When asked whether his latest film, set in a village, would find any takers, veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal replied, "There are always takers for my films."
And he was bang on target!
Welcome to Sajjanpur is a delightful comedy set in the fictitious hamlet of Sajjanpur, somewhere in the UP-Bihar belt. The protagonist, Mahadev (Shreyas Talpade in his element) is one of the few people in the village who is educated, and thus makes a living writing letters on behalf of the village folk – though he dreams to be a best-selling novelist. The villagers are all fantastic characters, each one more engaging than the next: a snake charmer who manages to lose his father in the Kumbh Mela; a corrupt local politician who wants to be sarpanch; a pretty potter Kamala (Amrita Rao) who is Mahadev's childhood sweetheart; an ex-Army jawan and his widowed daughter-in-law who is fancied by the village compounder; Munnibhai the eunuch who also wants to be elected as the sarpanch; and a perpetually weepy Ila Arun who is worried about her educated daughter's marriage, because the fiesty girl is a maanglik (born under the influence of Mars) and therefore unlucky!
The film follows the daily lives of Mahadev and the villagers, all leading up to a surprising end. The characters are refreshingly innocent, even when they do things that would be considered wrong – a hallmark of masters like Benegal, whose characters always have shades of grey. Even as Mahadev fancies the much-married Kamala and jealously writes angry letters to her absentee husband accusing him of being neglectful, his intentions are not anything like those of the adulterous characters in Bollywood films like Race. It's mere puppy love, and therefore rather endearing.
(Benegal isn't shy of taking a stab at current issues either – one of the politicians forces Mahadev to write a letter accusing one of their Muslim residents of being an ISI agent. The poor man turns out to be innocent, of course, much to Mahadev's consternation.)
The dialogues, which are spoken in the Bhojpuri dialect peculiar to that region, are also hilarious without trying too hard. An example is where Mahadev tells Kamala to bring him her husband's reply as soon as it arrives, and follows it up with a statement that she can visit him even when there is no reply! While this might sound leery in English, the actual lines were very funny. Terrific stuff.
However, the film falters a bit towards the end – after going great guns right from frame one, it suddenly seems to lose its punch. While I wouldn't call it a bad ending, the shift in the scene is a bit to sudden to round out the whole story properly. It's hard to appreciate since there seems to be not even a slight indication of the forthcoming twist, which does not do justice to the narrative.
But, despite the ending, there is no mistaking Benegal's genius at work. The comedic storyline is nicely interspersed with moments of poignance and tragedy, without them seeming out of place. This is one thing I like in particular – the dialogues are not deliberately funny, but are made so by the performances and the story. This is pure classic comedy, pioneered by the likes of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, and Benegal deserves to be lauded by successfully doing it old-school and coming up trumps.
Also noteworthy is that despite being set in a village, this film is not catered to a foreign audience. Far too many movies romanticize "rural" India and make a mockery out of the culture in an attempt to impress foreign audiences who like the "quaint" quality of such films. In Welcome to Sajjanpur, it is very easy for us to identify with the characters even though we may not understand the language or may be unfamiliar with the village setting. There is a little bit of each of us inside the people of Sajjanpur and Benegal has tapped into that perfectly.
The actors have done a brilliant job, especially Talpade and Ravi Kishen as the eunuch. Also, the songs in the film (yes, there are a couple of songs!) are so nicely woven with the narrative that they only add to the story. The songs featured are mainly about Mahadev's love for Kamala, and the visualisation pays homage to classic Hindi cinema, when songs were all about emotions and adding to the story, rather than mindless item numbers featuring garish costumes and foreign locales. There's even a tribute to Martin Scorcese's Aviator (or more accurately, that great Hollywood dream merchant Howard Hughes) where Mahadev and Kamala are in a plane - dressed uncannily like Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett, who played Hughes and Katharine Hepburn in the film!
Overall, this movie is a must-watch, and if you're a loyal fan of the genre of classy, clean comedies like Chashme Buddoor, Padosan and the like, then you'd better not miss it.