“Welcome to Sajjanpur” is a mainstream Bollywood movie with a social conscience — hardly surprising coming from the lens of veteran arthouse director Shyam Benegal, who, at the ripe old age of 74, proves that even a founding father of parallel cinema can mix it up with the best of them. Sprightly village ensembler — seasoned with a heavy dose of irony but not condescending to either its characters or masala movies in general — makes for a pleasantly entertaining but very episodic two-plus hours that’s stretched as far as the thin plotting will allow.
Pic has so far been released only in India, where it has grossed an OK $1.7 million, starting Sept. 19. Offshore business looks to be similar among non-resident Indians, with a tiny crossover to curious Western auds who still remember Benegal’s name as a femme-centered arthouse name starting in the ’70s (“The Seedling,” “Night’s End,” “The Role”).
Benegal already stuck his toe in the mainstream Hindi pool eight years ago with Karisma Kapoor starrer “Zubeidaa,” set in the movie world. But this is the first time he’s immersed himself fully, with a name cast including youngsters like Shreyas Talpade (“Om shanti om”) and Amrita Rao (“Main hoon na”) to vets like Yashpal Sharma (“Singh Is Kinng”) and Rajit Kapoor (guesting).
The titular central Indian village is introduced, in a perky opening reel, by young Mahadev (Talpade) as a “worthless” place, where the only habits are gossiping and chewing tobacco. Educated Mahadev wants to go to Mumbai (girls, movies, fast cars!) but, before he pens the Great Indian Novel, is forced to set up shop in the main square, reading and writing letters for illiterate locals.
In fact, Sajjanpur is a rich fount of genre stereotypes, including local bigwig Ramsingh (Sharma), shamelessly electioneering for his wife; dandy doctor Ramkumar (Ravi Kishan), who’s fallen for young, off-limits widow Shobhar Rani (Rajeshwari Sachdeva); loudmouth Mausi (Ila Arun) and her tomboy daughter, Vindhya (Divya Dutta); and head of the town’s eunuch transvestites, Munnibai (Benegal regular Ravi Jhankal), who decides to run for election against Ramsingh’s wife.
Dialogue is lively as these and other characters pass by Mahadev’s stand, almost in the style of a play. Initially a warm comedy of village eccentrics, pic then enters pure Bollywood territory (complete with a modestly budgeted musical number) as Mahadev reunites with a friend from primary school, the beautiful Kamla (Rao), and falls for her bigtime.
Running underneath the likable comedy are regular reminders of social problems, discrimination, the caste system and so on, all of which Benegal has covered in earlier dramas. Sudden shafts of darkness also serve to remind auds that, despite its songs, warm crisp lensing and widescreen format, “Sajjanpur” is not just another piece of masala fluff.
Script’s episodic structure starts to pall at the midpoint but rallies in the finale (centered on the election) with a clever closing twist. Most of all, however, pic is sustained by the performances, which either show actors in a fresh light (Talpade, Rao, Dutta) or simply recycle reliable shtick (Sharma, Jhankal).
Songs are more OK than memorable, and staging is energetic on a budget.