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Pans & Tilts
Benegal’s Sajjanpur
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
South Asia Correspondent
Welcome to Sajjanpur

Shyam Benegal may have been one among the many to have pushed Indian cinema away from often meaningless melange of melody and mirth, but in many ways he was the first among these men. While Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Pattabhi Rama Reddy and others were as much part of the effort to create the Indian New Wave, Benegal's contribution to this French La Nouvella Vague-inspired movement had an added significance. Benegal's mostly Hindi films were made in Mumbai's heartland of commercial cinema, whereas Sen and his ilk worked outside this sphere where competition was not as overpowering or debilitating.

If Satyajit Ray was deeply influenced by Rabindranath Tagore, Benegal was in some ways Nehruvian. The ideals of secularism, pluralism, equal opportunities and women's rights are ingrained in his oeuvre, and these can be seen clearly in his first movies. "Ankur" (The Seedling) and "Nishant" (Night's End) are extraordinarily powerful denouncements of rural oppression by the rich landowning classes. On the other hand, "Bhumika" (The Role), "Mandi" (Bazaar), "Mammo," "Sardari Begum" and "Zubeida" veer into a woman's dilemmas: her desire for freedom and security, her struggle to survive and the peculiarities of being a Muslim. His forays into milkmen's community ("Manthan/The Churning") and handloom weavers' Pochampally ("Susman/The Essence") were fictionalised accounts of factual reality.

Benegal's approach was serious though he did occasionally enter the comic zone with "Charandas Chor" and "Mandi." His latest, "Welcome to Sajjanpur" is a satire, where he returns to a lighter style of narration and to the rusticity of India's countryside. For a diehard Benegal fan like me who loved his critical look at an India that most moviemakers chose to ignore or gloss over, his latest work is a trifle disappointing.

Benegal takes us to Sajjanpur, a village that does not exist on the map and is far removed from the realm of realty in other ways. It has no email or mobile phones, but yet Sajjanpur is not a place from the deep crevices of history. It exists now, and the story takes place in modern India.

A motley group of characters helps Benegal spin his yarn that is sometimes sweet, sometimes sour, sometimes happy, sometimes heartbreaking. At the head of this is Mahadev (played by Shreyas Talpade), an aspiring novelist whose failures push him to take up letter writing both as a profession and as a platform to pen flowery prose on postcards for the village's largely unlettered inhabitants. Their woes are as diverse as their pleas and lineage.

Mausi (Ila Arun) is upset that her daughter Vindhya (Divya Dutt), is a "Mangalik," and the mother is so paranoid about the ominous horoscope that she is ready to heed whatever the soothsayer offers if only to see her girl married, and blissfully so. There are hilarious scenes of Mausi chasing Vindhya with a nattily dressed up dog asking her to marry the animal to circumvent destiny. A doctor's assistant, Ramkumar (Ravi Kishan), woos a young widow, Shobharani (Rajeswari Sachdev), and is horrified when her father-in-law chasses him across the fields only to tell him in the end that he approves of this union! Benegal takes the cake when he introduces a eunuch, Munnibhai (Ravi Jhankal), in the village's political ring. He pits Munnibhai against the established authority: a woman candidate for the post of councillor, actually a dummy head with the real power being vested in her husband. Do we see a replay of the Lalu saga?

All of them pass by Mahadev's desk precariously perched under a tree in the village square. He does not take too many liberties with the contents of the letters, but makes one exception when writing for a young bride, Kamala (Amrita Rao), whose husband is away in the city and whom he secretly covets. He drives a wedge between the two by maliciously twisting words.

On the surface, the tale flows out of the letter-writer's pen with seeming flourish. The movie appears light hearted and spirited, but on a closer look we see the flaws. For one, the ink that emerges out of the pen is impeded by rambling songs that distract us, even annoy us. Some of the characters do not develop beyond their skeletal elements, and situations appear too superficial for a Benegal work. The widow and her lover are classic examples of this, and I was disappointed at the way the auteur ends their story! Vindhya's change of heart that matches and mingles with Mahadev's own differing perceptions (see how quickly he forgets Kamala) is another point of dissatisfaction.

Finally, while Benegal's early cinema was a deeply probing analysis of the countryside and its countless problems, "Welcome to Sajjanpur" is such an Ethiopian look that the narrative ignores factors unmistakably synonymous with rural India. Sajjanpur is squeaky clean where caste barriers do not exist! Poverty is no no with women dressed as dolls. Somewhere, the satire loses its fire and appears to amble along a village that is difficult to recognise for us Indians.

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Gautaman Bhaskaran is a veteran film critic and writer who has covered Cannes and other major international festivals, like Venice, Berlin, Montreal, Melbourne, and Fukuoka over the past two decades. He has been to Cannes alone for 15 years. He has worked in two of India’s leading English newspapers, The Hindu and The Statesman, and is now completing an authorized biography of India’s auteur-director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Penguin International will publish the book, whose research was funded by Ford Foundation.






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