Stories of rural oppression don’t sell in New India.
Sure we all track the monsoon (good rains equals good rural demand equals stock markets can breathe easy equals our money is safe), worry about farmer (and now weaver) suicides at a theoretical level and dream of escaping to our simpler, second homes, but when we head to the mall for our weekend film fix, do we really want to see an Indian village on the big screen?
Rural vote: Benegal goes back to the village, this time for New India.
Yes, Lagaan was a superhit. And Iqbal was a gem. But they were both about that other Great Indian Passion, cricket. Even brand Shah Rukh Khan couldn’t sell Ashutosh Gowariker’s 2004 magnum opus Swades at the box office.
Director Priyadarshan’s films feature an assortment of odd, earthy types but they are usually transplanted from the village to bumble through the chaotic, colourful urbanscape. Even when Priyadarshan’s plots unspool far from big cities, it’s an opportunity for a sizzling item number (remember the heaving sisters Mumait and Zubein Khan in 2004’s Hulchul?) or strange, pointless comedies which I grimly endure as the husband laughs uproariously.
In 2008’s big hit Singh is Kinng, Akshay Kumar plays a Punjabi villager, but Australia and Egypt get more screen time than Punjab. As an illiterate Indian villager, Kumar gets to rap with Snoop Dogg, romance a leggy NRI and sort out the Australian underworld.
Why would a director want to get in touch with his soil-y side anyway? Governments across the world are pleading with film-makers to shoot abroad. Medha Sampat, country manager (India), South African Tourism, recently told Business Standard that she expects a dozen Hindi films to be shot in South Africa this year. Wouldn’t film goers rather see a frothy romance on Table Mountain than 3 hours of mud roads and rural oppression?
So, where does that leave a guy like Shyam Benegal?
Benegal spent the 1970s creating a body of work about precisely this issue. He worked with folk artistes, farmers, the National Diary Development Board and handloom workers to try to make us understand what went on in our villages.
And we loved him for it.
Now, all these years later, he’s given it another shot in Welcome to Sajjanpur. In the film, Benegal tells the story of a modern village through its letter writer (Shreyas Talpade). Through his smooth, sometimes manipulative, penmanship, we find out what the villagers of Sajjanpur worry about.
A mother is convinced her progressive, hard-working, scooter-riding daughter was born under an inauspicious star. A compounder wants to marry a widow and worries about her ex-armyman father-in-law. The gangster sarpanch worries about the competition his wife, a candidate with a murder case against her, will face in the forthcoming elections. He spreads a rumour that her competition, a Muslim candidate, is a Pakistani agent. After that the poor soul withdraws, and the village hijra (eunuch) decides to give politics a shot (this brilliant cameo is clearly inspired by the hijras who have stood for elections in the last 10 years or so).
Benegal knows he has no chance if he gets serious with you. So the film is a comedy. Instead of picking one issue as he normally did in the 1970s, he offers you easily digested, bite-sized parodies of thakurs as rapists, illiterate politicians, farmers selling their land for a pittance, the despair of rural to urban migration, our attitudes towards hijras and widow remarriage, and the state of Indian democracy.
Sajjanpur as none of the glitz of a Bollywood village. The sets look like sets, the fantasy sequences are unnecessary and like most Hindi films, this one too could have been shorter.
But as you laugh with the director, you are reminded that whether you live in a gated community in Gurgaon or a 4BHK on Marine Drive, India is where youreally live.
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