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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

My Father the Hero 

Shyam Benegal’s Well Done Abba is his latest film but sadly for a plethora of largely unconnected reasons, some way off his best. For once, the story moves away from glitzy India, even physically, to the Bharat that begins where the Worli flyover mythically ends.

Drawn from sources as diverse as — Narsaiyyan Ki Bavdi by Hyderabad-based Urdu writer Jeelani Bano, Phulwa Ka Pul by Hindi author Sanjeev and Still Waters by actor-writer Jayant Kriplani, the effort is picturized as a set of real-life vignettes that driver Armaan Ali ( Boman Irani ) experiences in his native Chikatpally ( loosely placed somewhere in the Andhra hinterlands) which he narrates to his employer who threatens to sack him for overstaying his leave.
These revolve around his trying to procure a Government-issued well on his land in the wake of attempts of reining in his free-spirited daughter Muskaan ( Minnissha Lamba) in turn wooed by the simple do-gooder Arif ( Samir Dattani) and the chaos inflicted by his Uncle Fred-ish brother & his wife (Irani again with a hamming Ila Arun)

While his inimitable touches rooted in the cadences of small-town India are all there—the mores of rural Muslim life, the God-like photographer who is somehow a window to the world yonder, the almost-theological passion that one follows antics of neighbours with, long SMS’es typed out in chaste Hindi, they all fall prey to a harried and breathless portrayal as the plot struggles to find a precarious balance between the harmlessly comic, tongue-in cheek cynicism & world-weary resignation that most village lives have to learn to endure. One is never sure if Benegal depicts a minor incident to draw attention to a larger vision or merely shares the goings-on leaving the viewer to interpret on his own. There is a gentle droll humour that suffuses most frames which is strangely jettisoned when more serious topics need dealing with, for which a jarring simplistic preachy tone is summoned. This extends through the film whose final shot culminates with a motley bunch of evil power-wielders get their come-uppance on a dais which collapses beneath them seemingly under their collective avarice

Expectedly the repertoire of socially relevant issues is staggering. Benegal touches on the unholy nexus around contracts & Government jobs, the travails and attendant desirability to be below the poverty line ( BPL ), the trauma of indebtedness & urban migration, the Right to Information Act, reservations for women in panchayats & even shady matrimonial alliances with Sheikhs. Still Chikatpally doesn’t appear to have the soul of a Sajjanpur for all its trying—the dialects, costumes and sets are all dutifully in place. There is a passive distance that most characters maintain about anything resembling serious opinion. Contrast that with the flippant way in which subjects as weighty as upper-caste rape & Naxal retribution is introduced in Welcome….

The acting is a mixed bag though all the Benegal regulars are around. Irani overreaches himself in the prankster twin avatar and is good in parts as the composed father. Lamba for all talk of putting up with her lot always seems to have time to fly kites and gets increasingly curmudgeonly as the plot unfolds and is coy only in her fledgling romance with Dattani who one must restrain from acting roles, so bad is he. Her screechy woman-of-substance demeanour and progressive erudition is not borne out by the facts we are provided with and for that alone, hers makes for the most dissembling part. Ravi Kishen as the uxorious engineer is superb though paired with a wasted Sonali Kulkarni.. Fine actors such as Yashpal Sharma, Rajit Kapoor, Ravi Jhankal & Lalit Tiwari have little to do. And while some songs blend into the story well, there is a “bawdy” song on a truck which almost feels like one of those blooper post-film montages where everyone lets their hair down and has a blast. Only wish Benegal had done that more frequently in this honest & well-meant venture. Only wish All was Well !

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