Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for Chintu Ka Birthday.
A day after I watched Chintu Ka Birthday, I came across their promotional poster while scrolling through my Instagram feed. The list of accolades mentioned that it had won a film festival award for ‘Best Actor in a Negative Role.’ And I was left wondering, “Wait, who? Which role was this?”
That is the hallmark of Chintu Ka Birthday, a movie that resides squarely in the shades of grey, and not in the black-and-white binaries that we are far more accustomed to seeing in popular culture. Especially when they have to do with themes like radicalism, terrorism, nationalism, and soldiers at war.
Refreshingly enough, the primary characters in this film aren’t divided neatly into two boxes of ‘Positive’ and ‘Negative’, or protagonists and antagonists. Instead, they are complex and conflicted, and their ideas of what is right and wrong is challenged throughout the course of the film.
Clocking at a short runtime of 80 minutes – the film stars Vinay Pathak and Tillotama Shome, and has been produced by the AIB-affiliated First Draft.
Written and directed by brothers Satyanshu and Devanshu Singh, it revolves around an Indian family and their child Chintu, who are trapped in Iraq during the US invasion in the mid-2000s. It is the story of everything that transpires on Chintu’s eventful sixth birthday.
It is a story of humanity beyond the barriers of identity.
A Birthday in Baghdad
Chintu has been looking forward to his birthday for days now – but on the big day, just as he is about to leave for school, with a box full of sweets for his classmates, he finds out that the school complex has been hit in the ongoing conflict and as a result, classes have been called off.
Little does he know of what lies in store – his family is soon to be held captive by American troops on suspicion of aiding Iraqi militants, their landlord will have to flee the house as a suspect in a car bombing, and his best friend’s actions will almost have his father arrested. He won’t get to have the cake he wanted, the birthday chart his sister made will be ripped up into pieces, and the grand party he’d planned will not materialise.
But through it all, incredibly, every effort will be made by those around him to make his birthday very, very special.
Of Right, Wrong and Grey
Chintu Ka Birthday is not about telling you what is right and wrong. Instead, it exhorts you to understand the plight of different people trapped in a conflict, from their respective viewpoints.
And there is no character more interesting to achieve this objective than the Tiwarys’ landlord, an Iraqi man named Hassan Mahdi. Ask Chintu’s family, and they happily tell you that Hassan Mahdi is a wonderful gentleman and a friendly, kind landlord.
But Mahdi has no love lost for the Americans, who he believes are responsible for the current suffering of the people of Iraq. His distrust and animosity against the US makes the two American soldiers, Jackson and Reed, more certain that he has had something to do with the car bombing that took place a short while ago.
However, his acrimony against the US invasion of his country doesn’t equate him to being a fan of the Saddam Hussein regime that existed before it. In fact, Mahdi had been imprisoned and tortured under Saddam’s regime, something that adversely impacted his life deeply, in more ways than one.
This masterful nuance in the film helps underline the fact that ordinary civilians who suffered under the dictatorial repression of Saddam now faced a different oppression in the form of excesses by American troops, and that life for them had not improved with the overthrowing of the dictator and his statue.
Saddam and Bush had each been unjust in their own ways.
What Would You Do?
Mahdi’s character also brings alive the most interesting interpersonal dynamic in the film – that between him and Chintu’s father Madan Tiwary, played by the brilliant Vinay Pathak.
Madan views Mahdi as a kind landlord who suffered unspeakable hardships in jail and has reason to be bitter. He doesn’t look at Mahdi with the suspicion that the American troops have for him.
He refuses to believe that Hassan Mahdi is not a nice man, even though he learns that his landlord is hiding something from him. At great risk to himself, he helps Mahdi flee the house, where he was being held captive by the US troops.
Madan understands the soldiers’ predicament about Mahdi. But he also tries explaining Mahdi’s agony and pain to them. Right till the end, Madan is the loyal friend who won’t give Mahdi up.
Was Madan right in not turning in a man who sought to hide in his house right after a bombing, saying that he would explain everything later? Or would he have been right to turn in a man who had been nothing but nice to him and his family, based on a suspicion that could very well be misguided and baseless?
Chintu Ka Birthday will leave you wondering what you would have done in such a situation.
Empathy – the True Star of Chintu Ka Birthday
The film weaves through the complexity of conflicting emotions in a manner that is intriguing and unpredictable.
For example, when Madan Tiwary is pulled up for having radical Iraqi propaganda CDs at home, the American soldier Louis Jackson spots a clear look on guilt on the face of Chintu’s best friend Waheed. Jackson realises that Waheed is somehow responsible for the CDs being found at the Tiwarys’.
But Jackson stays quiet and doesn’t even make a mention of it to his hot-headed compatriot Darren Reed. He doesn’t want the kid to get into trouble for an innocent mistake he may have made.
And if it was a tough call for Jackson, imagine what is was like for Chintu, who knows his best friend Waheed is responsible for something over which his father is being mistreated.
On another occasion, Jackson surreptitiously allows Chintu’s mother Sudha to pick up an “important call from India” even though the family is, at the time, under interrogation for hiding information from the American soldiers.
On both the instances mentioned, Jackson doesn’t do what “duty” beckons him to, but listens to his heart. And it’s not just in Jackson that we see such a conflict of emotions in which empathy emerges victorious.
The climactic moment of the film tugs sharply at your heartstrings because of how the character that came closest to being the “antagonist” of the story is the one who makes the kindest decision of all.
Empathy is the true star of Chintu Ka Birthday.
At multiple points, the movie makes incisive political commentary in a way that is neither forced nor preachy, but elevates the film in an intelligent manner.
When the two American soldiers are searching the store room in Chintu’s house, and all they find are water purifiers that Chintu’s father sells, the soldiers make a jibe about how they were supposed to find weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq, and this is all they get.
It’s a sharp comment on the US invasion, which was mounted on the pretext that America had knowledge of Iraq building WMDs. When American troops found nothing of the sort, George Bush’s reasons for rushing troops into the Middle Eastern country had come in for even greater criticism.
Another example lies in the final scene of the film, when Chintu tells his Nani, “Waheed told me that Saddam has cloned himself. So even if you kill one Saddam, there’ll be more Saddams who come up.”
A line delivered with childish innocence serves as a telling critique of the nature of such geopolitical conflicts – unjust wars fought unjustly, only to beget further hatred, radicalism and retaliation.
It is in fleeting moments like these that Chintu Ka Birthday rises from being just a good film, to being a thought-provoking one.
A Heartwarming Tale Loaded With Meaning
There is something that is often said about the Bengali film and Satyajit Ray masterpiece Hirok Raja’r Deshe, that no matter at what age you watch it, or how many times you’ve seen it before, it will leave you with a new realisation every single time you watch it. It is a film loaded to the brim with political messaging that is seamlessly woven into the story, dialogues and visual references seen on screen. Yet, missing out on some of those references won’t make the movie any less of a thorough entertainer for you.
To a great extent, Chintu Ka Birthday achieves a similar feat. Watch it for being a heartwarming tale of human empathy overcoming cultural differences and biases. And through it all, its politics will permeate through, and leave you thinking long after that final scene.
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