Shyam Benegal ki Ajeeb Dastaan

Having watched Benegal all through my impressionable growing years – both on the silver screen and the small screen - any Benegal product excites me instinctively, long before the actual purchase. Welcome to Sajjanpur (WTS) was no exception. I went all the way, guided by the lure of Benegal, to the nearest multiplex mall that cost me well over Rs 500 (including the customary popcorn and coffee for the family).
But the great expectation made way for some great suffocation. What I saw was a comic creation of a maverick director who seems to have lost his direction. And the emotional despair that pervaded the picture was far greater than the economic disaster that ransacked my pockets.
Zubeida was his previous film that smacked of mediocrity (though he regards it as one of his best) but compared to WTS, it still remains a decent proposition. WTS is clearly Benegal’s worst. And not because WTS is not serious cinema unlike most of his films, but simply because it’s not good cinema. And good cinema is synonymous with Benegal Cinema. Hence the great disappointment!
The WTS story, if there’s any, is Benegal’s own – that of a literate youth Mahadev (Iqbaal fame Shreyas Talpade in the lead role) in Sajjanpur, a village in the Hindi belt of rural India, who makes his living writing letters for fellow dwellers. The community houses a rainbow of characters in true Hindi film fashion – the good, bad and the funny –all underlining their persona through animated gestures. (We agree this is a comedy film but does it have to be comic?)
Mahadev transforms emotions into words – and the letters travel varied distances with the desired messages. A lot happens around Mahadev in abruptly erupting scenes – a fiery election campaign – where a local goon (Yashpal Sharma locked in the same old stereotype of a baddie) is challenged by an aspiring eunuch (played to perfection by Ravi Jhankal), a love story (Ravi Kishen and the Benegal favorite Rajeshwari in one of their worst performances)blooming in the dark behind the back of a retired miltary guy (Benegal regular Lalit Mohan Tiwari proving a disaster as Subhedar Singh), a superstitious mother desperate to get her Mangalik daughter wedding-ready (Ila Arun: funny and bearable as the mom, Diyva Datta: loud and gawdy as the daughter)

To top it all, we have Mahadev’s own aspiration of becoming a novelist and of course – his barmy desire to woo his childhood crush – the petite Amrita Rao as Kamala Kumharan, who pines for her husband Banshi (Kunal kapoor looking more like a Kashmiri militant than a village simpleton) toiling in the big bad city of Mumbai …

Mahadev provides creative documentation support to one and all. And amidst the professional chores, he carries out his wicked personal mission – trying to separate the husband-wife pair, penning unduly harsh letters on Kamala's behalf and faking Banshi’s replies - in the desperate hope of winning back his lady love.
But only till such time he finds that the husband is about to sell his kidney to make a living. And some Dalda brand melodrama takes over. Mahadev mortgages his land, travels to Mumbai, and hands over the hard cash to Banshi on Kamala's behalf – of course keeping his identity anonymous.

The end has this publisher with a stupid 24*7 grin who congratulates the budding novelist Sukhdev (Mahadev’s new pen name) on his book that sketches the grand narrative of Sajjanpur. And there’s a surprise in store provided you last the whole film in one piece – we see the dashing and explosive Divya Dutta as Mahadev’s wife – “Oh! So they are the ones who got married eventually” the audience is expected to exclaim in ecstasy before they leave the cinema hall.

The film reminds you of those regionally produced Doordarshan telefilms made with meager budgets and mediocre actors, invariably telecast during odd-hours. Several frames compete for the crown of the most disgusting scene – the school flashback showing a caricatured master admonishing the kid Mahadev for kissing the young Kamala, the nauseatingly funny military guy escorting his daughter-in-law for a medical checkup, the military guy chasing a frantic Ravi Kishen out of the village – are few that come close to clinching the title.

Shreyas Talpade shows flashes of brilliance as the leading man but is highly inconsistent with his accent (put on at times) and overacts in certain frames (the red gamcha clutched between his teeth during tongue-in-cheek conversations gets irritating beyond a point) Surprisingly, Amrita Rao is impressive and plays the village belle in line with the demands of the character.

But if there’s anything enduring in the film, it’s Ravi Jhankal’s true-to-life portrayal as the eunuch. Benegal would have done well to make his the central character – he’s one who tells a real story and despite the limited footage, churns out an amazing performance. Daya Shankar Pande (now better known as the small screen Shani Dev) as the snake charmer is another actor who has the audience in splits in the couple of shots he’s been allotted. And Putru (or Kutru) the dog comes out with a spirited performance – trying to make up for the lack of human competence in the acting department.

The film is deprived of effortless humor – very few scenes have the power to sprout a real laughter – like the one where Yashpal has this customary line before kick starting his bike “mamaji baithiye” and the old guy retorts in one instance “hum to pehle hi se baithe hai”.

Fortunately, the film critic community has been kind and forgiving to Benegal for a change. Maybe his “legend” status is now exempt from any X- Ray examinations. Many a reviews have applauded Benegal for the so-called social messages woven through this light-hearted comedy. Well, if the lewd antics of Ravi Kishen and Rajeshwari stand for the noble cause of child widow marriage, we have had enough. Even otherwise, there are enough crude sprinklings probably to keep the masses occupied – one scene showing Talpade suggestively crossing his legs at the mention of Virya (sperm). Now, what’s that – had it been David Dhawan, it would have been termed vulgar, but it’s Benegal, there has to be some deep thought behind it.

Most of the critics have come down heavily on Shantanu Moitra’s music (probably in search of an easy prey) but it’s actually one of the redeeming features of the movie. While KK’s “Sitaram Sitaram” is catchy and Kailash Kher’s “Aaami aazad hai” is soulful, the other numbers are certainly not garbage stuff.

It’s high time Benegal looks beyond his trusted repertoire of support players. Barring Jhankal, the troupe proves highly irksome. And if this jamboree was not enough, we also have the jaded Rajit kapur as the District Collector (another Benegal pet in a mindless guest appearance) Well, if you have to rely on known commodities, why not choose the better among them? If not Naseer and Om, why not Sudhir Kulkarni and Pankaj Berry at least?

Benegal has remarked somewhere that he cannot make a film like Ankur anymore. Times have changed, the relevance is lost, the context is lost. We agree, but why make a movie at all if WTS is his answer. In recent years, Benegal has shown an obsession with celebrity stars and mass appeal ingredients. Right or wrong, we have no right to comment, unaware of the compulsions before him. That his personal brand erodes in the process is however a matter of grave concern. Benegal is our cherished icon in the league of Ray and undoubtedly a national treasure. To this day, the brilliant Hindi translation of the Nasdiya Sukta hymn – the title song of his legendary “Bharat Ek Khoj” gives us goose bumps. Not to mention his timeless creations over the years.

This generation is indeed lucky to have a fighting fit Benegal keen to make more films – but how we wish he does what he does best – tell a story in any genre but only in his inimitable style and armed with indisputable conviction.

Waiting for his next with bated breath.Sitaram!