Film: "Welcome to Sajjanpur"; Cast: Shreyas Talpade, Amrita Rao, Ravi Kishan, Rajeshwari Sachdeva, Ravi Jhankal, Ila Arun, Divya Dutta, Yashpal Sharma; Director: Shyam Benegal; Rating: *** ½
Welcome to Shyam Benegal's world of enchanting social comment. Every character in this village of the damned, the doomed and remarkably redeemed is a stereotype. And yet, miraculously, every character is an individual, eccentric, quirky, blemished and yet so full of vitality vigor and energy that you wonder which came first...life, or life as seen through the eyes of Benegal's camera of innocence, candor and credibility.
This isn't Benegal's first broadly-designed, warmly-panoramic ensemble film. Earlier, the prolific director excelled in depicting the life of a specific community in "Mandi" and "Suraj Ka Satwan Ghoda" as a microcosm of a larger reality.
"Welcome To Sajjanpur" is enormously high on simplicity. To be simple in cinema is the most difficult thing in the world - especially when you attempt a film that subsumes an entire ethos of socio-political and cultural ideas on a rural society in tricky, torrential transition from blind faith to globalization.
So, here in an exceptionally well-scripted film (Ashok Mishra), there's Ila Arun (deftly effective) as a woman determined to marry off her spunky daughter (Divya Dutta) to a dog to fob off a bad horoscope.
Bad karma nudges delicious satire in "Welcome To Sajjanpur" as a closet-author whiles away his time writing letters for the illiterate, misguided villagers in a sleepy village that comes alive only at election time when a spirited eunuch takes on a local gangster at the elections.
The spirit of the missives, some sad, some satirical, others a bewildering Benegalesque blend of both, comes across in episodic overtures that lead us gently but persuasively from one issue - of widow remarriage (Ravi Kissan giving coy glances to Rajeswahri Sachdeva is a paisa-vasool sight) to another issue of rural migration.
Amrita Rao, in loud parrot-colored saris and mannerisms suggesting an un-spoilt naïveté, is the bride-in-waiting whose husband has been gone to Mumbai for four years.
Shreyas Talpade is the letter writer given the task of informing Amrita's husband that the bride can wait no more. In a spurt of blinding self-interest, Talpade goes from detached letter-writer to attached Romeo and then to the penitent martyr with an ease, fluency and sauciness that the actor seems to muster up with a magician's flourish.
In a film flush with accomplished performances, Talpade holds the plot together like a voluminous book's spine - giving his bucolic character heart, charm and chutzpah.
This is Talpade's coming-of-age film. You really can't imagine any other leading man achieving the same level of connectivity with the character, plot and audience.
All the Benegal regulars - from Ila Arun to Rajit Kapur - show up in Sajjanpur with gratifying humility and warmth. Ravi Jhankal as the election-contesting eunuch and Yashpal Sharma as the eunuch's uncouth opponent stand out, if 'stand out' is the right term for a film where the actors become one with the characters in a seamless design celebrating life's most recognisable and basic emotions.
The costumes (Pia Benegal) tend to get a little touristy at times. And the dialogues (Ashok Mishra again) sometimes lean towards the lewd to salute the boorish rustic ambience. These are not traits you would expect in Benegal's film. But then he needs to keep up with the times. A fact that seems to have bypassed the soporific slumber-dwellers of Sajjanpur as they battle between hand-written postcards and sms communications, finally allowing the former to rule the roost until further notification.
This is a film where every character - big or small - stands tall in his or her naïve insularity from forces of corruptibility that threaten to break down their doors.
Sajjanpur echoes a 1977 film "Palkon Ki Chaon Mein" where Rajesh Khanna played the village postman trying not to get too involved with the local people's domestic problems. Talpade doesn't try that hard.
This is not Benegal's most subtle work of his prolific career. But it is one of his warmest, funniest and raunchiest pieces of cinema - where every character is a human being you'd bump into if you visit a Sajjanpur. Not too many films do that these days.