A mother’s love surpasses her adolescent daughter’s unruly stubbornness. Nil Batey Sannata is a poignant story, written and directed by Ashwini Iyer Tiwari, about desperate lengths a humble maid will undergo to ensure a respectable future for her daughter. The film touches on the delicate nuances of a typical mother-daughter relationship. As beautiful as the overall flow of the story is, there were a few facets of the plot which I’ve would written differently.
There won’t be any spoilers because I want you all to judge for yourselves and jot your own thoughts in the comment section.
Chanda Sahai, portrayed by Swara Bhasker, is a single mother who work four menial jobs in the heartland of Uttar Pradesh in northern India. Being a high-school dropout, her frustrations and regrets translate into her aspiration towards higher education and a professional career for her daughter, Apeksha (affectionately called ‘Apu’)
Unfortunately, Apu, played by Ria Shukla, does not give a shred of thought about her own future, preferring to resign to her destiny of being a maid, like her mother. According to Ria, a doctor’s son becomes a doctor and a lawyer’s son becomes a lawyer. Same logic applies to a maid’s daughter. The movie opens with Chanda frantically waking her daughter for her first day of Class 10, the most crucial year for Indian students as they await to write the SSLC examinations, determining their fate for life.
Although Apu is a girl of vast potential and astute aptitude, she struggles in mathematics. Chanda applies for tuition for Apu only to be told that tuition courses only grant financial discounts to higher-ranking students (that’s Indian education for you!!). During her shift at Dr. Diwan’s home, Chanda’s intuitive yet slightly absent-minded physician employer, portrayed by Ratna Pathak, suggests she enroll in Apu’s class and learn the material necessary to tutor her. Although Chanda is reluctant, with Dr.Diwan insistence, she enrolls as the oldest student in the classroom.
The title Nil Batay Sannata is a reference to a Hindi idiom roughly translated to “Zero divided by silence”, implying one as good-for-nothing. Throughout the movie, Apu, who is perceived as lazy and dim-witted by her mathematics instructor, gradually realizes her potential, proving to herself and her instructor that she is not ‘good for nothing’. However Chanda, endowed with motherly intuition, had already foreseen her daughter’s brilliance, despite being increasingly irritated by her apathy. Throughout the film, the working-class single mother craftily devises strategies to motivate her daughter to succeed.
There were a few facets of the story which I found misplaced. In the second half of the film, Chanda is adamant to make her daughter a Collector, the foremost position within the Indian Administrative Service. The reason for this ambition is her encounter with the local collector, who was courteous, resided in a mansion guarded by security, and stated he didn’t have to take too many math courses or attend expensive college to earn his position.
Of course the film doesn’t seem to take into account how savagely intense the competition is among IAS aspirants, many of whom are engineering and medical school toppers. Ten of thousands of the best students in India apply, only to have a very small percentage be accepted.
Not to mention there are other careers for a Class 10 student to consider besides engineering, medicine and civil service. Just saying…
Another aspect of the film I found severely misguided was the characterization of mathematics as the purani dushman (common enemy) of womankind? What the bhen?! Tell that to Ada Lovelace! I understand the screenplay is addressing the underepresentation of women in STEM career fields. However, to declare such an unfounded Blanket statement is counterproductive!
One aspect I appreciated from the movie was the lack of contrived exposition dialogues to explain the absent father’s whereabouts. And I applaud the screenwriters for not taking the overdone approach of explaining the father’s absence as the reason for Apu’s lack of ambition!
Despite being a film primarily about women, Nil Batay Sannata is refreshingly NOT a women’s rights film. There is nothing in the story revolving around rape, sexual harassment, dowry burning, honor killings, slut-shaming or general misogynistic attitudes. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s important for cinematic productions to address those crucial issues. However, any woman would tell you her life is more than suffering for the fact she possesses breasts and a vagina!
Class Status. Financial Stress. Academic competition. A parent’s worry. A teenager’s stubbornness. The frustrations of unconditional Love. These are the reoccurring themes in the story. And these are issues a number of women ( and men) endure on a regular basis.
Nil Batay Sannata is a female-centric film which advocates for the empowerment of its (female) lead characters. However, the movie doesn’t scream SJW-inspired third-wave feminism at your face!!
Swara Bhaskar played her role beautifully despite being only twenty-nine years old. The viewer can really sense the frantic anxiety that plagues every mother who, in Chanda’s words, “want their children to do better than them”. Ria Shukla accurately capture the rebellious bullheadedness of a typical teenager. Yet she is one who elicits sympathy, lamenting her humiliation at the hands of her instructor. She is a character to whom we could all identify ourselves during our teenage years.
Ratna Pathak was exceptional as Dr.Deewan. I found Chanda’s relationship with her employer very intriguing. Despite their professional arrangement, the two interact as sisters. They have this symbiotic bond where they’re equally reliant on each other. To witness such an egalitarian setup in a culture drenched in caste attitudes is always welcoming.
The overall screenplay provided a glimpse into the life of the working poor and their struggles. For example, consider the dialogue “Poor people also have dreams, but not resources”. We’re always told we can be whatever we want to be. Yet only a small percentage of the wealthy elite can actually fulfill that adage. The majority of us work within our limited means, affording to only strive for a semi-stable life.
The cinematography was exquisite. For example, the angle in which the Taj Mahal was captured during one particular scene was quite alluring. You felt you were in Agra, relishing the enchanting mystique of Mughal royalty. A scene which symbolizing unconditional love, whether it be Shah Jahan’s faithfulness to his beloved Mumtaz or Chanda’s dedication to Apeksha’s never-ending potential.
Despite my criticisms, this film is worth a watch. Its inspirational message is complemented with innovative tropes and original methods of character development.