After the wonderfully breezy Welcome to Sajjanpur, Shyam Benegal returns rather quickly to the comedy genre with his next big-screen offering Well Done Abba and, barring a few minor quibbles, doesn’t disappoint his loyal fans.
Grounded in a Hyderabadi milieu, this is the story of Arman Ali (Irani), who visits his village in Andhra Pradesh to arrange his daughter Muskan’s (Lamba) wedding. The water problem in the village prompts him to take the benefit of a government scheme to assist people living below poverty line (BPL) in making wells. The long chain of corruption, first in procuring the BPL certificate and then to get a well dug, frustrates Ali. Does he manage to outsmart the system?
While the man-against-the-system plot has been attempted by many directors, what sets Benegal’s vision apart is the unique upbeat feel which he imparts to it. Rather than going on a sepulchral tirade about corruption, he engages the viewer with brightly-lit frames and an optimistic mood. Simple, direct, and unassumingly real, the movie paints a refreshing portrait of people and their lives without needing recourse to opulent set pieces, melodramatic monologues, or unnecessary song-n-dance sequences. Even the romantic angle between Lamba and Dattani (playing Muskan’s suitor) is fresh, with neither dream sequences nor dreamy dialogues being used as crutches to carry the relationship forward.
Indeed, the film sparkles the brightest in its miniature realism-infused delights, like the chuckle-worthy sequence of Irani at the archetypal photo studio to get his picture clicked, the height-challenged banter of Lamba and Dattani, and Kapoor’s hilarious depiction of the hassled wannabe-corrupt cop. The performances, as expected, are all above-par and succeed in fleshing out believable characters. Full marks to Irani’s beautifully differentiated double role and Lamba’s firebrand and feisty turn as his outspoken daughter. Arun is her usual entertaining self in a burqa-clad cameo. Kapoor (as chameleon-like as always), Kishen (trademark-edly loud) and Dattani (quietly brilliant) do full justice to the characters they inhabit.
Any Benegal movie would be incomplete if it didn’t incorporate subtle social commentaries on topics of current interest and Well Done Abba positively overflows with them. The much-in-news RTI (Right To Information Act), the innumerable pillar-to-post journeys of Irani (strongly reminiscent of the TV sitcom Office Office), the rampant corruption, the final-act revelation about Dattani’s caste confusions—the movie touches lightly upon all these issues without taking a moral high ground or becoming didactic in its tone. Indeed, the second half is made more entertaining precisely because we enjoy seeing Irani get back at the flawed system.
The camerawork by Rajan Kothari imparts a likeable earthiness to the film and presents a credible Hyderabad. The screenplay is relaxed, the dialogues ring with colloquialisms and slang, and the art direction abounds in its attention to detail. The one thing which could have been improved upon is the pace in the first half. Benegal takes a trifle too long to establish the central protagonists and their intersecting storylines. However, the comparatively speedy second half makes up for the laggardly beginning.
Gentle and genuine, Well Done Abba is another noteworthy addition to Benegal’s oeuvre as he once again proves that wholesome, well-meaning cinema can be crafted without any A-list superstars or controversy-riddled publicity blitzes.
You’ll be “well” advised to see for yourself how Abba gets the “well” done!
Entertainment Quotient (EQ): A
Madhumita Gupta is a freelance writer and teacher