निल बट्टे सन्नाटा Nil Battey Sannata (The New Classmate, 2015)

BFI London Film Festival This film was presented at the London Film Festival, introduced by its director who stayed for a Q&A afterwards.

The New Classmate is undoubtedly a polished and beautiful work for a first-time director and sits easily alongside other more prominent Indian films with larger budgets and bigger stars. It sets up an emotion-filled story of a single mother, Chanda (Swara Bhaskar), trying to raise her daughter Appu well, but finding it difficult because of all the work she is forced to do in order to afford schooling and put food on the table. Appu is failing at school, and seems to resent what she sees as her mother’s menial working life, leading Chanda to want to better herself as well, and so she enrols at the same school as her daughter. In a more simplistic film, perhaps, this is where comedy might ensue, and although there’s plenty of light-heartedness on display (and a broad comic turn from the school’s principal), the mother’s move into her daughter’s school setting is actually the catalyst for some far more nuanced drama around what it means to succeed at school and how this can lead to dreams of a better life. For all that is excellent in the film, and particularly Bhaskar’s spirited performance (much though she looks too young to have a teenage daughter), it does all feel a little bit sanitised at times. Their world seems to be one of grinding misery and poverty, but it’s shot in a way more befitting the director’s advertising background, with a sheen of sumptuous colours and beautiful textures — but then again, this is unashamedly a family-friendly melodrama which follows a traditional structure of conflict and resolution. Perhaps instead it’s best to embrace it as a mother’s emotional journey in order to protect and nurture her daughter.

The New Classmate film posterCREDITS
Director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari அசுவினி ஐயர் திவாரி; Writers Tiwari, Nitesh Tiwari नितेश तिवारी, Neeraj Singh नीरज सिंह and Pranjal Chowdhary प्रांजल चौधरी; Cinematographer Gavemic U Ary गैविमिक यू एरी; Starring Swara Bhaskar स्वरा भास्कर; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 14 October 2015.