I have never been a fan of the so called art/parallel/serious/meaningful cinema and by corollary its promoters. Hence I gave a miss to most of the movies favoured by the jholawallahs & the bidi smoking intellectuals. A few that I did see only reinforced my belief that these film makers were the Johnny come lately residuals from the smoky decadent sixties and wannabe rebels full of pretences bent upon glorifying the poverty and slums of India. Wily nilly I had always included Benegal in the same category because I could appreciate only two of his movies namely Ankur & Junoon. The rest of his repertoire didn’t really appeal to me. Too slow and too boring. But with ‘Welcome to Sajjanpur’ he has forced me to revise my opinion.
The first brownie point is won for the original and unusual story related mostly in spoken Bhojpuri. Set in the rural Hindi heartland it revolves around a young village lad who puts his education to practical use in the art of letter writing. It provides him his daily bread and also enables him to keep his hand on the pulse of the lives, politics and love affairs of the village. Like any engaging story this is also a combination of various sub plots in which each character has been carved with affection. There is this political family which wishes to rule by the gun. Yashpal Sharma is in his element as the resident don. I specially loved the expletives that he used. Baggarlandu, Jhapperkanju, Landeroo are just some of the many endearments he uses to decorate his language. Then we have Munni the eunuch who decides to challenge the hegemony of the don but though democratic menas.The village compounder, played by the Big B of Bhojpuri films Ravi Kishan, is besotted by the child widow daughter in law of the local fauji. The widow is not portrayed as long suffering and in fact responds to the amorous advances of her suitor. Add to this the undercurrents of attraction between our letter writer hero and his married childhood classmate and we have the makings of a minor revolution in the rural India. Ila Arun is the hyper superstitious mother of an unmarried daughter bent upon marrying her to a dog to ward off the evil eye. If I was heading the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, this year’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in a Female Role would go to her. Shreyas Talpade as the letter writer is endearing and a joy to watch. I only hope that his sweet acts don’t limit him to Amol Palekar type of roles.
The movie is a telling commentary on the country’s divisive politics and how a change is desirable. It’s presented through songs taking a dig at religion based politics and how both the mandir and the majsid groups have utterly failed to address the problem of the common man. So the question is asked if a eunuch should now take charge. This is not supposed to be the Third Front but maybe a radically different choice. At the same time the brutal truth of social rigidity and intolerance, the exploitation of village migrants, the rampant superstition is also brought home.
You can’t win them all. So while there are some success stories there will remain some evils which will take time to go away. Benegal has taken a practical viewpoint although his winding up of the story could have been a little less weird. It sort of grinds to a halt but that doesn’t take anything away from an otherwise outstanding movie.