What do parents do for their children? To what lengths can they go to see their child flourish and prosper as an individual? What are their selfless sacrifices? How do the children react to such parental care and concerns — and why? And finally, a question that is not really important here but valid all the same — what if the parent is single?
In “Nil Battey Sannata” (a North Indian term that means ‘Absolutely Nothing’), Chanda Sahay (Swara Bhaskar) is a widow who works as a maid for a kind and influential doctor (Ratna Pathak Shah) and does other jobs to make sure her only daughter Apeksha (the name symbolically meaning ‘expectations’) completes a good education.
Apeksha is a typically average high school student, hooked on television, flighty in her moods, generally below par in her studies and terrible at math. When Chanda finds that she will get some discount at a coaching class for Standard Ten (the all-important qualifying class for college admissions in India) if her daughter scores 50 percent, she, on the suggestion of the same doctor employer, gets admission into the same class to understand what is going wrong.
From the perspective of the writers, this absurd situation is necessary for showing to what lengths parents are willing to go for their children, because she will understand what makes her daughter fail to shine. Chanda still manages her work, and does not reveal at school that she is Apeksha’s mother — an absurd device when we see her daughter with a cell phone and with two good friends in a small town who should be aware of friends’ mothers at least from parent-teacher meetings! And Apeksha is naturally hurt and angry with her mother, who promises to leave school if her daughter scores more than her in a forthcoming examination.
But when Apeksha does score higher, she tells her mother that she studied only to make her mother leave her class. She also steals some of the painstakingly-saved money for her future education and squanders it. After punishing her, Chanda determinedly tells her she is going back to school.
From here, the simple story takes on a heartwarming direction that must be experienced rather than spoiled by revealing it. The final outcome, the intention and the message (that is, the heart and thought behind this small wonder of a film) makes us forget all the absurdities, one of which we have narrated earlier.
We only regret that the film barely skims the surface of the evils of commercialized education in India. The sequence where the coaching class head confesses that they need cleverer students to build their own name rather than those who actually need help is an ironic illustration of how these setups work and how education suffers in the country. More hard-hitting truths could have been worked on, as here was a chance to show them!
The school scenes are amusing, and Pankaj Tripathi as the school principal-cum-math teacher is exceptional as the understanding, slightly comical, somewhat judgmental yet harassed schoolmaster. Math plays a crucial role in the script and so the math-oriented film title, for ‘Battey’ means ‘divided by’ and 'Nil' is the English alternate for ‘zero.’ In figures, the title can be written as ‘Nil/Sannata.’
Bhaskar is very good — which is a way of also saying that she is her usual self! Riya Shukla as her daughter is correctly brattish, and her two friends and the third boy who is a genius at math are delightfully natural. Ratna Pathak Shah has nothing much to do but is competent as always. Sanjay Suri is flat and functional.
The dialogues are a highlight, though we cannot say the same for the music. Nitesh Tiwari himself writes the amusing song “Maths Mein Dabba Gul,” but the other lyrics are ho-hum. The camerawork (Gavemic U. Ary) and art direction (Laxmi Keluskar) are both notable for their realistic feel.
But we must point out some radical flaws that could have so easily been avoided, as they are totally dispensable. The cardinal one is that there is a line by Bhaskar in which she equates a learning disability (dyslexia) with a mental deficiency, which is not only inaccurate but truly objectionable when the aim of the film is to make a student bloom despite his or her disadvantages. The team should have researched enough to know that dyslexics have either a normal or higher IQ, never a lower one!
Even now, that brief part can be removed from the film without making a whit of a difference.
The second is the approach the math genius takes to teach it to his weaker colleagues, that too, after stating the hardcore fact that the subject cannot be learnt by rote but by understanding it. The premise of making both his ‘students’ Chanda and Apeksha learn from certain clichés is not only wrong again but also unlikely to make them really better unless the exact question is given in their tests!
But for these flaws, here is a sweet, pleasant, un-dark, un-pseudo, small delight of a film that once again makes us realize that co-producer and co-writer Tiwari’s jointly written and directed “Chillar Party” was no flash in the pan.
Eros International, Colour Yellow Productions and Jar Pictures present “Nil Battey Sannata”
Produced by: Sunil A. Lulla, Aanand L. Rai, Ajay G. Rai, Alan McAlex, Sanjay Shetty and Nitesh Tiwari
Directed by: Ashvini Iyer Tiwari
Written by: Nitesh Tiwari, Neeraj Singh, Pranjal Choudhary and Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari
Starring: Swara Bhaskar, Riya Shukla, Ratna Pathak-Shah, Pankaj Tripathi, Sanjay Suri and others