Sometimes it works like magic to step into a film screening knowing nothing else but its name and those of the principal cast members. I mean, at most, what can you expect from a film titled Chintu Ka Birthday and headlined by Vinay Pathak, Tillotama Shome and Seema Pahwa. At best it can be a whacky, madcap comedy where a birthday party goes haywire. That way, the opening credits had a couple of jaw drops in the cinema. I could sense an air of bewilderment and sounds of puzzled sighs (including mine) as the screen popped up with information on the Iraq War, out of all things. What the director duo Devanshu Kumar and Satyanshu Singh had in store was a shocking chronicle of an Indian family stuck in war-struck Baghdad sometime in the early 2000s.
Chintu Ka Birthday has an intimate setting. Shot entirely within the confines of a modest family home, the vibe is near-claustrophobic. There’s a lot of sound and fury around and as you see, the family in question in preparing for their younger child Chintu’s sixth birthday. As they say, you may take an Indian family out of India but they are as Indian as they would ever be. The birthday is incomplete without granny’s (Seema Pahwa) auspicious kheer. The ritual of touching her feet to seek blessings on the day is not forgotten. The homemaker mother (Tillotama Shome as Sudha) asks the child to not bother the father (Vinay Pathak as Madan). He does the same. The sister Lakshmi, who shares the classic love-hate relationship with her brother, is planning a bunch of “surprises” for him. She even educates her grandmother on why it is essential to have surprises, much to her dismissal. This close-knit setting and every plan in place stand shortchanged after a horrifying blast somewhere in the locality. Joining the party is their landlord Mehdi, who seems to be loved by each member of the family except perhaps the grandmother.
The film kicks off once the house is raided by two American soldiers. Incidentally, one is White and another African-American. (This information could be useful as you analyze characters and their respective perspectives.) Mehdi, for some mysterious reason, chooses to hide. The rest of the film is about the family’s endeavour to deal with this peculiar incidence. There are violence, intimidation and lots of high octane sounds. There’s also a great deal of tenderness, feeling and some of the most heartfelt human emotions on display.
Before we delve any further, there are a bunch of elements in the screenplay that puzzle one. It remains a mega mystery on why Mehdi found it necessary to hide when the officers came knocking in. It was only a few minutes back that he walked by the street with zero inhibitions. The film, somehow, refuses to acknowledge the actual state of Iraq’s local civilians at the hands of the American armed forces. Therefore, the man’s attempt to flee the already tense scene comes across as a little too bizarre. Sure, we get some information about his wife’s disappearance but how wise an action is to escape through a house window, only to land up in a lane where shots are fire every other second?
Chintu Ka Birthday also decides to maintain secrecy on legalities behind the family’s existence in Baghdad. There is a brief chatter regarding their Nepali passports but details such as this, when left adrift, make way to certain inevitable plot-holes, which is exactly what exist to play spoilsport in this otherwise powerful film. Another annoying passage is the initial scene where the officers take a tour of the house. Even though he is putting his best foot forward in making such difficult portions work, Pathak is made to look exceedingly Pathak-like: be it with the dialogue or the body language. The writing through this brief stretch also creates an air of predictability which the film successfully gets over in the latter reels.
Coming to the brighter aspects, it cannot be denied in any manner that Chintu Ka Birthday is one intensely researched piece of work. More than the political scenario, what fascinated me was the family network. The Tiwari family is well-aware of their inadequacies and their lack of social support. Perhaps they are a little closer than how they would be back in the Indian soil. The mother is cautious about the 25 guests that her son has invited to his birthday party. But she is also adamant to have a cake in place for him, despite the adverse situation at home. The father has it in him to ensure that his child’s special day goes well, unlike the year before. Being the Hanuman devotee that he is, it breaks Madan’s heart to see his child cry on his birthday. This empathy and a deep sense of intimacy are perhaps born from his regret to provide the children with resources and living conditions that they deserve. Instead, the parents compensate it with love. The devout grandmother, on the other hand, is confident how nothing wrong will ever happen to the family.
Throwing some more spice on the political scenario that the film canvasses, Chintu Ka Birthday also presents a neat clash between the attacking officers. The African-American soldier, who has served for a longer period in the region, is kinder as compared to his white counterpart. We also observe how the young man shares a friendly equation with one of Chintu’s friends, Waheed. For him, it is a familiar yet hostile space where everyone’s suffering, in one way or the other. Less of an idealist, his brief disappearance lets the film develop into a complex emotional maze that keeps us on tenterhooks until the final minute.
The high point in the screenplay of Chintu Ka Birthday is the very quality of being aware of its spaces and people. It is one such film where every character will have a unique explanation of the incidents going on inside the house. Each one of them are fairly well-developed (except the instances noted above), thus, making it easy for an average viewer to empathize with. The sole discontent in the direction is that Chintu Ka Birthday could have been a lot more vocal about the politics of hate prevalent in the world – then and now.
Out of all technical departments, it is the sound design (Bishwadeep Chatterjee) which takes the cake and the entire bakery in this brief 90-minute feature. The trigger points, especially, are so immaculately put together by the sound designer that Chintu Ka Birthday gives us an experience which is easily the closest equivalent to being a fly on the wall. The cinematography is another aspect which elevates the impact by capturing the limited surface area to work around. The tilt effect in certain scenes, a la last year’s Roma, is refreshing enough to give us a picture on the spaces as well as instant character reflexes.
There’s no room to complain about the performances in a film helmed by a proven cast like this. Pathak is a delight from the beginning until the end, while quietly reminding us (and the filmmakers around) of his absolutely under-utilized mettle. Playing the devoted housewife to the hilt, Shome is in elements yet again and I couldn’t contain my happiness seeing her ace a folk song in one of the film’s happy moments. The kind of ’thehrav’ that she exhibits is one that I would rather associate with, even at the cost of a slight exaggeration, K S Chithra or Kavita Seth. Pahwa’s grandmother act is a welcome departure from the sarcastic, witty versions that we have seen her essay in her popular feature films. Bisha Chaturvedi is a complete natural and it was tremendous to see her upstage three seasoned actors in a brief outburst staged in the family kitchen. Nate Scholz and Reginald L. Barnes spell menace as the soldiers whereas Khaled Masso’s portrayal of the compassionate localite comes across as a bit too syrupy at times. Last but not at all the least, the show-stealer in every single way is the title character Chintu, done to absolute perfection by Vedant Chibber. One with zero traces of characteristic over-cuteness that child actors are often plagued with, Chibber’s screen presence magnetic and it only helps the film that his eloquent eyes speak a lot more than the words and the atmosphere are unable to.
As the film closes, the directors make sure that Chintu Ka Birthday leaves us on an intriguing note. It is one of those films which gives us fodder to think about the larger picture. With massacres happening in other corners of the world, it hurts us to see our ilk in distress. The film, unknowingly, asks us to open up, and perhaps to be kinder than what you are today. I must also add how the innate Indian-ness of its characters impressed me big-time. When Madan makes a rather bold offer to the soldiers towards the end, you see a pining father as well as a religious, over-optimistic Indian man. I am sure he must have been chanting Hanuman Chalisa all through, with a strong belief that his God will help his sail through. I do not remember the last time I could see a Hindi film doing that without diving into a sea of melodrama. I bet that’s half the battle won as far as the film’s prospects are concerned.