the dull grind. Considering that the film runs for about 113 minutes, that adds up to a total of approximately six jokes. Why?

Santa Banta also features too many noisy, unmelodious songs with redemption coming in the form of just one foot-tapping number, Machli Jal Ki Rani Hai sung by Sonu Nigam and Vikas Bhalla, both of whom make guest appearances to sing it.

Former prime minister Manmohan Singh also has a cameo of sorts in Santa Banta Pvt Ltd. Sadly for him, like the government he headed till 2014, there is little he can do to save this film.

Rating (out of five): *1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
UA
Running time:
113 minutes 

This review has also been published on Firstpost: