Saturday, June 6, 2009

Welcome to Sajjanpur: A Review

(I wrote this in September 2008...)

Welcome to Sajjanpur!

Sajjanpur is a village, somewhere in central India, whose story of change is an important backdrop in Shyam Benegal’s film “Welcome to Sajjanpur”. Most reviews of the film have noted that the film is a beautiful comedy set in a simple village. For some reason, while I was watching the film, I got stuck to the context in which Benegal was setting up the story. I enjoyed the comedy, but got increasingly interested in the context as the film progressed. I still do not know if Benegal deliberately set that kind of a context, but it was striking.

Mahadev Khushwaha (Shreyas Talpade) is a young boy in Sajjanpur, who happens to be the only local graduate. Sajjanpur is largely illiterate, and Mahadev is the letter-writer as well as letter-reader there. The whole film revolves around his experiences around the letters he writes for others; he is the medium for us to know more about others’ lives. There are standard movie reviews in the net, and I would not get into discussing the story.

We note that Mahadev is an OBC boy, and his portrayal as the only graduate probably points to the more recent growth of education (and aspirations) among OBCs in rural India. The other members of the village, whose social roles form the movie’s context, are interesting. The most powerful person in the village is Ram Singh (Yashpal Sharma), obviously a landlord from an upper caste, but who has an additional and transformed role as a gun-wielding political leader. Ram Singh’s all-out effort to contest in the panchayat elections records the rising effort of landlords and upper caste groups in rural India to reaffirm their socio-economic hegemony by capturing local political structures. He successfully tries to push out a Muslim woman from the contest by raising the bogey of an ISI link. But then he bumps on to a new entrant: Munnibai, a eunuch (who tells Ram Singh, “main aisi taisi nahi janti, bus democraisi janti hoon!”

Ram Singh tries to harass Munnibai in many ways, but she is just unperturbed. The character of Munnibai is so wonderfully crafted that it comes out as an extremely sensitive celebration of transsexual identity in modern India. In the face of great trauma that Ram Singh tries to bring to her life, Munnibai takes Mahadev’s help to write a complaint to the District Collector. The state steps in, the Collector provides protection to Munnibai and she wins the elections. A moment of celebration for the villagers, freed at least symbolically, from Ram Singh, the landlord-politician. But Ram Singh strikes back, by shooting down her fellow activists and simply driving away in his bike.

Here, (I think) Benegal reminds you of some basic stuff. It is that even the little deepening of local democracy in rural India after the 73rd and 74th amendments is continuously stifled by the dominating upper-caste landlords. Elsewhere, while introducing Ram Singh, we hear that how his family member had raped a minor girl and how he had tampered with evidence to get him out. His justification is absolutely hilarious, but strikes one as a gory reality of caste discrimination in modern India.

There is another take on caste in the film. Mahadev’s friend Ramkumar (Ravi Kishan) is a hospital assistant, who falls in love with Sobharani, a widow (Rajeshwari Sachdev). Mahadev’s letter-writing skills works for Ramkumar, who manages to woo her, and her father-in-law, who agrees to marry her to him. This episode is again hilarious to the hilt, and you momentarily enjoy the approval for a widow remarriage. But we are told at the end that they actually belonged to different castes and the caste leaders had honour-killed them and hung them. That strikes one really hard. No similar revelations are made about Ram Singh.

Benegal has some more interesting threads woven into the story. He shows us the continuing dominance of the informal financial sector in the village, when Mahadev is shown running to a rich peasant to borrow Rs 50,000 at a usurious interest. He also shows us the new commercial interests of banks, when the bank manager offers the young and enterprising “capitalist” farmer a car loan with lower interest rate over a tractor loan with a higher interest rate. He angrily texts the manager from his mobile (again via Mahadev): “Abey, main car se zameen khodoonga kya?”

One turning point in the film is when we are told the story of a young man, who found agriculture unviable and migrated to the city for work. To keep his loving wife with him in the city, he is forced to sell a kidney.

Nevertheless, also runs through the film, a strange romanticisation of the “idyllic” village life and agriculture-based livelihoods. Two instances are striking. First, there is a street play against the new “small car” factory coming up near the village. We learn later that Mahadev is the author of that street play, and he is scared of getting branded a Naxalite. This story did appear an over-stretched insertion.

The second instance is more striking, here I may be over-stretching. We are told that Sajjanpur was earlier called Durjanpur. Durjanpur was a land of Sajjans. In the 1950s, Prime Minister Nehru visited Durjanpur, and decided that the village should be called Sajjanpur. From then on, the number of Durjans had increased in the village! Did Benegal want to show Nehru as symbolic of industrialization and modernity? If so, is Ram Singh too a “modern” phenomenon, unconnected with land ownership?

These notes may give you the impression that the film is largely a gory film. Far from it. It is an outright comedy. Almost all the violent incidents are in fact shown in absolutely hilarious terms – for instance, when Ram Singh explains how the minor girl was raped. But behind the comedy, Benegal has told us the story of changing rural India. There is a growth of grassroots democracy, albeit imperfect, but it is consistently thwarted by landlords and upper castes. There is growing assertion among women for everyday freedoms, but it is strongly circumscribed by the walls of caste and superstition. As Benegal preferred to put it in an interview, the film is indeed a comedy, but “also deals with serious issues.”

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