This Thinkpiece looks at the possibilities and pitfalls of education in Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s ‘Nil Battey Sannata’ (2015) (Hereafter called NBS). I look at how the film provincializes the motivation for education by making it exist in conversation with the South Asian concept of ‘izzat’(honour/respect). I argue that that the motivations for (or against) education in NBS are anchored around the search for izzat.
Yasmin Khan (2015) argues that izzat is a “living concept” (p. 129), containing a “reciprocity in equality”, inciting feelings of “hospitality and enmity”, which can often be cited as the “motivation for action” (p.128).
Izzat operates at three levels in the film. The first is the idea that education guarantees izzat in society. At the second level, there is the dynamics of izzat within the home, dictated by education. Finally, at the third level, izzat assumes the form of a sense of self-respect, mediated, of course, by education.
The Three Levels of Izzat: Home, the World, and Within
The film follows Chanda Sahay (played by Swara Bhaskar), in her journey to get her daughter—named Apu—to score well in her board exams. Considered as a social rite of passage, one’s result in these exams is considered what makes or mars one’s chances at social ascendancy. Unable to afford the money for coaching classes, and to ensure her daughter’s future ‘ izzat’ in society, Chanda enrols herself as a student in her daughter’s class. This sets up the peculiar conflict in NBS—that of a mother and daughter competing in the same classroom, forced to interact (and act) as equals.
However, this search for izzat complicates the relationship between mother and daughter. At the first level, Chanda assumes that the attainment of education will ensure greater izzat to her daughter in society, in the world out there. Education, then, is seen as an insurance against social pitfalls. “I’m doing this for you” the mother says, “Do you think I want you to end up as a maid…?” To which the daughter, irked, replies, “Have you gone mad? Have you ever thought of my izzat? They’ll make fun of me in school…”
Chanda’s actions presuppose that Apu, who wiles away her time without studying, does not enjoy any izzat. It is this notion that Apu challenges—for when she gets angry on hearing that her mother will join her class, she is not worried about the loss of izzat of her mother; instead, she is worried that she will lose her own izzat, the respect that she already possesses in school. The film subtly draws attention to the double life that children lead in between the space of the home and the space of the school; schools are often spaces of discursive identity formation, marked by shifting relations of power, understood by the difference they share from the space of the home. In obtaining the knowledge that her mother is now entering her classroom (albeit not as her mother), the lines blur, the home and the world outside crumble into one, Apu’s identity is forced into flux, and the idea of the izzat out there is problematized.
At the second level, the concept of izzat is explored in the private space of home. Although Chanda is moved to act to ensure her daughter’s izzat ‘out there, we see that Apu rarely listens to her mother. Apu is irate, cynical to her mother’s intentions. “What is the use of me studying?” she asks, “Roles are fixed. A doctor’s child will be a doctor, and a maid’s child will be a maid.” She subscribes to a notion of structural fixity which is not without some truth to it.
Apu’s prophetic proclamation has echoes of the Althusserian idea that socio-economic systems reproduce conditions of production to ensure structural exploitation of lower classes—in other words, “the reproduction of labour power requires not only a reproduction of its skills, but also, at the same time, a reproduction of its submission to the rules of the established order” (Althusser, 1971, p.130)— however, quite paradoxically, the subscription to this notion can also operate as a self-fulfilling prophecy; i.e. the knowledge that one cannot rise above one’s socio-economic position can, paradoxically, stop one from trying at all, thus ensuring the condition which one predicted.
When her mother scores better marks than her in the math exam, Apu is furious, even insulted, and screams, “Don’t act too excited because you’ve done well. You’re just a maid!” A correlation between western forms of education and indigenous forms of respect which is quickly established here. The daughter, in talking back to the mother, assumes that she is, in fact, talking back to an uneducated maid. There is an implied hierarchy in the little girl’s haughtiness which is borne out of the knowledge that she can talk back to her mother precisely because her mother is not as educated herself. This lack quickly becomes one of the main reasons which prompts the mother to continue studying in her daughter’s class. Thus, izzat operates at subtle, invisible levels within the confines of home and in the relations of intimacy between its members.
Finally, the film sets up a third idea of izzat which implies a kind of self-respect. Respect, insofar as it is a form which arrives centripetally, could also be understood centrifugally; this self-respect does not imply a celebration of conventional forms of education, nor does it imply a hagiography of existing tradition. Dignity, or respect, as it is constructed does not imply a passive acceptance of the status quo or a blank valorisation of one’s exploited class position. As the film closes, Chanda now tells Apu that to be educated allows one to possess the courage to dream.
This moment, as I read it, signals an important shift from how education is understood by these characters, and the implications of izzat. There is a prepositional change here— instead of using education to gain respect from [someplace or somewhere], the film seems to suggest a shift towards the respect to [dream].
Thus, education, which is initially understood as a means of ensuring izzat from the other, is finally understand as a space for studying the self. Izzat makes a journey from being desired out there, to being generated in here; instead of being a deterrent against social pitfalls, it becomes a space for exploring personal possibilities.
1. KHAN, Y. (2015). Izzat. In G. Dharampal-Frick, M. Kirloskar-Steinbach, R. Dwyer, & J. Phalkey (Eds.), Key Concepts in Modern Indian Studies (pp. 128–129). NYU Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt15zc7zj.53
2. Althusser, L. (1971). Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation). In B. Brewster (Trans.), Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (pp. 127–189). essay, Monthly Review Press.
Author Information: Utsa Bose is a first year MPhil student in Modern South Asian Studies at the University of Oxford.
Suggested Citation: Utsa Bose. 2022. ‘In Search of Izzat: Possibilities and Pitfalls of Education in ‘Nil Battey Sannata’‘, Think Pieces Series No. 26. Education.SouthAsia (https://educationsouthasia.web.ox.ac.uk/).