Chintu ka Birthday Movie Review: Powerful performances carry a warm tale of hope, loss, and belonging
Although the central conceit of looking at war and violence through the eyes of a child might remind you of Jojo Rabbit, Chintu ka Birthday has a strong sense of uniqueness
Baghdad, 2004. It's a year since American troops have occupied Iraq. There is a car blast. The Madan Tiwari household is taken over by two American soldiers in search of insurgents. Madan Tiwari's (a brilliant Vinay Pathak) family is geared up to celebrate the sixth birthday of Chintu (a bright-eyed Vedant Chibber), its youngest member. There is shelling all around. The soldiers are forced to stay inside the house because the insurgents are retaliating. Then... there is a loud knock. A very young, yet confident voice calls out for Chintu. A local Iraqi kid and his sister are at the doorstep. "We come for Chintu birthday party. Let me in. I go out I killed, here... I eat cake," says young Waheed, who has braved dust, grime, blood, and bombs to come to his best friend's birthday party. The loss of innocence is understandable in a place of perennial strife like Iraq, but what about the normalisation of violence in the minds of these impressionable kids?
Cast: Vinay Pathak, Tilottama Shome, Bisha Chaturvedi, Vedant Chibber
Director: Devanshu and Satyanshu Singh
Streaming on: Zee5
Over the course of just under 90 minutes, Chintu ka Birthday puts a spin on the kind of chamber dramas we've seen in Indian cinema in recent times. While like most of those, this film too is a thriller, Chintu ka Birthday also works as a family drama. A film that, for instance, a Basu Chatterjee (RIP, you wonderful filmmaker) would have made now. A film where every tear is punctuated by a smile. A film where every kick in the gut is followed by an understanding embrace.
Although the central conceit of looking at war and violence through the eyes of a child might remind you of Academy Award-winner Jojo Rabbit, Chintu ka Birthday has a strong sense of uniqueness. Everyone in the film is battling inner demons. While one soldier is already disillusioned with the search for the 'weapons of mass destruction', the other, who is newly deployed, is livid over the insurgents beheading his brothers in the American army. Madan and family have been trying to trust the system and return to India, but are met with multiple hurdles. Chintu's fifth birthday was spoiled when "America waale uncle" ordered his forces to occupy Iraq. The elder sibling Lakshmi (played by a gifted Bisha Chaturvedi) is the archetype of an Indian girl who is forced to grow up too fast for her age. She is so stoic that when she breaks down, even her parents are surprised. Words like, "If you break down, what will happen to others?" that are usually reserved for someone older are used to pacify her.
In between all this, the narration allows us to draw parallels to people wanting to go home. We also find people not knowing what home is anymore. Is the idea of home just an extension of the construct of wanting peace and happiness? Are peace and happiness the ultimate luxuries? Or is the desire for them just imaginary fuel to keep the fire of hope raging inside us?
Written and directed by Devanshu and Satyanshu Singh, Chintu ka Birthday makes us think of these questions, but it doesn't preach. References to religious indoctrination and Saddam's regime are made in passing. The sympathy is earned and not forced out of us. Major credit for this goes to the performances of the stellar cast lead by Vinay Pathak and Tilottama Shome. As Madan and Sudha, parents of Chintu, they play outsiders in a country that is invaded by outsiders. Although Tilottama doesn't have many dialogues, her silences speak loud. Sudha believes Madan will get them through any ordeal. They have to be strong together to ensure that come what may, Chintu gets to celebrate his birthday. This becomes paramount to the family despite facing an uncertain future soon thereafter.
Through well-crafted dialogues between Madan and the two American soldiers, the writers establish how the story of the real victims tend to get buried under the debris of the stories of others. "They say Saddam Hussein killed Shias, including women and children. Some say he was a great man. Who knows the truth? My personal problem is very small when compared to what the country is going through," says Madan, who is portrayed as the epitome of goodness and hope. This behaviour irks his mother-in-law, played by the inimitable Seema Pahwa. She berates him and asks, "Do you think you can smile and melt all their hearts?"
Of course, it is not enough. Smiling at unknown adversity isn't enough when that adversity is possible detention in Iraqi prisons infested with snakes and rats. Smiling at their home being shattered isn't enough when the alternative is outing a young kid who made an innocent mistake. But just like Madan, somewhere deep within us, we do hope that it will be enough. We do hope that the goodness in our hearts will melt theirs. We do hope that there will be light even in the darkest of places. We do hope that children can dream of a safer future. We do hope.