Welcome to Sajjanpur



Opened: In India, Sept. 19

CHENNAI, India -- Shyam Benegal, one of the pioneers of the Indian New Wave that began in the late 1960s, returns to rural India with his "Welcome to Sajjanpur." Setting his story in fictional Sajjanpur, steeped in illiteracy and without contemporary communications, he weaves a comic satire that may disappoint diehard Benegal arthouse addicts accustomed to his impassioned critique of the social order. But the film may not even find it easy to crossover to a strictly commercial Indian arena despite Ashok Mishra's extremely witty dialogue, something quite rare in the Benegal basket.

A motley group of characters spins yarns that are sweet and sour. Mahadev (Shreyas Talpade), an aspiring though failed novelist, takes up letter writing as a profession and as a platform to pen flowery prose on postcards for the village's largely unlettered inhabitants. Their woes are as diverse as their pleas and lineage.

The characters who pass by Mahadev's table, precariously perched under a tree in the village square, include a desperately superstitious mother, Mausi, (Ila Arun), lamenting her daughter Vindhya's (Divya Dutta) ominous horoscope; a doctor's assistant, Ramkumar (Ravi Kishan), wooing a young widow, Shobharani (Rajeswari Sachdev); and an eunuch, Munnibhai (Ravi Jhankal), challenging political authority.

He does not take too many liberties with the letters, making one exception when writing for a young bride, Kamala (Amrita Rao), whose husband, away in the city, he covets. He drives a wedge between the two by maliciously twisting words.

Unfortunately, the narrative overlooks factors often synonymous with rural India. Caste barriers, for one, never seem to exist in Sajjanpur. Widow remarriage is glossed over and local elections appear somewhat superficial.

Though most performances fall in line with Benegal's cinema of realism, the songs are distracting, the village is too squeaky clean and some characters do not develop beyond the skeletal element. Benegal's early fire is clearly missing.

Production companies: UTV Spotboy, Bindass
Cast: Shreyas Talpade, Ravi Kishan, Ravi Jhankal, Amrita Rao, Divya Dutta, Ila Arun, Rajeshwari Sachdev.
Director/screenwriter: Shyam Benegal.
Producer: Ronnie Screwvala.
Director of photography: Rajen Kothari.
Music: Shantanu Moitra.
Production designer: Samir Chanda.
Editor: Asim Sinha.
No rating, 133 minutes.