Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Nil Battey Sannata (loosely translated to 'good for nothing') is a simple, honest and heartwarming film that rides on a straightforward script, well-etched characters and nuanced performances.
Chanda (Swara Bhaskar) is a 10th fail single mother who makes ends meet by juggling various jobs everyday. She starts her day as a domestic help, works in a spice factory and spends her evenings packing shoes at a shoe factory. She works relentlessly to support and educate her teenaged daughter Apeksha/Apu (Ria Shukla), while waiting for the day when Apu would find herself a goal and choose a career. Apu, a tenth standard student, is carefree, rebellious and ambition-less. She refuses to look beyond their lives or even consider getting out of the rut. Every time Chanda asks Apu about her plans for the future, without second thoughts, pat comes the answer, Ek bai ke beti bai banegi (a maid's daughter will become a maid). Chanda's dream to see Apu well-educated and successful in life sets the tone for the film.
Chanda finds immense support and an epitome of kindness and inspiration in her employer Didi (as Ratna Pathak Shah's character is called in the film) who pushes her to go the extra mile, take admission in Apu's school and pass the matric exam herself. With Didi's help, Chanda secures a seat in the same class as Apu and soon realises that she is as incompetent in maths as her daughter. She refuses to give in, seeks support from a classmate and slowly starts getting a hang of the subject. What follows is a battle of wits as Chanda and Apu become competitors in class and each test becomes a do or die situation for them.
Swara Bhaskar excels in her portrayal of Chanda. During the promotions, Swara had mentioned being skeptical about essaying the role of the mother of a 15-year-old daughter, but her powerful performance in Nil Battey Sannata takes her beyond supporting roles as an actor who can carry a film on her shoulders with ease and maturity. Not for a moment, Swara makes you feel that she is playing a part and is not the character herself. Ratna, once again, proves why she is one of the most dependable actors in Bollywood; watching her is sheer pleasure. Ria deserves a special mention. As a debutant, Ria is a natural in front of the camera and reflects Apu's inner conflict as well as her general disregard to anyone with much confidence and ease. And at last, but not the least, it is Pankaj Tripathi, as the school principal Mr Srivastava, who takes the cake for his effortless portrayal of a strict yet likeable teacher.
Set in Agra, the film is loaded with local flavours, be it the colourful dhobhi ghat on the banks of Yamuna or a glimpse of Taj Mahal and Agra Fort in the background. What I liked the most about the film is how the dialogues go beyond familiar expressions to include popular sayings, be it lambi race a ghoda ya khacchar or kangaali mein aata geela.
In one line, Nil Battey Sannata is a perfect ode to mothers and their unconditional love in the most honest way. And is so well made that it could very well be this year's Dum Laga Ke Haisha.
Film: Nil Battey Sannata
Director: Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari
Stars: Swara Bhaskar, Ratna Pathak Shah, Pankaj Tripathi, Ria Shukla