More power to the people

The crux of Shyam Benegal’s film-making has always been his engagement with the socially oppressed. Most of the films he has made in the past 36 years have had the activist’s zeal, besides his love for characters, milieu and a good story.

Ordinary world: Irani (left) and Lamba play father and daughter.

Well Done Abba is far behind his best.

The film begins in Mumbai, where Armaan Ali (Boman Irani) has returned from his village in Andhra Pradesh to a driver’s job. His boss, who looks like a busy executive, is infuriated because he has returned long after he said he would. Armaan convinces him to listen to the reasons that delayed him. The rest of the film is set in the village.

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Benegal tackles a breadth of issues in the film. Corruption, red tape, the plight of rural Muslim women, water scarcity and the desperate battles that ensue in villages to own water—in addition to these, he also squeezes in a paean to the Right to Information Act.

The story is propelled by Armaan’s attempts to get a well dug on his family land, which has been inherited by him and his daughter Muskaan (Minishha Lamba), and Armaan’s capricious, unreliable brother Rahman (also Irani) and his wife Salma (Ila Arun). The state government has announced a scheme that entitles every family living below the poverty line to own a well.

As in some of his best films, a motley group of characters populates the film, the kind that exists in and around the periphery of small-town babudom: an honest cop, a scheming politician, a petty clerk and a civil engineer (always in the middle of clumsy sex with his newly wedded wife).

It is a good story, and Benegal’s intent is earnest, but in execution it is awkward, long-drawn and tedious. The dialogues, meant to be humorous, fall flat. The social issues he satirizes are hammered into the story. The acting, even Irani in the two roles, seems staged. (Sameer Dattani, who plays Muskaan’s love interest, is sorely laboured.) The cutbacks to the car, where Armaan is narrating the story to his boss (who is unusually eager to hear his story; we don’t even see him holding a cellphone), don’t have a purpose in the film; it’s just a forced change of locale.

Here’s a film that shows the ordeals rural Indians go through just to prove that they are “BPL" (below the poverty line)—a film that has a genuine heart for the socially oppressed. But unfortunately social issues alone don’t make good cinema. Benegal’s “middle cinema" magic, where message and form merge seamlessly, is woefully missing in Well Done Abba.

It is not easy to be objective about a film-maker who has shaped alternative taste in cinema for at least two generations of Indians. Thanks to Doordarshan, I grew up watching his work, my first window to serious, realistic cinema. Well Done Abba is a disappointment; I look forward to Benegal’s next.

Well Done Abba released in theatres on Friday.