The seriously cute and cutely serious Chintu has turned six – in war-torn Baghdad.
It’s April 2004. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein is awaiting trial. American troops are patrolling the streets. Indians have been evacuated, but Chintu’s family – his parents, elder sister and grandmother – haven’t managed to leave yet.
Inside their home, preparations are being made for Chintu’s birthday. The first sign of trouble is a phone call from Chintu’s school, telling him that classes have been suspended for the day. Attempts are made to keep the celebrations going, until a series of events turns a moment of happiness into a nightmare.
“If I were back home India, this would never have happened,” Chintu observes dolefully.
Chintu Ka Birthday has been written and directed by the brothers Satyanshu and Devanshu Singh. It was the opening title at the ongoing Jagran Film Festival, and has also been screened in other cities as part of the travelling event. A screening is scheduled in Mumbai on September 28.
The filmmakers have previously directed the short film Tamaash, which follows the life of an under-performing schoolboy in Kashmir. Chintu Ka Birthday also offers a knee-high perspective of war and conflict, while also providing a portrait of a family trying to hold on to its values and humour despite the circumstances.
“The similarity between Chintu Ka Birthday and Tamaash would be working with child actors, using a language we don’t understand (Kashmiri there, Arabic here), celebrating the inherent goodness in people and treating both films like a fable,” Devanshu Singh told Scroll.in.
Vedant Raj Chibber, who plays Chintu, was cast after a long hunt. “We wanted a certain innocence in Chintu that could make our audience root for the kid,” Devanshu said. “Chintu needed to be a fresh face, he needed to be patient and disciplined enough to sit through the 18-day shoot of an indie film. He needed to be intelligent enough to be able to learn the Iraqi Arabic dialogue as well as a little bit of the Bihari accent he must speak in the film.”
The cast includes Vinay Pathak and Tillotama Shome as the parents, Bisha Chaturvedi as Chintu’s elder sister Lakshmi, Seema Pahwa as their grandmother, and Palestinian actor Khalid Massou as Madhi, the landlord. Reginald L Barnes and Nathan Scholz play the American soldiers who interrupt Chintu’s party.
“We did workshops to bond the family,” Satyanshu said. “Here Vinay, Tillotama and Seemaji really helped. We also made Khalid bond with Vinay and the kids. And we completely forbade them from interacting with the American soldiers before the shoot. The fascination in Chintu’s eyes and the awkwardness between the family and the Americans is real.”
There are parallels between the lives of the brothers and the events depicted in the movie. The siblings hail from Munger in Bihar. Satyanshu is 35, and older than Devanshu by a year.
“We have grown up watching how our parents put our needs above theirs, sacrifice for us in ways big and small,” Devanshu recalled. “The grandparents narrating stories to their grandchildren, the love of the elder sibling for the younger one, how a neighbour is a part of the family. Also, my birthdays have been ruined a lot of times because of the monsoon, and I would have a tough time fighting my emotions, awaiting my birthday cake and a celebration until the last hour of the day. And the fact that Chintu is so obedient and calm and understanding is actually how Satyanshu was when he was that age.”
Iraq was reimagined in Mumbai for the movie (the production design is by Sukant Panigrahy and the cinematography by Siddharth Diwan). “We didn’t have a lot of money, so recreating Iraq was tricky,” Satyahshu explained. “Plus, we wanted a big house, so that we could move around with the camera and avoid at every stage the look and feel of a proscenium play. Our brief for the visual design was also to treat this film not as a realistic film, but like a fable. The colors and lighting were done keeping that in mind. We wanted to ensure that even in the most grim situations, the film maintained a certain positivity, a certain hope, and goodness.”
Among the inspirations for Chintu Ka Birthday was a stray comment by one of Satyanshu’s friends sometime in 2007 that a film set during the American invasion of Iraq could not possibly be humorous. Satyanshu shared an idea with Devanshu – “an Indian family, trapped in Iraq, the story is set over one day, and only inside a house, but the film should make us laugh”, Satyanshu said.
Devanshu initially dismissed the idea, but his interest was piqued by an added element – it’s Chintu’s birthday. After copious research and numerous discussions, the first draft was ready by October 2007.
“The film for us is a beautiful confluence of two realities – the family life we have lived back home in Bihar and the love and the warmth we share,” Satyanshu said. “This part of the film came naturally to us. We were also deeply inspired by Sooraj Barjatya when we were growing up. He showed the commonplace details of weddings. We did that with a birthday. Singing an impromptu song, blowing balloons, fighting and cajoling among loved ones – this is all Sooraj ji.”
The screenplay took a decade to be moulded into shape. The brothers thought they would offer it to a director. Among the people who told the Singhs that they should film their own script were the filmmakers Bauddhayan Mukherjee and Vikramaditya Motwane.
In between, the siblings worked on other projects – they wrote the poems used in Motwane’s Udaan (2010) and a song in Ferrari Ki Sawaari (2012). In 2013, they made Tamaash, which won them a Special Jury Award at the National Film Awards in 2014.
Following Tamaash, production on Chintu Ka Birthday appeared imminent. Although no producer was in sight, the Singhs sent out casting calls for the two actors who would play the American soldiers. Reginald L Barnes and Nate Scholz agreed, but the film wasn’t taking off just yet. “They kept waiting, mostly patiently, but also anxiously, and even wondered if this would ever happen,” Satyanshu recalled. “During the next few years, many producers read the script. Many showed serious interest. But none actually made it.”
The producer that did show up in 2017 proved to be a near-insurmountable obstacle for the movie. Chintu Ka Birthday was supposed to mark the first feature project of the comedy collective All India Bakchod. The premiere was scheduled for the Mumbai Film Festival in 2018, but after allegations of sexual harassment and oversight surfaced against two of AIB’s members, Gursimran Khamba and Tanmay Bhat, Chintu Ka Birthday was axed from the line-up.
The brothers were gutted by the decision of the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image, which organises the festival. “When MAMI decided to remove our film, our producers had already decided to remove their names from the film,” Satyanshu claimed. “If MAMI had consulted with us, we could have come up with several solutions. I know Tanmay would have done anything so that the film does not suffer. But we were not consulted. I received a call at 11.30 in the night. Fifteen minutes later, the announcement was made. We will never forget that night. But we believed this would help in achieving a greater good, something that is bigger than our film. Everyone was heartbroken, but we felt we should look at the bigger picture.”
MAMI’s decision ensured that Chintu Ka Birthday was dropped from other festivals too. “It was easy to stop our film, as it was small,” Satyanshu said. “It was nice to stop our film as it was big enough to make some noise. Several film festivals told us clearly that they could not screen the film even if they wanted to, since it had been removed from the MAMI list. It was only Jagran, several months after MAMI, who decided to select the film.”
Rohan Joshi and Ashish Shakya, the other two members of AIB, and Tulsea Pictures, are now listed as the producers. Chintu Ka Birthday is aiming for a theatrical release after its festival run.
“We have been waiting for 12 years now, hopefully the film will have a release soon,” Satyanshu said. “The love of the audience, their uninhibited reaction, and their remarks about how the film makes us laugh despite being set in war zone and how it is a confluence of a Bihari family’s values and world cinema – it takes us back to the days when we conceived the film, hoping that it would touch someone’s heart.”