SHYAM BENEGAL has spent a great deal of his directorial life representing the Indian village on screen. His latest offering, a rural comedy, marks the distance he’s travelled from the intensely realist critique of patriarchy and caste in Ankur (1974),Nishant (1975) or the equally trenchant Samar (1999).
It isn’t that Benegal can’t do — or hasn’t done — comedy. But the broad buffoonery and lame jokes of Well Done Abba make one ache for the nuanced black humour of Mandi(1983) — where the travails of a house full of prostitutes formed the focus of a marvellous satire about politics and middle class morality. Or at least for the warmly humanist humour of Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008), which managed to woo urban multiplex audiences into a rural cinescape, and whose success Benegal is clearly trying to recreate. Unfortunately,Sajjanpur’s already stagey village and deliberately stock characters, now transported from north India to the Dakkhini Urdu-speaking regions of Andhra Pradesh that Benegal knows well, dissolve completely into caricature here.
The main narrative — about the super-sincere Armaan Ali (Boman Irani), whose attempt to build a well on his own land under a government BPL loan scheme is thwarted by the system — might even have been alright on its own. But it is forcibly tethered to the unfunny shenanigans of Rehmaan Ali (Armaan’s beimaan twin, also played by Boman) and his wife (an irritating Ila Arun) and a saccharine-sweet romance between Armaan’s perky daughter Muskaan (Minissha Lamba doing a decent Preity-Zinta-lite) and local mechanic Arif. The lack of nuance with which issue after issue is dealt with is disappointing — the sarkari ad-like reference to the RTI Act, the appallingly flat subplot about poor Muslim girls being married off to Arab Sheikhs, the fact that Arif must be shown to be of indeterminate religious background to establish secular credentials. Benegal attempts simplicity but only achieves simplisticness.