A well-intentioned but dull account of a villager who spins a tall tale. Plus, a ghostly story with no spirit.
MAR 28, 2010 – THE GENIALLY APPROBATORY TITLE OF Shyam Benegal’s latest feature has the quaint ring of a different era – say the seventies, where it would have implied a pat on the back delivered to a Swedish pop quartet. But Well Done Abba harks back even further, to the tales that Scheherazade spun over a thousand and one nights in order to stave off execution at the hands of her husband. Here too, we have an unreliable narrator in the chauffeur named Armaan Ali (Boman Irani, often caught “acting”), who, at the film’s beginning, finds his head on the chopping block. Threatened with dismissal, he pleads with his master to listen to his (tall) tale before making a decision. And thus, we have an Arabian Nights-style narrative framework that’s essentially a dilatory tactic, and who knows if the story that Armaan spins – about his trials in boring a government-sanctioned well in his backyard (the title, therefore, is pregnant with pun) – is the truth, or just incident after imagined incident intended to keep the butcher’s knife at bay.
After the modest success of Welcome to Sajjanpur, Benegal strives, once again, for that folksy, RK Narayan-meets-Majid Majidi feel. (The film is set in a village named Chikatpally, in Andhra Pradesh, where rickshaw drivers and passengers haggle over a proposed fee of five rupees and settle for… four.) But this style of gently sympathetic comedy doesn’t come naturally to Benegal, who’s more (or at least, who was more) at home with the raucous goings-on amidst the colony of prostitutes in Mandi. That had its share of socially relevant issues too, but those were consigned to the backdrop – up front and centre was the great gallery of eccentric characters, hardnosed and high-spirited. The populace of Chikatpally, on the other hand, is hardly memorable. We’re invited to laugh at Ravi Kishan’s randy overtures to new wife Sonali Kulkarni (who is urged to get breast implants), while a twin played by Boman Irani (and paired with the redoubtable Ila Arun) is a complete misfire.
Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukhtankar, in their Marathi feature Ek Cup Chya (the title is a euphemism for greasing the palm), succeeded, to a large extent, in detailing a similar story. (Like Well Done Abba, they even zeroed in on the Right to Information Act.) Despite the inevitable ungainly stretches where exposition came in the way of entertainment, their account of a hapless bus conductor hit by a whopping electricity bill (and forced to engage with oily government agencies) was powered by an excellent cast, along with empathetic writing that led these people right into our hearts. In Benegal’s narrative, the only relationship that registers is the small-scale romance between Muskaan (Minissha Lamba) and Arif Ali (Samir Dattani) – a love that sprouts over sms-es exchanged in sweetly colloquial Hindi. (Muskaan is the film’s best-written character. She flies kites as a symbol of her independence, as a Muslim woman who doesn’t shroud her loveliness with a burqa and who seeks higher education.)
With no one to particularly invest in, Well Done Abba turns dull very quickly – and it doesn’t help that complex issues are raised and redressed with insulting simple-mindedness. (The conclusion of a subplot reminiscent of Sagar Sarhadi’s Bazaar, about impoverished young women sold off to rich Middle Easterners as “wives,” is galling in its convenience.) It’s interesting to witness how filmmakers of a certain age deal with the burden of stature. Someone like Martin Scorsese strays from fiery personal visions to broadly played-out genre material. And someone like Benegal finds his way back home, to the village-based small-movie, after big-budget missteps like Zubeidaa and Bose – except that his villages, these days, are more the playground of a placid elder-statesman than the canvas of a probing artist. The fire in the belly of the man who made Suraj Ka Satvaan Ghoda – his last great film, also featuring a raconteur, an unreliable narrator – is now a distant speck of yellow.
THE INDUSTRIOUS BOMAN IRANI MAKES his third appearance, this week, as a ghost so impeccably tailored and barbered, his plans for the evening clearly include high tea with Her Highness. (Like any self-respecting multiplex movie of the millennium, Hum Tum Aur Ghost unfurls in London.) Fellow-spirit Carol (Zehra Naqvi), meanwhile, hasn’t drawn a breath in over thirty years, but that tiny detail hasn’t made a dent on her comely person – her cerulean eye-shadow shows nary a smudge, her lips blush like a newly bloomed rose. So this is what lies in wait when we die – the passage to the afterlife may be l’ordeal, but at the other end there’s L’Oreal. What a pity, then, that this makeover didn’t extend to Kabeer Kaushik’s lifeless chronicle of Armaan (Arshad Warsi), who’s recruited by ghosts to clean up their corporeal tangles. Kaushik wants to milk the material for laughs, and he also wants to, Ghost-like, souse us in schmaltz – both ends elude him by a comfortable margin as Dia Mirza, playing a Bambi-eyed love interest, does her darnedest to keep us distracted.
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