This review contains spoilers.
I remember being taught what the logic of deterrence was while I studied political science in school, and it stuck with me how we’ve failed to apply the very fundamental logic in practice. In simple terms, if a nuclear war were to be fought between two nations with immense nuclear power, the mass destruction and loss would affect both sides massively, if not equally. Hence, the concept suggests that it should be avoided and dealt with diplomatically.
Satyanshu and Devanshu Singh’s gem of a movie, Chintu Ka Birthday is based in post-Saddam Iraq, while Bush’s government invaded what was left of the nation.
You might not be too excited about heading out to watch a film that talks about a prevalent and extremely sensitive subject like the one mentioned above. However, that’s where the craft of storytelling begins to do its magic. You may walk in as a cynic but you’ll walk out relieved and full of optimism, with reinstated hope that maybe we’re all inherently good people and that maybe there’s still some goodness left in humanity.
I remember having goosebumps while watching the film; crying, sighing with relief and an array of other emotions that might be slightly difficult to articulate in this review.
What I also felt was a surge of pride and contentment, because I knew where this film was coming from. I was aware that it’d be doing the rounds in Hindi cinema for over a decade and I knew about the journey of this film, which made it all the more personal and cathartic. Satyanshu Singh teaches cinema, and from being just his student I have now become a massive fan.
The movie begins with a shot of six-year-old Chintu’s highly anticipated sparkly birthday cake. Knowing that living in a war zone isn’t easy, Chintu has the most innocent demands for how he wants to celebrate his birthday: a cake, candies, decorations and his classmates. That’s it.
The first few minutes of the film establish what kind of family Chintu is born into because at one point or another every member of this family says the same thing, “Don’t bother your mum/dad/sister/grandmother. Tell us what you want and we’ll make it happen.”
As Chintu is excitedly getting ready to distribute two-candies-each to his classmates, he gets a phone call saying that there’s been an attack and that school would remain shut.
Minutes later, their landlord Mahdi, an Iraqi civilian walks in with Chintu’s sister, but the cake is absent. One after the other, Chintu faces a series of disappointments and we begin to feel like helping in any way we can. By this time, the audience is immersed completely. All the characters are trying to get that cake made somehow. The moment life feels hunky dory again, you realise that that was just for a minute or two.
Enter, American soldiers.
In the span of only 20 minutes, a lot unfolds. There’s social commentary, an eerie fear of death, blasts and yet at the core we’re still worried about how Chintu isn’t getting to celebrate his birthday. That is because the movie doesn’t deter from its central subject.
Chintu’s father, played by the magnificent Vinay Pathak is the nicest man you’ll meet, believably so. Chintu’s mum, played by Tillotama Shome, in a brilliant performance is like every Indian mother: warm, empathetic, courageous and determined to go to any lengths to make her child smile.
There are so many villains in this movie, and yet there isn’t a single character you can point to as being negative. Perspective and empathy lie at the core of Chintu Ka Birthday, not once are we made to look at the US soldiers as enemies, not once do we doubt Mahdi – who flutters like a fish out of water at the possibility of being caught by the soldiers – and not once do we doubt Madan Tiwary’s optimism. And there’s never any doubt that Chintu’s sister would let anyone come in the way of his cake and birthday celebrations.
On the surface, it’s an innocent film about a Bihari family stuck in Iraq, just trying to celebrate their six year old’s birthday but it is so much more. The intelligence is layered in the visuals and screenplay with a subtlety that will tug at your heartstrings long after you exit the auditorium. The world will seem like it’s a beautiful place, despite of everything that is going on.
At one point, Vinay Pathak says that his misery is trivial when compared to the civilians of Iraq and that’s after he’s been beaten and interrogated several times by two American soldiers who have spent the day in his house wondering if he had anything to do with the bombings going on outside.
It might seem like it’s milieu will intimidate you, but even without any context about Iraq, the simplicity and innocence in both the writing and performances will leave you smiling from ear to ear.
To conclude with, Satyanshu and Devanshu Singh’s film is about bringing you down to earth, without constantly worrying about how much destruction we’ve caused whilst celebrating the little joys of life and walking away with a fulfilling emotional experience.
Allow their directorial debut to loosen your grip on cynicism a bit, you won’t regret it.
Anandita Dudeja is a literature graduate and advertising professional, who finds solace in stories communicated in any or every form. She works in the entertainment industry, always trying to understand art and artists in the midst of chaos born by pre-show jitters and post-show ecstasy. She writes to preserve her sanity, and consumes content like an addict.