Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari's "Nil Battey Sannata" (literal translation: zero divided by zero) is miles away from its title. It's a winner and a light-hearted mother-daughter story that subtly explores poverty and education.
School principal Mr. Shrivastava (Pankaj Tripathi) is befuddled when confident didi (Ratna Pathak Shah) talks him into enrolling her house help Chanda (Swara Bhaskar) into the school, the same standard as her (Chanda's) teenage daughter Apeksha's (Ria Shukla).
This strange arrangement is courtesy Apeksha's rebellious nature. The teenager, whose only itch is mathematics, refuses to believe that she could be anything other than a maid. She picks up fights with her mother often questioning the futility of studying further.
Here's where I completely empathise with Apeksha, as growing up I would run away every time I was asked to divide, multiply and subtract random numbers.
At school, the mother and daughter find out what it's like to be classmates and competitors. Chanda starts getting better with numbers, leaving Apeksha with the will to outshine her.
Swara is exemplary in her portrayal of the worried parent. It is relatable because we all have, at some point in life, got the "Sharma jee ka beta" monologue. Although Chanda's circumstances hardly ever allow her to compare Apeksha with another kid, she often gives her two cents on the importance of being a "metric pass."
Child artiste Ria is a surprise package. She brings out the carefree abandon of a teenager without being too in-your-face. Running around Lucknow's by-lanes with her partners in crime, flinging notebooks in the air and often nitpicking the idea of education in our country where "doctor ka beta doctor banega, engineer ka beta engineer," she adds a certain depth to her character.
The scene where she assures Chanda that graduating to another class is no big deal, adding that only the books get fatter, is brilliant. The callous vibe with which she mouths dialogues is what makes her performance worth the dime.
Seasoned actors Pankaj and Ratna do what they do best -- act in a way that feels real and relatable. They channel the roles of the principal and the encouraging didi with much conviction.
"Nil Battey Sannata" scores because its director Ashwiny is clear about the film's place. It doesn't want it to be achingly sweet/ preachy or be soaked with over-the-top emotions. This is precisely why it will never make you overly-upset about Chanda's financial woes. Instead, you will find yourself focusing on the extreme measures a mother takes to ensure a better future for her child.
International Business Times, India Rating: 4 stars.