Why give your movie an English name when it is entirely set in the North Indian heartland? Shyam Benegal’s latest is set in the sleepy village of Sajjanpur, situated at a vague distance from the big bad metropolis of Mumbai and populated by quirky characters straight out of Nukkad.
In tone and treatment, this movie resembles nothing as much as Hari Bhari, the director’s previous folksy effort from 2000. Mahadev(Shreyas Talpade), is a letter writer for the village and its surrounding district. He ekes out a fragile existence in the age of SMSs and email, lucky to be surrounded by illiterate people with serious issues.
In the course of this 2 hour-plus movie, his job gets him involved with abandoned wives, crooked politicians, superstitious mothers and forbidden lovers. As he writes his missives, some pleading, some angry, mostly pathetic, he gets drawn in the squabbles and situations of his clients despite himself.
It is certainly an intriguing concept – the letter writer as an observer. And Shreyas Talpade is a fine actor. He brings the right amount of insouciance and low key slyness to the part, as comfortable in the rural milieu as he was in Dor. He is surrounded by a ensemble of actors including some who are familiar with the low budget environment like Ila Arun and Rajit Kapoor and some who are straight out of Bollywood like Kunal Kapoor( strictly a cameo) and Amrita Rao.
The trouble is, except for Yashpal Sharma as the local thug, everybody looks completely out of place even as they turn in decent performances. Amrita Rao looks sweet and fragile and emotes well, but she is just not convincing as the newly wed whose husband left her to work in the city the day after the marriage. Ila Arun gets in some good zingers but she is over the top as the mother of a “mangli” daughter who, she believes, needs to be married off to a dog first to avoid bad luck. I guess she provided the comic element.
Welcome to Sajjanpur is marketed as a comedy, but the script is all over the place. There are some genuinely horrifying moments in the movie when local elections threaten an all-out war between the factions and the movie ends on a melancholy note. It is hard to pinpoint exactly what is wrong with this movie, but if I had to guess, I would say that the director tries to do too much. Shreyas Talpade plays it like a comedy, but there are NFDC-like messages on challenging superstition and equal rights for eunuchs; there is also a human interest story with the letter writer getting involved with one of his clients – all this leads to a mishmash that lacks coherence. The fantasy song sequences don't help – the only explanation for putting your lead characters in a helicopter wearing western clothes has to be either a craven attempt to attract the mainstream audiences or a contractual obligation with the actors.
I believe that the working title in India was Mahadev Ka Sajjanpur. I don’t know if it was released in Indian theaters under that name or if it was released in theaters at all, but it seems much more suited to the medium of television than a large screen. Just like Hari Bhari, it is a gentle, meandering look at the peculiarities of the Indian village and its people and is sure to please TV audiences. As a movie, it feels poorly directed and does not grab the attention at any point. In fact, it would probably make for an excellent weekly serial.
Welcome to Sajjanpur is available on DVD at your local Indian stores – possibly in original print since the quality of the one I watched was excellent.
Welcome to Sajjanpur
Directed by Shyam Benegal
*ring Shreyas Talpade, Amrita Rao,
My Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5.