In the film, Nil Battey Sannata, there is a character called Mr Srivastava (Pankaj Tripathi) who is the principal of the school attended by the protagonist. While stressing the significance of the tenth standard board exams to the students, he is fond of using the metaphor of stallions and mules while talking about academic future of the students. Keeping that in mind, one can say that the film itself resides nearer to the mule extreme and quite far from the stallion’s stable. It never offers the splendour of a stallion but gives quite a few instances of dreariness that can remind of mules!
The film is about a class 10 student called Apeksha who has more or less given up on academics, citing the reason, and quite rudely so, that her mother Chanda (Swara Bhaskar) is a domestic help without the means to let her pursue higher studies. Although the mother has high hopes for her daughter, the latter firmly believes that she’ll inevitably end up being a maid too like her mother. Chanda discusses this problem with the kindly and friendly Dr. Deewan (Ratna Pathak) who is the lady of the household where she works and with her encouragement and help, Chanda gets herself enrolled into Apeksha’s school so that she learns to appreciate the value of education.
As one can figure out, the theme of woman empowerment is distinctly predominant in the narrative and that is where the film fails to set itself apart from the usual traps and also the tropes of the standard mainstream ideologies. Considering the fact that the film is about the efforts of people from less privileged strata of society to climb up the ladder, it carefully bypasses any problematic areas or questions of class and economy and often glosses over the nuances that might hint towards those rather uncomfortable issues. And the film is certainly more subtle than most of the Bollywood film, when it comes to normative and stereotyping tendencies. If the child is unable to cope up with the mathematics curriculum which is quite telling about the academic system of our country and the manner in which merit is judged, the film glorifies and enforces the idea of hard work leading to success. And it is done carefully by building up the idea slowly over a few scenes, letting the idea grow and take root and thus present itself as an absolute truth. The flaws of academic system, the disadvantages of a poor background and its ramifications are carefully suspended as the narrative moves on. Furthermore, the very notion of empowerment comes across slightly muddled. Throughout the film there is a continuous assertion, again very subtle, about the involvement and generosity of the privileged class in the process of the all-round progress of the underprivileged, not acknowledging that the former is the root and cause of the latter and not a solution to it!
In cinematic terms, the film tends to attempt for mediocrity and is quite content on achieving it. There are no significant flaws anywhere in the technical departments barring a couple with the script and the background music. Despite all the ideological pitfalls, the script does a decent job of carrying the plot forward in the first half. Unfortunately the content is not layered enough to justify its 104 minutes runtime. Consequently the second half of the film keeps on stretching to a preposterous extent where scenes follow one after another without any sense of progress. And inevitably it also becomes preachy and assumes a holier-than-thou attitude, something it succeeded in averting during the first half. Also the use of background music becomes too frequent as the film progresses, resulting in a break in the cinematic experience and more of a music video like feel. While there are not a single moment of originality or excellence or inspiration, both the camera work and the editing manages to pull through with the all the highs and lows in the screenplay.
However the take home value of the film is certainly the brilliance found in the acting departments. Both Swara Bhaskar and the child actors offer an earnestness which enhances the believability factor otherwise not present in the film form comprising of well composed pristine shots and a smooth edit pattern. Ratna Pathak as the friendly yet strong woman derives much from her own persona and memories of her niche but cherished stardom. However, the crown jewel of the film is certainly the performance by Pankaj Tripathi. He has probably done everything right with the role and has redeemed a screenplay that mostly suffered from dreariness. He is earthly, humane, believable and absolutely successful is delivering a mannerism driven act without making it overdone. And most importantly, his performance manages to transcend beyond the parameters of the screenplay and the film and stands for the very idea of a feudal benevolence with all its qualities and drawbacks.
Arup Ratan Samajdar