3 Good

Welcome to Sajjanpur

When the promos of this film first came out, one got the feeling that this would be different from the run-of-the-mill kind of productions being churned out by our own Bollywood every Friday. A modest setting, a bunch of interesting, colourful characters with that rustic awkwardness and introducing all of them, Shreyas Talpade. But what was shocking was the name of the director: Shyam Benegal.

Shyam Benegal and his association with the rural life is as pronounced as that of Yash Chopra with the Swiss Alps or JP Dutta and the desert. Right from his early films like Ankur and Manthan, to his recent ones like Hari Bhari, he has vividly highlighted the life and the plight of villages and how people are still living there, trying to make ends meet. Moreover, Shyam Benegal has always been associated with serious cinema, cinema that impels the viewer to think, to get out of his comfort zone and see the grass on the other side which is far from being green. So, with his name associated with a comic venture, there is some curiosity to see how an ace director like Benegal proves his mettle in a hitherto unventured genre.

WTS tells the story of a small hamlet, Sajjanpur, and the people living there from the eyes of Mahadev Kushwaha (Shreyas Talpade), a BA graduate, who dreams of becoming a renowned writer someday, but currently, he writes letters for the people living there. His crafty play of words in his letters has mesmerised all his fellow villagers, who flock to his 'office': a table, chair and a bunch of postcards, all set up below a tree, and pay him to write. The rest of the film introduces a number of characters, all with their own personality quirks and idiosyncracies, superstitions and prejudices: the village goon contesting for elections, the eunuch who is his competitor, the young widow, her retired army man father-in-law and her compounder lover, the superstitious lady who is hell bent on marrying her daughter to a dog, just because her horoscope has a 'problem' and other sundry characters. How their lives are intertwined with our letter-writer's, forms the plot.

It is an extremely tough job to review a film by Shyam Benegal, especially for an amateur reviewer like me. His films are not that straight-forward and linear like that of some of the mainstream dream merchants, so as to pass off a judgement midway through the film. Be it Mammo or Sooraj ka Saatvaan ghoda( these are the only films I've seen of Benegal, apart from, of course, WTS), they have a unique quality, something je ne sais quoi that stops one from jumping onto a conclusion or a judgement. These films require a solid, well-read and researched mind of a connoisseur to understand the nuances he brings to each film of his (that is the reason I've still not been able to write a review of Sooraj ka Saatvaan Ghoda). However, I'll try my best.

WTS isn't a conventional comedy, i.e., you definitely do not (or should not) expect the slapstick style of humour, nearly patented by the likes of David Dhawan and Anees Bazmee.The film is the kind of feel-good, slice-of-life, sunshine cinema that strongly reminds you of the films made by Basu Chatterjee (like Rajnigandha, Choti si Baat, Baaton Baaton Mein and Khatta Meetha). There is no deliberate attempt to raise a laugh, but the simplicity and the earthiness of the characters do make you chuckle. The protagonist,Mahadev, who also doubles up as a narrator introduces you to the people of his village, calmly, carefully and steadily unfurling their insecurities or strengths, and how each of them, whatever be their situation, comes to Mahadev for his skills. So, there is nothing there to call a solid story as there are 4-6 parallel stories packed into a single one, each having its own sweet moments, before the scene shifts to another one, the common thread in each being Mahadev. As has been mentioned in all the reviews written about this film, the films reminds of Malgudi Days , with the setting and the style of narration. There are no overtly dramatic points, nothing that makes you shed buckets of tears, but at certain points, the simplicity and the earnestness of emotions do tug the strings of your heart.

Talking about the technical aspects, starting with the art direction, the village setting of the film looks very authentic. A special mention has to go to Ashok Mishra, the screenwriter and the dialogue writer. His dialogues are extremely witty and acidic, carrying the rustic fragrance of the fields.Dialogues are the lynchpin, which makes a comedy comic, and here, they are excellent.Characterizations are another asset. Every character, though being of the same village, is clearly made as distinct as possible from each another. The characters are colourful but not caricatured, they are very human and identifiable. The music by Shantanu Moitra is of OK quality.

Focussing on the negatives, the presence of songs act as a speed-breaker. They do not move the story forward. If they had been shortened to just a minute, the film would have been a lot crisper. The editing too sags at a few places, but this is only a trivial flaw. Moreover, as the entire film is based in the village, the sets are very few. So seeing the same settings over and over does create that bit of impatience and build a slight boredom in the viewer.

Moving on to the performances, all I can say, when you see a Shyam Benegal film, you don't see it for the performances, or lets say, the performances are so real, you don't admire the histrionics of the actors; the focus is completely on the work of the director.Therefore, never ever will you call Manthan, a Smita Patil movie or Mammo, a Farida Jalal movie. Shyam Benegal films are known only for Shyam Benegal. Coming back to the actors, as the protagonist Mahadev, Shreyas Talpade carries the film on his shoulders effortlessly. His character, though being central to the film, does carry some grey shades, and Talpade makes them look endearing to the viewer. Although, in certain scenes, you do get the feeling that he is overacting or putting on an act or deliberately trying to sound dehaati, he is pretty good overall. Amrita Rao, playing the role of Kamla, who hasn't seen her husband for nearly 4 years, and who is also the object of affection of Mahadev, gives a good account of herself. Underplaying the role to suit the character, she bowls you over with her simplicity. Also, her rustic diction is near perfect.

Among other actors are Shyam Benegal regulars like Rajeshwari Sachdev Badola (adequate) as the young widow, Ravi Jhankal (Fantastic, literally a live-wire on screen, with a character which has the liberty to go over the top, he wonderfully restrains his performance, packing in all the prerequisites needed for the role) as the village eunuch Munni bai and Ila Arun (Very endearing and lovable) as the superstitious mother. Yashpal Sharma delivers a strong impact as the village goon; he is both likeable and despicable at the same time.Ravi Kishan is also very likeable, in a brief role, as the compounder in the village hospital.Divya Dutta hardly gets any screen time. Rajit Kapur and Kunal Kapoor make friendly appearances.

Overall, this is a film which fills you with a feeling of joie de vivre after it finishes. Watch it for the sheer easy awkwardness and superstitions, that maybe still prevalent in our villages even today,or the nostalgia of writing a letter to a loved one in this age of e-mails and SMSes, or the smart quips delivered by its characters, bringing a smile to your face. This is a worthy addition to the list of films made by this celebrated director.

My Rating: ***