Which of us as a mother, as a teacher who cares, as a school head who wants to make a difference has not felt the pull of the story of this movie Nil Battey Sannata. Seen it? Do. This is not a movie review but it could have been. People have praised the acting, the screenplay. They have praised the care with which the movie was made, with relatively new hands at the till. And I agree – this movie was about caring. Caring about movie making, and caring about education. Something I have written about often enough – at the core of real learning lies care. This movie showed us one way it works.
The story is simple, for those who came in late. A key examination year for the young student in Class X, Apeksha (Expectations), who is irresponsible and uncaring. Not unaware of her potential but over aware of the limitations of her circumstances. And the circumstances? A single parent, her mother is working class-she works as a bai, a seamstress (we see a machine at least), in a spice/pickle making unit and in a shoe factory to fund her ambitions for her bright but thoughtless daughter. And who has not known a callous teenager! One wonders which world they inhabit, a world where dreams are things that float by but are not meant to be caught and made one’s own. Apeksha, is another such, as are her friends. The mother (Chanda), frets and worries, as she stacks up the pennies to pay for tuitions or whatever else she can do to propel her daughter forward. Young aspirational India it seems needs to be woken up. At her wits end, she (supported by upper class, well educated doctor didi – for who listens to the poor) gets herself admitted into her daughter’s class, wins over her friends and challenges her daughter to do better than her. And we work our way through understanding, hard work and achievement.
Of course I was crying buckets through this to the bewilderment of the teens who accompanied me to see the movie. Movies tell the stories much better than any dry blogpost ever can – and how can one not feel the passionate and heartfelt ambition of the mother here. How can one not understand the despondence of the student who is faced with this mountain of an exam that enables her, or pushes her to the back of the queue. As the headteacher’s chant through the movie clearly asks “Ghoda banoge ya…khacchar” roughly translated as “Will you become a horse or a mule”, a horse obviously being the one who can realise its potential versus a mule that is clearly the end of its line fated to carry the burdens of others. It is a stark choice that will overwhelm any teenager. It is a choice that comes too early and feels too final.
Yet this is a movie of hope. Hope for second chances – as Chanda, the tenth-fail-maid – the adult, joins the children’s class. Not easy today, is it? But as a teen asked me quite thoughtfully, “Shouldn’t that be the norm, that anyone who wants to learn can join the class regardless of age?” Yes, yes, yes, and again Yes! Of course it should be the norm. So many thousands of us were stupid in our teens and made bad choices. So many were not ready then, or were too immature to understand the consequences of being left out. So many were just too overwhelmed by a lifelong sized question being put to a fifteen year old child – that they missed out or were bullied into following another person’s decision. Bring them all back, open the doors to their success. Give them the chances that our children today are getting – grown ups are people too.
Then again, this is a movie about attitudes. Attitudes to work. To the difference between coasting at the back of the class and engaging at the front. About seeking help from peers and others – and creating peer learning networks. About raising one’s expectations to raise the game (education theory speaks much about high expectation classrooms being high achievement classrooms). About being judgemental and drawing conclusions based on partial evidence (yup, I’d use that clip in a critical thinking workshop). About U turns and how they can transform your life. And to use some jargon popular in education circles these days – about a fixed mindset vs. a growth mindset.
But more than this, and most importantly, this was a movie about resources. The resources that one had, and wasted. As Apeksha and her friends muddled about in the shallows, wasting their resources, there were others who pushed ahead to do their best with the same. “Do the best with whatever you have”, said another teen. (Yes, I pestered them after the movie to tell me what they thought. Not cool, but caring, no?) Yup, it was about utilising your resources. And more. It was also about hunting for resources. Chanda, the mum and maid is terribly resourceful – finding jobs for herself, tuition discounts for her daughter and more. But Chanda the student is even more so – she finds resources to create both learning and emotional support groups for herself. She even finds the resources to enquire about goals and attainable pathways. Maybe some teens can do it, but many struggle. Maybe this is another thing we need to teach our students – to hunt for their own resources. Some education systems do this by teaching children to research, survey and build their own learning, some by experiential learning. It is certainly food for thought – the regurgitated spoon-feeding rote learning system clearly does not teach us this life skill in time. Chanda shows us the way.
But the biggest resource this story shows is is one that few educators speak of – the hidden resource. The resources within. The teachers in the movie seek to draw that out using punishment, humiliation and a tongue lashing. That clearly does not work, as it does not in real life. And here we have one story of young Apeksha discovering her own inner resources challenged by her mother, egged on by her ego, supported by her friends but ultimately putting in the hard graft, the effort herself. To be able to reach within and pull out the strength to battle to the win is all that it is really about. Find your inner resources, work them.
Post Script: When I asked the teens for the themes they saw in the movie, one clear strand was – ‘Parents interfering in their children’s lives’. I am choosing to ignore that, you ungrateful brats! And I still want to hear more about the first theme that you just labeled – ‘that stuff you are going to lecture about’. Yes, my children, all of you. Stand by for it. The lecture circuit is coming your way, to share how much we care. Now work it, and own it.