Movie Review: Nil Battey Sannata (2016)

nilbatteysannata3 Stars (out of 4)

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Nil Battey Sannata (“Good for Nothing” colloquially) is a heart-warming story about familial bonds and the importance of education. However, the movie is more than just feel-good fare, offering a canny exploration of the complexities of poverty.

Appu (Ria Shukla) is a typical teen, more fond of hanging out with her friends and mooning over film stars than studying. Also like many teens, she doesn’t understand the lengths her mother goes to just to keep a roof over their heads.

As a single mother and the family’s sole breadwinner, Chanda (Swara Bhaskar) wears a lot of hats. She works as a maid for Dr. Diwan (Ratna Pathak) in the morning and does odd jobs at night, washing dishes or sewing clothes. When she comes home, she cooks and cleans so that Appu can focus on her studies.

Even though Appu is in her final year of high school, mother and daughter haven’t discussed Appu’s future plans. Chanda assumed her own toil would enable Appu to go to college, an opportunity high school dropout Chanda never had. She is stunned when Appu says she wants to be a maid like her mom.

Director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s story — co-written with her husband, Dangal director Nitesh Tiwari — doesn’t lay all of the blame on Appu, though the girl’s disdain for school is a huge hurdle. Her lack of ambition is partly a product of her surroundings. Everyone she knows is poor or a laborer, so what good will an education do her? Her friend, Pintu (Prashant Tiwari), plans to become a driver like his father. He’s befuddled when Chanda asks him if he wouldn’t rather own the car than drive for someone else.

Chanda’s perspective is also limited by her financial circumstances. She knows she can’t afford the tuition for medical school or engineering school, but she doesn’t know of any other jobs that could provide the comfortable lifestyle she envisions for Appu. By happenstance, Chanda meets a man being chauffeured in an air-conditioned car, and she learns that he’s the local tax collector. She immediately determines that’s the job that Appu must pursue.

Appu’s intellectual laziness has caused her to fall behind in math. With expensive tutoring out of the question, Chanda heeds Dr. Diwan’s advice and enrolls in Appu’s class so that she can tutor her daughter herself. Of course, nothing could be more mortifying to Appu than having her mom as a classmate, clad in a school uniform and all. Chanda’s efforts to help her daughter cause friction between the two of them, straining their formerly close bonds.

Bhaskar is charming and sympathetic as Chanda, though it’s hard not to pull for a mother who’ll go to any lengths for her daughter. Shukla’s job is harder given that Appu is often a pill, but the actress pulls it off, making her character relatable. Even at Appu’s worst moments, the audience can always tell that she’s a good kid at heart, thanks to Shukla’s performance.

The mother-daughter relationship is the core of Nil Battey Sannata, but Iyer Tiwari does an admirable job depicting a concept that’s hard to understand, namely the way poverty complicates all aspects of a person’s life. It’s easy to prescribe education as the ultimate solution to economic hardship, but Chanda’s and Appu’s story shows that money isn’t the only scarce resource for those on the margins. Time, experience, and connections are almost as important — and almost as rare, too.

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Opening April 14: Begum Jaan

One new Bollywood movie makes a limited debut in Chicago area theaters on April 14, 2017. The historical drama Begum Jaan stars Vidya Balan as a madam whose brothel falls right along the Partition line.

Begum Jaan opens Friday at MovieMax Cinemas in Niles and the AMC South Barrington 24 in South Barrington. It has a listed runtime of 2 hrs. 9 min. (Programming note: Since Begum Jaan isn’t showing in a theater near me, I won’t review it this weekend. I will post a new review of another movie I really liked on Friday, so stay tuned.)

The only other Hindi film showing locally this Easter weekend is Naam Shabana, which carries over for a third week at Regal Cantera Stadium 17 in Warrenville.

Other Indian movies playing in the Chicago area this weekend include:

Streaming Video News: April 11, 2017

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with three new additions to the catalog. 2012’s Hate Story — which is full of troubling examples of victim blaming — is now available for streaming, giving context to Hate Story 2 and Hate Story 3, which have been on Netflix for a while now. Likewise, Koi… Mil Gaya finally joins its sequels Krrish and Krrish 3 (there is no Krrish 2) on the streaming service. Netflix also added its first 2017 release: the Bengali movie Incomplete, starring Hate Story‘s Paoli Dam.

Bollywood Box Office: April 7-9, 2017

It was a slow weekend at the North American box office, and Bollywood films fared just as poorly as everything else. Here’s how the four Hindi titles left in theaters performed during the weekend of April 7-9, 2017:

  • Naam Shabana: Week 2; $40,385 from 51 theaters; $792 average; $241,919 total
  • Phillauri: Week 3; $18,814 from 16 theaters; $1,179 average; $459,213 total
  • Badrinath Ki Dulhania: Week 5; $13,283 from 13 theaters; $1,022 average; $1,989,132 total
  • MSG Lion Heart 2: Week 5; $1,536 from one theater; $6,243 total

One interesting note from the weekend is how differently the movies fared in the United States and Canada. Naam Shabana was the highest earner in the US, followed by Badrinath Ki Dulhania and Phillauri, in that order. Yet Phillauri earned the most in Canada, followed by Naam Shabana and Badrinath Ki Dulhania. Oh, and then that one random theater showing MSG Lion Heart 2.

Box Office Mojo described this as “a placeholder weekend” in North American, as moviegoers stayed home in anticipation of Friday’s release of The Fate of the Furious. Bollywood fans don’t have their own high-profile release to look forward to. There’s a chance that Friday’s new Hindi movie — Vidya Balan’s Begum Jaan — might not even open here. Even if it does, a historical drama about a brothel owner is a niche title with limited potential, regardless of how good it is. Plenty of businesses and the majority of schools across the US will be closed Friday ahead of Easter on Sunday, and not having a big commercial Hindi release in theaters is a missed opportunity.

Sources: Box Office Mojo and Rentrak, via Bollywood Hungama

Streaming Video News: April 7, 2017

I updated my list of Bollywood movies on Netflix with eight new additions to the streaming catalog. (Well, seven if you discount Yamla Pagla Deewana, which was added to the site prematurely last week and pulled down after a day or two. But now it’s back!) The new additions include Aarakshan, Horror Story, Kaho Naa.. Pyaar Hai, Krrish, Krrish 3, Mujhse Shaadi Karogi, and Rangrezz. I found Aarakshan disorganized, and Krrish 3 was just okay.

With more than thirty Indian titles added in the last month — including a bunch of mainstream Bollywood films like those added today — it sure looks like Netflix is feeling the heat from Amazon’s new Heera channel, which just added the Hindi version of The Ghazi Attack to its subscription service.

In Theaters: April 7, 2017

No new Hindi movies open in the Chicago area on Friday, April 7, 2017, and there’s little left to choose from. Last weekend’s new release — Naam Shabana — gets a second week at MovieMax Cinemas in Niles, AMC South Barrington 24 in South Barrington, and Regal Cantera Stadium 17 in Warrenville. The only other Bollywood film showing locally is Badrinath Ki Dulhania at South Barrington 24, while the English-language film For Here or to Go? carries over at MovieMax.

Other Indian movies showing in Chicagoland this weekend include:

Movie Review: Naam Shabana (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

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Taapsee Pannu’s supporting character Shabana was the best part of the 2015 spy thriller Baby, so spinning off an origin story for her made perfect sense. However, Naam Shabana is dull, doing neither the character nor the actress who plays her justice.

Too much time is spent on the “origin” part of Shabana’s story. We know that she is being recruited by a spy agency thanks to a number of long-distance shots of her overlaid with the markings of a camera’s viewfinder. It’s the same view through which two Indian spies scope out notorious gangster Mikhail in Vienna, right before Mikhail kills both of them.

The long-shots of Shabana are interspersed with the events of her ordinary college life. She’s on the university judo team, she hangs out with her pals, and she takes an economics class with Jai (Taher Shabbir Mithaiwala), a hunk with a crush on Shabana. She shares the details of her tragic childhood with Jai, adding backstory on top of backstory.

By the time the inciting incident triggers Shabana’s first contact with the head of the spy agency, Ranvir (Manoj Bajpayee), the movie is a quarter of the way over. There’s so much build up just get the ball rolling. Even then, the ball rolls very slowly.

Shabana first has to prove herself to the agency, even though they’ve been following her for years. There’s the obligatory training montage. Right when we’re ready for her to take the field and kick butt, Shabana disappears from the narrative for a full twenty minutes while other agents track down a crook named Tony (Prithviraj Sukumaran), whom they hope can lead them to Mikhail. When Shabana finally rejoins the fray, the action is interrupted by a ridiculous item number featuring Elli Avram.

Naam Shabana has about ninety minutes of material stretched to fill two-and-a-half hours. When one example of something would suffice, we’re shown two, just to pad things out. Although Baby creator Neeraj Pandey didn’t direct Naam Shabana — that credit belongs to Shivam Nair — Pandey did write the screenplay, complete with his tendency toward overly long runtimes.

A further disappointment is the way Shabana’s character is fleshed out from her small role in Baby. She’s mostly robotic, with a brief moment of hysteria that is drowned out by composer Sanjoy Chowdhury’s over-the-top score. (Did anyone else find the film’s closing theme awfully similar to the opening of “Day Tripper” by The Beatles?)

Shabana’s primary relationship is with her supportive but concerned mother (played by Natasha Rastogi). Their relationship provides the perfect opportunity to explore the natural pulling away from parents by young adults as they leave school and start their own lives–only taken to the extreme when the young adult becomes a spy. Instead, Mom simply vanishes from the story once Shabana joins the agency. It’s a huge miss in that it would’ve given a talented actress like Pannu more to do than just look cool in fight scenes (which she definitely does).

Cameos by key Baby cast members like Akshay Kumar, Anupam Kher, and Danny Denzongpa are well-integrated, but they come too late to rescue Naam Shabana from its plodding pace.

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