Right from Mandi to welcome to Sajjanpur, Shyam Benegal has always used satire and simplicity as the strength of his comedies. For audiences fed (up) with an overdose of slapsticks, this is as refreshing change as having healthy homemade food when consumption of regular roadside junk leads to constipation.
Adapted from a short story Narsaiyyan Ki Bavdi by Urdu writer Jeelani Bano which was also translated into a tele-film in Doordarshan days, the anecdote has since become part of Indian folklore. Interestingly the age-old political parody holds relevance even in present times. Well Done Abba also credits Hindi author Sanjeev’s ‘ Phulwa Ka Pul ’ and a screenplay treatment by Jayant Kriplani ‘Still Waters ’ as its source materials.
The story opens with Armaan Ali (Boman Irani), a car driver in Mumbai, returning to work after months of leave. Almost on the verge of losing his job, Armaan seizes the opportunity of explaining his boss the reason for his extended holiday en route a long drive to Pune.
The casual visit to his village gets long-drawn-out when Armaan Ali comes across the water shortage there and decides to get a well dug in his barren fields. As he literally runs around bribing everyone from officer, collector, engineer, village-head to even a photographer, you can visualize him playing Pankaj Kapur’s part from an episode of the popular sitcom Office Office . And like the sitcom, Benegal bestows an upbeat mood to the film over making it look like a depressing drama of distress and difficulty.
And just when you wonder if the film is a neorealist take on Armaan Ali’s well-wish in the vein of classics like The Bicycle Thief or Do Bigha Zameen , the second half goes in complete reverse gear where Armaan Ali gives the perpetrators a taste of their own medicine. The well that never existed is reported as stolen in police files and everyone involved in its ‘well-being’ is questioned. The series of events that follow thereafter makes something as impractical as the theft of an immovable asset credible thereby initiating a believable black comedy.
The film primarily points out the prevalent bureaucratic corruption that hijacks several schemes initiated by the government for the underprivileged, thereby hindering development of the society and hence the country. It also intelligently brings out the irony of how staying below the poverty line has rich outputs.
The multilayered screenplay by Ashok Mishra is adorned with a horde of varied amusing characters. Armaan’s support system is his daughter Muskaan (Minissha Lamba) who makes way for the mandatory love track (with Sameer Dattani) which slackens the pace in start, but soon their romance progresses simultaneously with the narrative and is refreshingly restrained. Armaan also has a twin brother and a sister-in-law (Ila Arun) who, though don’t contribute much to the central plot, are interesting characters in their own right and thankfully not the scheming stereotypes or saccharine sweet. Another ‘potent’ial character is a virile engineer (Ravi Kishan) who forever has his wife (Sonali Kulkarni) on his mind. However the track of an inspector (Rajit Kapoor) and his bickering wife seems half-baked and peripheral to the plot.
Despite being a trail and tribulation journey, Benegal’s direction has a feel-good charm to it. The simplicity in his storytelling is so charming that even when the film extends beyond its climax into a celebratory song, you don’t mind much. The authenticity of a rural setting is something that can never go wrong in a Shyam Benegal film. The geography of his setting might change from Uttar Pradesh to Andhra Pradesh with films but the maestro has a history of perfecting the milieu and mannerisms of any region.
From Ashok Mishra’s immaculate rustic dialogues, Samir Chanda’s production design, Pia Benegal’s costumes to Rajan Kothari’s easygoing cinematography – every technicality is ‘well’ handled. Shantanu Moitra’s countryside composition isn’t chartbuster material but goes in sync with the mood of the film. And the random choreography in the title track is truly trademark to the territory. But while realistically recreating the rural backdrop, Benegal imparts a pertinently progressive outlook to his protagonist who prefers his daughter going beyond the burkha . Also the director subtly touches the issue of how naïve parents push their daughters into furtive flesh trade by marrying them off to loaded Arabs in hopes of better living.
Shyam Benegal ensures that his actors excel in their characters right from their traits, dialect, accents to acting even if they have to play a walk-on part. All Benegal regulars from Ila Arun, Rajit Kapoor, Ravi Jhankal, Rajendra Gupta to Lalit Tiwari play their part earnestly. Ravi Kishan is loud but still has an amusing character. Minissha Lamba surprises with an absolutely natural and lively performance. This is certainly the best performance in her career so far. But ultimately it’s Boman Irani in a title role and a twin character who is dependable as always and glides through the part as if it were tailor-made for him. Even in a scene as elementary as posing for a ‘passport size photograph’ in a photo studio, he has you in splits through his expressions proving his screen presence is as immense as a ‘blow up’ picture.
Shyam Benegal crafts a clever and caustic political satire with Well Done Abba . This ‘well-made’ film is worth a watch!