REVIEW: Welcome to Sajjanpur

REVIEW: Welcome to Sajjanpur
Shreyas Talpade turns in a career-best performance as Mahadev
Filmmaker Shyam Benegal’s Welcome To Sajjanpur is not only one of the best films of this year, it’s among the finest films you’ll see in a long time. It is on the one hand, a humorous portrait of life in a small village in northern India; and on the other an honest exploration of human personalities.
It’s also a remarkably progressive film that makes many important points, but does so subtly and intelligently, never beating its chest about it. ((pause)) With “Sajjanpur” Benegal proves once again that a simple plot with interesting characters is all it takes to engage an audience. Benegal is familiar with his milieu and understands his characters and their motivations intricately.
Shreyas Talpade plays Mahadev, one of the few literates in Sajjanpur, who makes a living writing letters for those who can’t read and write themselves. For anything between fifty paise and two rupees, he’ll dash off whatever communication the village folk urge him to.
For the compounder at the local dispensary who’s besotted by a young widow, Mahadev writes a rousing love-note; for an elderly woman convinced her daughter’s stars aren’t quite in order he writes letters to her trusted astrologer enquiring how to ward off evil spirits; for a eunuch who’s preparing to contest the village elections he scribbles off an impassioned plea for protection. His knack with words and his skill at writing persuasive letters makes him particularly popular with his neighbors.
When his childhood crush Kamla (played by Amrita Rao) approaches him to write to her husband in the city to communicate her frustration about being away from him so long, Mahadev lets his feelings for her get in the way. He manipulates the communication both ways in the hope of breaking up the couple and winning her heart himself.
Welcome To Sajjanpur is a placid film, not plot-driven but centred on the emotional journey of its characters. And what a colorful palette of characters Benegal serves up – the hassled ‘mousi ‘ who cries through her nose, her headstrong scooter-riding daughter, the snake-charmer who carries around a rubber cobra, even the gangster-like politicians. It’s evident that the director has nothing but affection for his characters, even the darker ones get their moments to shine. At the core of the drama, of course, is Mahadev.
Sometimes a character in a movie inhabits his world so freely, so easily that he creates it for us as well. Shreyas Talpade does that in Welcome To Sajjanpur, as the kind-hearted fellow who writes for free for those who can’t afford to pay him, also the sly chap who plots to snatch his sweetheart from her absent husband. Benegal’s protagonists are seldom black or white, and Mahadev can’t be saddled with those labels either. He’s a good man, but a little selfish. Not very different from any of us.
Welcome To Sajjanpur is one of Benegal’s most evocative films, what a fine job he does of lacing it with social consciousness. The film dwells on relevant issues like widow remarriage, caste politics and superstition, but it’s weaved intrinsically into the film’s plot.
In this day of slapstick senseless comedy, Benegal delivers a film that’s both witty and wise, and he’s aided by a terrific cast that doesn’t miss a beat. Divya Dutta, Rajeshwari Sachdev, Yashpal Sharma, Ravi Kissen, Ila Arun, every single one of them is in superb form. Amrita Rao is terrific as the conflicted, suffering bride, and Shreyas Talpade turns in a career-best performance as Mahadev. Watch him in that scene in which he’s reading the letter Kamla’s husband has sent to her in the end — that is what you call an actor.
If Sajjanpur falters, it’s in the length department. The film could have easily done with fewer songs, even though Shantanu Moitra’s score is refreshingly wholesome.
In the end, the movie is a beautiful, complete, moving experience, and years from now will be regarded as one of Benegal’s most layered films. I’m going with four of out five and two big thumbs up for Shyam Benegal’s Welcome To Sajjanpur. It’s a sweet, simple story of life in a village, a bittersweet tale of human frailties, a small film with a very big heart. Watch it because gems like these are hard to find.

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