Friday, March 26, 2010

Film Review: Well Done Abba

Not quite the Done deal

Starring: Boman Irani, Minissha Lamba, Ravi Kissen, Ila Arun, Sonali Kulkarni
Director: Shyam Benegal
Rating: **1/2


Not quite the Done deal

Shyam Benegal has always believed in films that have an overarching social message. So much so that Benegal often comes across as a keener student of history and sociology rather than cinema itself. His last few films, be it Hari-Bhari, Bose: The Forgotten Hero and Welcome To Sajjanpur have to an extent been social documentaries in the NFDC mode of public service films.

Obviously, the above isn't a commercially viable model; which is why Benegal, even when he wrote a serious film like Sajjanpur that dealt with age-old rural India issue, tried to make it palatable by turning it into a comic satire. He does the same with Well Done Abba, but clearly, the comic diversions continue to look somewhat forced in films. The lack of vigour and movement in his screenplays has been a problem, resulting in an acute sense of tedium. In that sense, his scripts have been like social essays projected on the big screen, rather than being cinematic with strong drama, plot and so forth.

The above problems are evident in Well Done Abba too. And yet, Benegal's message is a timely and important one, because it tackles the issue of government schemes for the poor that do not reach them at all due to rampant corruption among officers and middlemen.
Armaan Ali (Boman Irani), a driver in Mumbai, takes a month's leave from work so that he can find a groom for his daughter (Minishha Lamba). He hails from a small town near Hyderabad. Since there is an acute water shortage there, Armaan Ali applies for a loan to get a well dug up in his yard. He is prodded by some to apply in the below poverty line segment, so that all these benefits will come free to him. Armaan is confused by all the happenings around him, but he toes the line - adhering to what is expected in this maze of corrupt officers. The money is released in quick time, but none of it reaches Armaan. The well is built on paper, not on land. Taking matters in her hands, Minissha registers a complaint with the police officer (a listless Rajat Kapoor) that her well has been stolen. Others in the town also come forward to register complaints about their missing wells, thereby putting the government machinery into a spot.

Adapted from two short stories, Narsaiyyan Ki Bavdi and Phulwa Ka Pul, the best thing about Well Done Abba is its setting. As can be expected from Benegal, he etches quotidian life in an authentic, textured manner. The Hyderabadi dialect lends the film a distinct freshness, though the dialogues and script do not tap into the potential for humour enough. Benegal tries to lighten up his story with a few funny scenes (Boman has a twin brother and sister-in-law (Ila Arun) who are notorious for stealing) but there is always such a heavy air of sobriety that pervades his world that it weighs the film down. There are severe pacing issues and many scenes seem repetitive. Mind you, many of the characters and even individual scenes start off in an interesting manner, but Benegal lingers on too much, not willing to move on - so a lot of it appears stretched. For example, the meeting with an officer who glibly demands Boman's watch as a bribe or even Ravi Kissen as the newly wed, sexed up husband make you grin, but this just goes on and on.

Yet, in spite of these problems with the narrative, the subject itself is an admirable one and hammers home the message well. The freshness of the setting offsets some of the other weaknesses, so that Well Done Abba turns out to be a well-intentioned and fairly enjoyable film.

The performances are all good, though Minissha Lamba's botched up nose job is a major distraction. Boman Irani - the wonderful actor that he is - gives the role his best, but you get a sense he's more suited for flamboyant roles. Here, he plays an ordinary guy and doesn't quite nail it.
All in all, a watchable film… but not quite sharp enough.

-Sandhya Iyer

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