Pick of the Week: Chintu Ka Birthday
Hands-down a writer’s film, Chintu Ka Birthday is replete with details that take you back into the exuberance of childhood. The film, a story about young Chintu’s 6th birthday party, amplifies innocence and fights to preserve hope in the midst of a war-torn Iraq.
It’s a good day in the Tiwary household. It’s Chintu’s birthday! Navigating everything that could possibly go wrong, Chintu’s family: his mother Sudha (Tillotama Shome), his sister Lakshmi (Bisha Chaturvedi), his grandmother (Seema Bhargava) and his doting father Madan (Vinay Pathak) plan to throw the mother of all birthday parties as the baby of the house turns six. And a lot can indeed go wrong, for it is April 2004 and the Tiwary’s live in Iraq. But what does a child care about war? What Chintu really really wants is a birthday cake, because what birthday is complete without a cake?
Following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s reign in Iraq, the film is set during the first year of the American invasion. Chintu’s Indian family is stuck in the war-torn country, one amongst many illegal immigrants left behind, even as the Indian government has closed the doors of its repatriation program, declaring that all Indians have been brought home. It is a sweet, simple story that follows a single, that most special day, in a child’s life as his family, friends and neighbours dodge all sorts of obstacles to make his only wish come true, his father spearheading the effort to keep his son’s innocence and faith in the world alive.
From rummaging through a rat-infested storage room for an oven to bake the cake, to Lakshmi making a colourful poster for the party, to their jovial Iraqi landlord and friends turning up and chipping in, preparations for Chintu’s birthday are in full swing. Suddenly, there is a bomb blast in the neighbourhood and an unexpected intrusion by two American soldiers investigating the blasts eventually leads to a tightrope walk between humanity and prejudice; will Chintu get to celebrate his birthday? At what cost?
Writers, co-directors and brothers, Satyanshu Singh and Devanshu Kumar colour the Tiwary household with a seemingly endless rainbow of faith and compassion. They are simpletons who took a chance on a foreign, unknown place in search of opportunity, without leaving behind the complex camaraderie and social cohesion that so intricately governs their lives back home. In a place where all hope is lost, the Tiwary home is the only place left still standing, something that reignites Madan’s faith as he tells one American soldier, “This house is blessed..whole neighbourhood destroyed by bombs, except this house.”
One of the most delightful things about the film is how Chintu’s innocent view of the world permeates into all the other characters and nurtures their individual quirks. Vinay Pathak as the ever-optimistic and lovable patriarch shines brightly, even in the midst of the palpable guilt he regularly voices, the guilt of having brought his family to Iraq for a "better future." Despite everything, he is programmed to see the good in people, even in the American soldiers that have forced their way into the family’s celebrations. You see it when he asks his wife for medicines to treat their wounds. You see it when he softly says, ‘I know it’s not your fault.’ Tillotama Shome too gives an effortless performance as Chintu’s worried but empathetic mother, while Seema Bhargava performs the balancing act of resenting her son-in-law without her resentment being seen by her grandson, perfectly. As the older sister who grew up before her time, Bisha Chaturvedi makes our heart ache for an innocence outgrown in the face of war, and the adorable Vedant Chhiber is perfectly cast as Chintu, the apple of everyone’s eye.
Beyond the immediate family too, the Iraqi friends and neighbours are fully fleshed out characters in the film, their back stories cleverly interwoven into situational dialogue. Special applause is deserved by Mehroos Mir, the young actor who plays Chintu’s best friend. A street smart young chap, forced to sell porn and the hashish his father grows to make money, Waheed cheers on the American invaders who chase after his own country; a product of American soft power and ideological propaganda. He too wants to survive this hellhole and so he scrambles on, learning tricks from the soldiers and circumstances, lighting up the screen with his cheeky, wide-toothed smile.
Chintu ka Birthday is a crisp and refreshingly honest film; in its writing, performances and its overall rendition. And that is what elevates this modest little film about a small family who are simply trying to fulfil their dreams in difficult circumstances, while holding on to the tiniest shreds of hope to reach the end of the tunnel. A warm film, it will take you back to your childhood, to a time when you were oblivious to the ways of the world, protected by a Madan Tiwary safeguarding your innocence, much like a candle in the dark.
Now streaming on Zee5. Chintu Ka Birthday is Satyanshu Singh and Devanshu Kumar’s first feature, co-written and co-directed by the brothers across a period of 4 years and produced under the banner of ‘First Draft,’ an All India Bakchod (AIB) venture. Previously, the duo garnered worldwide acclaim and won the National Award in 2013 for their short film Tamaash set in Kashmir. Both live and work in Mumbai, Devanshu taking on direction for multiple advertising and comedy projects, while Satyanshu focuses on conducting screenwriting and film appreciation lectures in several cities and is also the writing mentor for ‘Gormint’, an upcoming comedy show for Amazon Prime.