Nil Battey Sannata is plenty smart, but it might have seemed smarter still had it been more trusting of its audience’s capacity to get the joke, or the point. It’s not enough that the mother should have high hopes from her daughter; the said daughter must also be named Apeksha (Hindi for “expectations”). Conversations are repeated with minor variations until their meaning is painfully clear. Apeksha’s declaration that she’s resigned to being a bai because her mother, Chanda (Swara Bhaskar), is one is then echoed in a talk Chanda has with her employer, and again in a scene with Apeksha and her friends. The pretty score by Rohan Vinayak is crammed into all those passages where viewers might have otherwise heard themselves thinking.
Chanda is a single mother whose one aim in life is to get her daughter (played by Ria Shukla), a wilful class X student, to study and make something of herself, perhaps become an IAS officer or a doctor. She speaks to the head of a coaching centre, who agrees to knock off 50% of the girl’s fee for a crash course before the board examinations, but only if she scores more than 50% in the pre-boards. But 50% is hardly a given with Apeksha, who cares little for school and even less for math (the title of the film—zero divided by zero—is a reference to her ability in the subject).
Much like last year’s Kaakka Muttai, director Ashwini Iyer Tiwari presents the hardscrabble working-class reality of Chanda and Apeksha’s lives without prettifying it, but enlivens the story with winsome characters and one quixotic twist. Hearing her complain about Apeksha, Chanda’s employer (played by Ratna Pathak Shah) suggests that she enrol in her daughter’s school. The logic behind this—that Chanda, who never got beyond class IX, will somehow begin to understand math and teach her daughter—is fuzzy to say the least, but Chanda allows herself to be persuaded. One might have expected something like the Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back To School to follow, but Nil Battey Sannata plays it relatively straight. After a rocky beginning, Chanda is accepted by her new classmates; all, that is, except the mortified Apeksha, who promises to study hard if her mother would just stop coming to school.
It’s difficult not to squirm through some of the overly simplistic moments in the second half—like when Apeksha accuses her mother of spending her evenings with a strange man (it also feels like she’s implying that she gets paid for it). Yet, this is also a rare Hindi film that focuses on a mother-daughter relationship that’s blessedly free of discussions about men, marriage and tradition. Chanda and Apeksha don’t always get along—the film doesn’t shy away from having mother ask daughter, “Tu mar kyun nahi jaati, kutiya?—but their attitude towards each other, with its mixture of exasperation and deep affection, feels honest and fresh.
In her second lead role after Listen… Amaya, Bhaskar slips under the skin of the wily, determined Chanda, her mobile face switching from broad comedy to panic as she realizes she’s scrounging for money to pay for dreams she isn’t sure her daughter even has. Shukla deserves credit for playing up Apeksha’s brattiness; it’s a combative, un-endearing performance, unusual from a child actor. Pankaj Tripathi, on the other hand, could hardly be more delightful as the principal of the school and Chanda and Apeksha’s sweetly sarcastic math teacher. As has rightfully happened with Bhaskar, it’s time someone cast him in the lead.
This review appeared in Mint.