Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s debut is hardwired to be heartwarming. Only a curmudgeon could complain about the gimmickiness inherent in the story of a domestic worker who enrolls in her 15-year-old daughter’s school to ensure that the girl doesn’t flunk her crucial tenth standard board examination. The modern-day fairy tale has its fair share of Moving Moments, but then over-eggs an already substantial pudding.
Set in Agra, Nil Battey Sannata traces the efforts of a resourceful housemaid to give her daughter the life she has never had. Chanda (Swara Bhaskar) juggles multiple jobs to educate Apeksha (Riya Shukla), but the adolescent has zero ambition. After all, she tells her mother with the cruelty that comes naturally to 15-year-olds, a maid’s daughter should not aspire to become anything but a maid. The industrious Chanda is horrified, as might audiences be, at her daughter’s ingratitude, and Iyer Tiwari does not stint from showing the consequences of Apeksha’s thoughtlessness.
Mathematics is one of Apeksha’s weakest subjects, and when an attempt at private coaching fails, Chanda enrolls as a student in her daughter’s government-run school with the encouragement of her supportive employer (Ratna Pathak Shah). Presided over by the delightfully comic principal Shrivastava (Pankaj Tripathi), the school has its share of toppers and dunces (the “nil battey sannatas” of the title). Chanda and Apeksha find themselves competing in the classroom, and Apeksha rebels ever so often.
Chanda is something of a saint in this movie’s universe, but Apeksha is a reminder of what is actually at stake. Swara Bhaskar is perfect as Chanda and beautifully captures her character’s spirit, drive and endless optimism. But full marks too to Riya Shukla, who depicts Apeksha’s intransigence and immaturity without a trace of self-consciousness.
The judiciously chosen cast has a minor army of delightful children, many of them who are appearing on screen for the first time. The school sequences are among the 100-minute movie’s best parts, perfectly recreating the pressures and pleasures of being a teenager. Watched over by the earnest and dedicated Shrivastava, who is also their mathematics teacher, some students flounder while others, including Chanda, fall in love with theorems and formulae.
Iyer Tiwari explores the class distinctions that hold back dreamers like Chanda, but caste considerations do not enter the picture. A sub-plot involving the Collector (played by Sanjay Suri) appears out of nowhere and does little to further the story. The feel-good ending appears tacked on and perilously suggests that hard work automatically translates into good results.
The choppy editing is a further distraction, and the suggestion that a maid's daughter should never become a maid unwittingly comes off as insensitive. The larger message that the working class can and should dream of climbing up the socioeconomic ladder is ultimately not as interesting as the more intimate and bittersweet scenes – Chanda trying to wake up Apeksha every morning, Chanda’s sweat and tears to give her daughter a better future, Shrivastava’s comedy-laced pedagogy, and Apeksha’s gradual realisation that her mother is on the right track. It’s these well-observed and deftly directed scenes that hit their mark in a movie about the ability of mathematics to reveal the perfect formula for happiness.