Why is Math the bête noir for so many? Even today, years after I solved my last differential equation, my eyes glaze over and numbers start floating on a sheet when I am faced by a row of digits, figures, accounts and calculations.
Math is anathema for Chanda and Apeksha too; the mother and daughter at the centre of director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s debut feature film Nil Battey Sannata (good for nothing).
Chanda (Swara Bhaskar) is a single parent working multiple jobs everyday – as a domestic help, at a shoe factory, making pickles, etc -- in order to support her rebellious teenage daughter. Tenth standard student Apeksha/ Apu (Ria Shukla) simply skates through class. Disinterested in academics, she barely passes in most subjects but always fails Math.
Chanda is fastidiously saving money to enroll Apeksha in a coaching class, but the caveat is that she must pass her pre-boards with 50 per cent marks to be eligible.
Chanda’s great dream for Apu is that she finds herself an ambition and chooses a career. But when asked what she wants to do after school, Apu replies that a driver’s son becomes a driver and a maid’s daughter becomes a maid, so she too will follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a maid.
Chanda is dismayed but a novel idea, initiated by Chanda’s boss and confidante (Ratna Pathak Shah), leads to Chanda getting admission not just in her daughter’s school, but also in the same class. Instead of this being a situation of harmonious coexistence, Apu is embarrassed and appalled that her mother is now not just her classmate, but also popular and hardworking. What follows is a battle of wits and a case of who blinks first as Chanda and Apu become competitors in class.
Through well-etched scenes (written by Iyer Tiwari, Nitesh Tiwari, Neeraj Singh and Pranjal Choudhary) and solid characters the film delivers important lessons about dreams, motivation, friendship, parenting and sacrifice, including the view that one should befriend math rather than fight it.
Bhaskar embraces the role of the indefatigable feisty mother who does not give up hope. This is one of her most nuanced performances and a welcome change from the motor-mouth characters seen in Tanu Weds Manu and Raanjhana. As a precocious teenager, Ria Shukla is a fine sparring partner. Pankaj Tripathi is the scene-stealer as the zealous school principal and Math teacher. He has a skip in his step and playfulness in his sternness, which are a delight to watch.
Sanjay Suri steps in to a special appearance as the local Collector whose considerate nature and beacon-light car impress Chanda so much that she stalks him for days just to find out how Apu can get a similar post. One wonders, why she didn’t just ask the same boss lady who helped her find a coaching class and got her a seat in school? This track is the only diversion in an otherwise focused and precise screenplay.
Using locations, sets, costumes, language and setting (Agra), Iyer Tiwari creates an authentic world with a universal emotional core. However, at the close, the narrative trips over its own benevolence. The relationship between Bhaskar and Pathak Shah is a touch overdone and, while it managed to skip melodrama and manipulation throughout, the end succumbs to sermonizing (and a kitschy song called ‘Maa’) which dilutes the impact of an otherwise assured debut delivered with a lightness of touch and a positive message.