Chintu ka Birthday is a movie written and directed by Devanshu Kumar and Satyanshu Singh, starring Vinay Pathak, Tillotama Shome, Vedant Chibber, Bisha Chaturvedi and Seema Pahwa. It’s a film that is so gentle and kind, set in a merciless world ridden with violence and war. It’s 2004 and the Tiwari family live in war-torn Baghdad, Iraq. But this particular day is an auspicious one; it’s Chintu ka Birthday. He’s turned 6 and finally hopes to have the birthday party that was promised to him for two years now. His family try their best to make this endeavour as successful as possible, but even a simple birthday party isn’t an easy feat in Baghdad.
At the start, you’ll never guess the Tiwari family’s location. They seem like any normal Indian family, almost plagued by their normalcy. Chintu is a cute kid, his mother is a kind homemaker, his father is a loving family man and his grandmother is super caring of him. Then Chintu narrates, in a beautiful sequence, how they landed up in Baghdad from Bihar. In a heart-wrenching scene, the filmmakers show the audience how the biggest victims of war are the everyday civilians, people just trying to provide for their family. His father sold water purifiers in Bihar, and was sent to Iraq to sell them, taking advantage of the water scarcity there. However, with the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2004, the invasion of American troops and the conversion of Baghdad into a warzone, the Tiwari family was stranded millions of kilometres away from home. The Indian government claimed to have returned all those in Iraq, but the ones left behind were those who were sent illegally. Including Chintu and his family.
On Chintu’s birthday, as his mother is singing to him and the house is filled with decorations, the harsh outside world comes barging in through two uniformed men, reminding the Tiwaris that their celebrations and joys are precarious ones, that they live in a world where birthdays must be celebration with caution. Optimism can be shattered within seconds by gunshots and deaths, and hope breeds eternal misery.
The rest of the film is just as jarring and heart-breaking. The filmmakers very delicately placed the Tiwari family in the midst of these huge political events, demonstrating how the regular folk suffer the most. They are pulled by the strings of master puppeteers: the American government, American troops, Iraqi troops, and a bureaucratic Indian government that fails to help all of its citizens. The Tiwaris, especially Madan Tiwari, hold onto loving qualities that are inexplicably ‘Indian’–welcoming guests as family, feeding everybody, and trusting in the great Gods and their stories: Hanuman, Ram and others make cameos in their dialogues. As does the Kamasutra, when they need to prove their Indianness to Americans. Which works, of course.
Apart from the fantastic, engaging narrative that shocks the audience through the subtlest blood-curling moments, Chintu ka Birthday wins because of its talented cast. Vinay Pathak is fabulous in a character I’ve never seen him in before, straddling the roles of caring father and a man who understands the cruelties of the world, and his own irrelevance within it. Tillotama Shome is strong, stoic, and everything motherly: thinking of her children before herself. Seema Pahwa is a natural too, and Khalid Massou, who plays Mahdi, is the tragic hero that we all weep for. But the real stars are the kids. Vedant Chibber, AKA Chintu, is astonishing in his ability to internalise all his emotions, and play his part with an enviable ease. He is Chintu: adorable, playful and innocent. Bisha Chaturvedi plays his responsible, caring older sister and his friends, played by Amina Afroz and Mehroos Mir, are absolutely adorable and hilarious. The American soldiers are terrifying at first, before revealing layers to their humanity through the film. By the end, of course, they let the Tiwaris go.
Chintu Ka Birthday is as urgent a film as it is beautiful; it makes you ask questions that you couldn’t ask otherwise, all the while inviting you to a six-year old’s birthday party. Who really are the victims of war? How interesting is it to be Indian in Iraq in 2004, when we connect socially more with Iraqis, but our command over the English language and influence of Hollywood help us in appeasing Americans as well? And, of course, the most important question that Madan Tiwari raises to the soldiers when he surrenders to arrest: isn’t everyone just here to do their job?
Money and providing for one’s family aren’t just acts of sustenance; they are acts that are most vulnerable to wars that leaders of countries wage against each other. The Tiwaris are surrounded by loving Iraqis who help them in times of need, like their landlord Mahdi and Chintu’s dear friends, Zainab and Waheed. The everyday people are happy to speak in Hindi, Arabic, Farsi, they’re happy to be syncretic and share each other’s cultures wholeheartedly. Ultimately, it is the everyday Indian, or Iraqi, or American, affected by what Saddam Hussein did, or what George Bush commanded. It is the Madan Tiwaris of the world who wish to lead simple, familial lives, and the Mahdis of the world who hold onto the good even after suffering torture and the death of his wife and child. It is the Chintus of the world, who just want to celebrate their birthdays with their friends, who are the most affected by a violence that, tragically, becomes normal life for them. Chintu’s birthday isn’t just a celebration of his turning 6; it’s a reason for the entire Tiwari family to smile, to eat cake together, and to hope together that they will be home soon, that happy days can coexist with the bad ones.
It’s the ordinary folk who are most affected by the screams and shouts of politicians. Chintu ka Birthday reminds us of that.
Chintu ka Birthday is available to stream on Zee5.