Shyam Benegal, the name that revolutionized Indian Cinema in the 70s, returns to the silver screen after over three years to bring us a film that is beautiful in its simplicity, WELCOME TO SAJJANPUR. Those who are familiar with realistic Indian cinema know that Benegal is a man who relishes the opportunity to delve into hard-hitting social commentary through the persuasive instrument of the motion picture. However, with Welcome To Sajjanpur, we get to experience the rarely-seen lighter side of Benegal, as he brings us a softly written film, peppered with a potpourri of colorful characters, strung together by an effortless, yet revealing story.
Benegal's production is one that hinges heavily on its characters. From afar, it appears that WTS's screenplay is one that does not go very far. However, the closer you look, the more you realize that the film has been written like a web. Although the central character seems to stay stagnant, it is through his peculiar connections with the other characters that branches out into a rather engaging state of affairs. Character-centric, don't expect the script to be larger-than-life or even constantly active. Just open your eyes to the clever character interactions and identifiable human emotions, and you will surely reap the rewards of this very down-to-earth film.
We are introduced to players of this film through the eyes of Mahadev (Shreyas Talpade), one of the few educated and literate residents of the village of Sajjanpur. An aspiring novelist, he earns his bread as the village letter writer/reader, who sets up shop outside the Post Office. Thanks to his poetic and persuasive style, he gains popularity far and wide throughout the village. It is through this set-up that we witness his interactions with various characters; characters that ask him to write all sorts of things, from street plays to political songs, from chain letters to love letters, from letters of espionage accusations, to letters from an innocent wife to her estranged husband - all of which have profound consequences.
Ashok Mishra writes a fine script, true in its simplicity. Applause should be given especially for his eye for detail when it comes to character development. The film picks up speed and intensity splendidly in the second half, as we begin to realize the consequences of the opening half. The highlights of Mishra's work lie in (1) Mahadev's interactions with the runny-nosed Mausi (Ila Arun), who is brilliantly hilarious in her comedic worries; (2) Mahadev's emotional encounter with the village eunuch, Munni Bai (Ravi Jhankal); (3) Every scene between Mahadev and childhood sweetheart Kamala (Amrita Rao), who is now married to her estranged husband. Mishra also flourishes in his attempt to resolve the story, which is just as humble as the film itself. All in all, it's the perfect climax.
Director Shyam Benegal impresses big time; more so because we rarely witness his softer side, with a firm balance between principle and comedy. You never quite know where a good story will turn up. WTS, Benegal states, is inspired by the life of an old crew member of his. Nevertheless, he does the story complete justice with his authentic narration and sincere vision of this innocent little story. He truly makes the film his own. Over the years, you've come to expect such high execution from this seasoned professional, and he doesn't disappoint.
Benegal's affair with music has been a tremendous one! Although the legendary name A.R. Rahman is missing from this particular Benegal offering, Shantanu Moitra attempts to fill the void. Not quite anywhere near to previously set standards, the music is still quite enjoyable. Sita Ram Sita Ram starts the film off with an energetic piece, while Ek Meetha Marz De Ne and Bheeni Bheeni are a pair of spectacular romantic numbers. The rest of the songs are average at best. Unfortunately, it would have been better suited for the screenplay to flow seamlessly without the intrusive situational numbers (Aadmi Aazad Hai and Munni Ki Baari).
Technically, the film is sound. Editing is up to par, although it wouldn't have hurt the final product if a few static sequences were cut in the first hour.
Shreyas Talapde is an absolute revelation in his portrayal of Mahadev, the attentively genuine village letter-writer, struggling between his feelings of attraction and the principles of his morality. He is the perfect centerpiece for this colorful palliate of players, all of whose performances are enhanced ten-fold simply by Talpade's commanding screen presence. After his masterful portrayal of Iqbal, it is Mahadev that brings Shreyas that much closer to artistic perfection. The actor has officially landed amongst the best performers the Industry has at her disposal.
Despite Talpade's flawless character rendition, the film would not have succeeded at the level it has if it were not for the outstanding supporting cast, led by the gorgeous Amrita Rao, who plays Kamla with such dignity and authentic village-girl innocence. Rao's entire physical aura fits Kamla's persona to a T, as she effortlessly crawls beneath the skin of a girl caught between her obligations, hope, frustration, friendship, and love.
Ila Arun, as the runny-nosed Mausi is perfect and quite hilarious! Divya Dutta, as Mausi's daughter, Vindhya, the stubborn, hard-headed modern girl is efficient. Ravi Kishan, as Ramkumar - the love-struck compounder, is effective. Yashpal Sharma, as Ram Singh - the village's political goon, is unblemished. Ravi Jhankal, as Munni Bai - the village's eunuch, is another ace with his impressive range.
WELCOME TO SAJJANPUR is a quality affair from head-to-toe. Led by director/storywriter Shyam Benegal, writer Ashok Mishra, and actor Shreyas Talpade, WTS is a piece of work that entertains in its simplicity. This year has witnessed two extremes - mindless, nonsensical, candyfloss “entertainers” and hard-hitting serious social cinema. Finally, WTS gives us a third option - one that paves a blended path between these two extreme genres, to deliver a film that is perfect for anyone and everyone. Go check it out!
Aakash Gandhi is Managing Editor and Senior Writer for PlanetBollywood.com. He also freelances with the Asian Variety Show at avstv.com.