Chintu ka Birthday movie review: A generous and life-affirming tale of an ordinary family in an extraordinary situation

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From its very outset, Chintu ka Birthday — winner of the Viewer’s Choice Award at the recently concluded Jagran Film Festival — is a writer’s film. We witness a day in the life of an Indian emigrant family in Baghdad unfold under the shadow of war, through a screenplay that is meticulously calibrated to hit the crests and troughs of emotion at the right moment. Writer-director duo Satyanshu Singh and Devanshu Kumar’s debut feature film offers little by way of memorable images. It issues from a reverence for the dramatic extravagance of childhood. The directors faithfully recreate the wonderment and innocence accompanying that early stage of life, imbue their film with a big heart and draw strong performances from a majority of their cast. Chintu ka Birthday whizzes by its relatively short 80 minutes-plus runtime owing to the smart, fit-to-the-beat writing. But it comes alive in the tiny, poignant details that fall in and out of the narrative without drawing attention to themselves, thereby enriching a generous, earnest and life-assuring film.

April, 2004. Chintu (Vedant Raj Chibber) gets ready for school in a small Baghdad neighbourhood. The sunlight is streaming in through the windows. His dad, Madan (Vinay Pathak) is singing discordantly inside the bathroom while Sudha, his mother (Tilottama Shome) preps him for his special day. Bespectacled, well-combed and cute as a button, Chintu is ready to celebrate his sixth birthday with his classmates. There are toffees to be distributed — dad has ordered double to make up for last year — a cake to be brought home and a big, roomy house to be decorated.

But George W Bush has other plans, ruining Chintu’s party chief among them. Over the course of a quaintly memorable day, Chintu will witness his stubbornly optimist father defy falling bombs, American soldiers, power cuts and the prospect of losing his freedom to try and keep his promise to his son. The directors will pour all this and more within the confines of a single house, seeking to reinforce faith in humanity and our innate drive to live to the fullest under the most dire circumstances.

From its very outset, Chintu ka Birthday is a writer’s film

From its very outset, Chintu ka Birthday is a writer’s film

The early segments of the film are particularly impressive. The Singh brothers create the atmosphere of a Bihari household settled in a home away from home with elan. The family’s longing to return to India underscores the film, reinforced by the finesse with which the directors draw authentic diction from their non-Bihari cast. It doesn’t take us long to be drawn into their world and the writers employ a gamut of dramatic incidents and styles to keep the narrative moving forward rapidly. The friction between Madan and his mother-in-law (Seema Pahwa) brings the family’s collective frustration over the issue of being stranded in Baghdad into sharp relief. But wide-eyed Chintu with his simple birthday wish remains the fulcrum of the film. Even though the skirmishes in the city ruin one family plan after another, the occasion of his birthday unites them all, culminating, rather appropriately for an Indian film, in a beautifully rendered song at whose threshold all problems and misgivings are momentarily forgotten.

Things go to hell for the family after that. You’d have to be ignorant and innocent to believe that they wouldn’t. The screenplay builds carefully towards the key dramatic moments. This orchestration works commendably on the page. But its translation to the screen comes at the expense of the objective realism of the film. Chintu ka Birthday is too well paced to let that distract you from the experience. But the risk of artifice intruding into the immersive nature of the film becomes too explicit to be ignored.

However, this is where the tiny, pregnant detailing lifts the film. The scene with Mahdi (Khalid Massou), Madan’s landlord, rooted to the threshold of a dark room, reluctant to enter it on account of the past, while his tenant searches for an appliance, is pregnant with meaning. It effortlessly opens a window into the sad inner life of a man who dances and sings and plays through the darkest of times. Or the one where Waheed (Mehroos Ahmed Mir), a young Iraqi boy, cheers on American soldiers as they chase after one of his own countrymen and shouts, “Go, go America! Yalla, Yalla!”. Waheed is in essence the archetype of a young boy overwhelmed by the counter currents of American soft power and extremist thought. He hustles desperately in order to survive and find a way out of this mess he’s unwillingly inherited from adults. Despite everything, he’s full of swagger and always flashes a big smile.

The patriarch of the family is never short on laughter himself. You can count on Madan to find a way out of the deepest hell-hole and sport a big smile at the end of it. He’s condemned to see the best in people. But Chintu’s hero has the writers on his side. They craft his dad’s character with great care. Madan shines bright throughout the film. We can count on him as much as little Chintu himself. Pathak’s renowned talent at imbuing pathos and germaneness to the character of a quirky common man certainly helps. Although the characters of the two American soldiers that kickstart the tension in the film are formulated as types, their able performances and Pathak’s helpings of earnestness and heart keep the narrative on track. Shome turns in an effortlessly pitch-perfect performance as the mother while Chibber’s casting as the titular Chintu deserves a big round of applause. The directors tease out a memorable performance from their loveable, endearing protagonist whose spark can light up rooms, power-cuts be damned.

I come to Bisha Chaturvedi at the end. For her supporting act as Lakshmi, Chintu’s elder sister, receives relatively little screen-time. But her mere presence in a scene adds emotional profundity to it. To watch her face is to witness and feel the film’s essence unfold on a canvas. Another case of inspired casting, yes, but her tender, restrained yet measured performance is delightful to behold.

Chintu ka Birthday is a small film about ordinary people trying to fulfill simple dreams in a big world overrun by greed. It is full of heart, earnest, lit generously like a flashback to childhood and is always on the side of its tiny protagonist. Chintu is the little candle in the dark and all of us, including the writers, are drawn to him. This lends the film its most memorable moments and its flaws. The events leading up to the denouement are not entirely convincing. But once the credits start rolling, Chintu ka Birthday leaves you with a wisp of a smile not unlike the one that lights up Madan’s face and a warm, fuzzy feeling you don’t find on Instagram.

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