Directors: Satyanshu Singh, Devanshu Kumar
Cast: Vedant Chibber, Bisha Chaturvedi, Vinay Pathak, Tillotama Shome, Seema Pahwa
Chintu Ka Birthday. The title gives us a whiff of warm hugs and cuddles, with a decadent treat on top. It’s what comes to our mind when we know nothing about the film, and someone says this is their film’s title. Unless we are talking about the most famous adult Chintu, who recently passed away, we’d imagine this to be about a child, the apple of everyone’s—the dad, the mom, the sister and even the moody grandmother—eye. He cannot be older than five or six. A few years down the line, at 9 or 10, he is going to protest being referred to as Chintu. Chintu organically conjures a familiar brand of innocence mixed with mischief in our head as soon as we hear the title. And it is Chintu’s birthday, it must be a small birthday party with hats, balloons and noisy, enthusiastic kids from his school on a sugar high, in his modest home. That’s Chintu Ka Birthday.
Only in this Chintu Ka Birthday, written and directed by Devanshu Kumar and Satyanshu Singh, the innocence is mixed with a more lethal brand of mischief. It’s warm but works as a reminder of the coldness the human heart is capable of. Maybe that’s why Chintu (Vedant Chibber) is watching a cartoon on Adam and Eve in the beginning, as they narrate a version of the myth having created a million Cains. You know, the Cain who committed fratricide. Chintu’s family is, as expected, a modest one comprising his sister Lakshmi (Bisha Chaturvedi), his parents Madan Tiwary (Vinay Pathak) and Sudha Tiwary (Tillotama Shome) and his Nani (Seema Pahwa). They are in Iraq and Saddam Hussein has just been captured. The family emigrated years ago, Madan, a water purifier salesman who took advantage of Iraq’s clean water issue then. But Iraq, of course, has bigger problems now and so does the family. The school closes intermittently, and the noise is not generated by kids in the school but by bombs and guns going off, exchanges between the insurgents and the US troops stationed there. But amidst all this, Madan and his family want to bake a cake for Chintu and give him a normal birthday party, even as they wait for the Indian government to evacuate them, their home country continuing to wash its hands off them claiming all Indians from Iraq are already back home.
Chintu Ka Birthday is essentially a chamber drama, completely set inside the Tiwary household consisting of the living room, two bedrooms, a tiny kitchen and a storeroom. Singh and Kumar, with cinematographer Siddharth Diwan use the confines in interesting ways without too many quick transitions. There is an almost three-minute-long take when the camera follows Mahdi (the Shia house owner whose family has moved to Syria, whom he hasn’t met or heard from in thirteen years) and daughter Lakshmi returning from school. The camera stays on them entering the house and having difficult conversations with each member, talking about the bloody destruction of the bakery (thereby Singh and Kumar making us wonder about a possible Indian connection to this), therefore the failure in procuring the cake, Lakshmi chastising Mahdi for paying no heed to her instructions of keeping the gory details out, the mother and the sister reassuring Chintu that there will definitely be cake and the cynical grandmother inspiring no confidence while also not acknowledging Mahdi’s presence in his own home. This is just one example but the film keeps us guessing with these medium-length takes, happy conversations about the birthday punctuated by bombs going off or guns blazing, leading to the entrance of two American soldiers. The gory detail Lakshmi was dreading always moments away from translating into actual images right under her nose.
The household stands as an allegory to a place ravaged by neo-imperialist tendencies of the US and UK. It holds people of all races and religions, Mahdi giving Tiwarys a roof and them having a great relationship with him (the grandmother refers to them as Hanuman and Sugriva). The home has its dark place, the storeroom, infested by rats and reminding Mahdi of the trauma of his prison torture under Saddam’s regime. We see a cul-de-sac outside this residence that is shown in only two shots, one when Mahdi and Lakshmi arrive, and the second time when the American soldiers leave the home. The soldiers look at Madan’s unsold water purifiers and joke that they’ve finally found the WMDs. America is strongly indicted in Chintu Ka Birthday, not a line one would imagine writing. Is he a bad man, asks Chintu. Doesn’t matter, he is American, his enterprising friend Waheed replies. It’s also a curious decision to make one soldier white (Nathan Scholz as Darren) and the other a black (Reginald L Barnes as Louis). Louis is more empathetic and trusting of the family while Darren goes berserk. “Why do you think he was so afraid”, “you’re a damn fool if you think you can trust the locals”, “There’s no such thing as civilians in Iraq” are statements spoken by Darren to Louis that take a different import watching the film in June 2020 as the protests rage in America after the killing of George Floyd, America considering military action against its own.
All of this is considered a normal day for that time. Waheed and Zainab still make it to Chintu’s birthday amidst bombs and gunfire because they at least get cake. Vinay Pathak and Tillotama Shome make for that familiar on-screen couple who’d go to any lengths to make their child happy and shield him from the harshness of this world. It is a cute, melodramatic premise, the film too succumbing to some melodrama by the end, but Shome and Pathak are reliable actors, with Shome nailing a scene where she is asked to sing. She declines at first and then relents, while even glinting at an in-joke she shared with her husband moments earlier. She wants Chintu on her lap but in that claustrophobic space, her whole family is under her purview, as she makes doting faces at each of them, only for the camera to quickly switch to Mahdi’s poker face, understanding that while this family has its own hardships and is itching to get out, they are trapped here but are at least together. Probably the film’s finest formal accomplishment, using the small space to convey this weighty sentiment.
The Chintu Ka Birthday review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.