The 17-minute short Bittu opens to a pre-teen girl singing a flirtatious song. Bittu (Rani Kumari) is performing for a bunch of men who, appreciating the show, drop coins on the ground. Soon, her friend, Chanda (Renu Kumari), sings a similar number — Bittu complements the lyrics through gestures; the men look pleased, requesting a Bollywood song. They break into a Bhojpuri hit, Lollypop Lage Lu; more coins drop, the girls dance, and the original song plays in the background.

It’s a discomfiting scene for obvious reasons — young girls, adult men, erotic songs, loose change — but the unease is heightened by the perhaps deliberate haphazard cinematography: the camera wanders close to the actors’ faces; the ends of heads are chopped; the subjects are filmed from an angle. It’s a fitting opening to a film where a disoriented world spins out of control.

The rest of the film is set in a school in a hilly village. Filmmaker Karishma Dev Dube doesn’t name the location — making the setting inconsequential — and yet this is a specific Indian story. The protagonists, Bittu and Chanda, are poor. Their boarding school comprises a few battered rooms. There’s a tap outside, where the children clean up. There’s just one teacher. The food is basic: a soggy mix of dal and rice. Bittu’s face is unwashed — snot squats under her nose.

Dube presents the characters and settings unvarnished; we observe them as bystanders, soon realising the futility of that exercise, for this is a film about negligence.

An uncomfortable watch, Bittu examines a fundamental question of why we are the way we are

Dube drops subtle hints. Even in such a small school, the principal doesn’t remember Bittu’s name. Her son, a school admin, hauls a torn bag of rice, spilling its contents. When the cook tells the principal that she can’t use the oil for making food as it’s smelly, she hears, “Work with what you have.”

None of the characters, however, are villains. The schoolteacher and the cook are, in fact, caring. It’s just that the indifference has settled so deep in people who run this place — the principal and her son — that it runs like blood in their veins.

Bittu, shortlisted for the Best Live Action Short Film at the 93rd Academy Awards, examines the cost of that mindset. It asks an essential question about our very way of living: Why are we the way we are?

Surrounded amid this big question are two small kids, the film’s leading light and conscience.

The casting and acting are wonderful. Rani and Renu complement and complete each other. Bittu is fierce and naughty, prepared to quarrel and offend. She has the face of a curious toughie — a know-it-all who can read minds. Chanda is sweet and fragile; even her rebukes are tender. Their relationship covers the whole gamut of crests and troughs: they play, tease, fight — and protect each other with an intensity that only one child can have for another.

But another crucial difference sets them apart: Bittu is stubborn and disobedient — and it’s her defiance that saves her. “How are good children supposed to be?” the principal and the teacher ask at different points. The students place their index fingers on lips, indicating silence, implying subservience.

But Bittu is too cool for school.

Even though theirs is a co-ed school, the protagonists’ gender does not seem coincidental. An Indian girl is considered insignificant; a poor Indian girl is considered invisible. “Do you think you’re precious?” the teacher asks Bittu while scolding her.

She does not reply, but you can hear her scream. The short ends with the shock of a climax, but the more shocking bit is that it is inspired from a true story.

This happened, says Bittu, we let it happen.

The film ends with the shot of Bittu staring into a long-lost night: a child assailed by questions that this world cannot answer.

— By arrangement with The Wire

Published in Dawn, ICON, March 14th, 2021

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