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Not so well-intentioned welfare
By Sudhirendar Sharma



In Well Done Abba, Shyam Benegal deals with the serious issue of political economy in an entertaining way and leaves the viewer thinking about the manner our welfare machinery works.


'Well Done Abba' is a satire on govt machinery and its welfare activities

The art of film making may have gone through dramatic transformation but Shyam Benegal continues to use the medium to narrate aesthetically embroidered versions of real life incidents. Since his directorial debut with Ankur in the early seventies, Benegal has used the license of fiction to reflect life's pleasures and pains on the celluloid ever since. Transforming himself into a raconteur, Benegal now applies comic capital to meaningful cinema that he has stood for all his life. The end product is Well Done Abba, his latest film that is ingeniously crafted into an authentic narrative.

If Ankur was a study of multilayered human relationships, Well Done Abba examines ruthless political hierarchies. While Ankur detailed the brutal face of the feudal system, Well Done Abba unfolds the political economy of development. There are glaring similarities in the two narratives, as both focus on power and privilege albeit their misuse. Benegal uses hard hitting satire to take on the entire government machinery - politicians, bureaucrats, engineers, cops - but avoids going overboard with hysteria. The script is paced on real life, gentle but persuasive.

Millions of poor who seek sops may have gone through what Armaan Ali (Boman Irani) experiences as he attempts to build a well on his own land under a government 'below poverty line' scheme. Sucked into the system before he even realizes, Armaan submits to its nefarious designs only to find that the 'well' exists on paper and that it's 'water' has been tasted sweet by none other than the village sarpanch who happens to be a 'woman'. Isn't this a familiar tale of the systemic malaise that precludes the percolation effects of development that are primarily targeted to woo the electorate?

If Ankur was a study of multilayered human relationships, Well Done Abba examines ruthless political hierarchies. While Ankur detailed the brutal face of the feudal system, Well Done Abba unfolds the political economy of development.

Familiarity does breed contempt but not when Benegal narrates a breezy comic story on screen. The characters are indeed colorful and vibrant, be it Armaan's funky firebrand daughter Muskaan (Minissha Lamba) or his slithery sister-in-law Salma (Ila Arun); and be his unfunny twin-brother Rehman (Boman Irani) or a decent local mechanic Arif (Samir Dattani). The characters, troubled or shattered by their past, vibrate with life whenever they begin to relate to each other. The rest of the ensemble cast is unexpectedly drawn together in recreating a microcosm of the nation in the village.

The well, which exists in false documents and fake photographs, is reported as stolen in a bizarre sequence of events. It creates a political storm with its gutsy winds sweeping the corridors of powers. The knee-jerk reaction does get the elusive well dug overnight where none existed but not before a political capital is made out of it. As in real life, no cog in the well-oiled wheel of development is reprimanded for the stolen well. Instead, the self-perpetuating system shamelessly showers recognitions on each of its members for restoring normalcy albeit temporary.

The film is a sheer delight, a must for urban multiplex audiences who somehow believe that all is well with the poor and that the dichotomy between 'India' and 'Bharat' is a work of fertile imagination. The welfare bits of welfare pronouncements rarely if ever reach the real people. Benegal's characters go through the daily ordeal of getting their legitimate share of development, only to be confronted with all that's absurd, weird, dishonest and ironic in officialdom. However, the film stops short of being preachy; leaving the viewer to imagine the implications.

Benegal's characters go through the daily ordeal of getting their legitimate share of development, only to be confronted with all that's absurd, weird, dishonest and ironic in officialdom.

Shyam Benegal continues to enthral
audiences through meaningful cinema

Shyam Benegal uses the potent force of symbolism to convey compelling messages. 'Today they have stolen our well, tomorrow we'll be robbed of our rivers only to survive on bottled water,' pronounces perky Muskaan. Situation like the one in Chikatpalli village alone can fuel the proverbial water war! In a contrasting sequence, the socio-psychology of materialistic aspiration is unleashed by unrelenting wife on the honest cop. Each of the characters in Well Done Abba thus confronts duality of the situation, one within and the other outside. The sub-plots and sub-themes are engrossing.

Set in rural Andhra Pradesh, the film unfolds like a gentle symphony - allowing its characters to evolve and respond to the emerging challenges. The script nurtures each character to grow up and contribute to the desired change. For revolution to occur, each individual must first rebel against self and its entrenched surroundings. The father-daughter duo of Armaan Ali and Muskaan perform their roles to perfection, combining their individual rebellion to bring about transformation. Though Well Done Abba tests the patience of its proponents, it doesn't allow pent-up frustrations to flare.

Nephew of the legendary Guru Dutt and a former Ad Filmmaker, Benegal keeps the ribs relentlessly tickling as he narrates the crises in planned development with creative finesse. Well Done Abba is wholesome entertainment, conveying contemporary challenges on the canvas of meaningful cinema. Only a master craftsman like Shyam Benegal could take a subtle pot shot at the system.

 
Disclaimer:
The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.
 

Sudhirendar Sharma  |  sudhirendarsharma@gmail.com

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an environmentalist and development analyst based in New Delhi. Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sharma is an expert on water, a keen observer on climate change dynamics, and a critic of the contemporary development processes.

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Feedback /Comments on this article
 
Benegal should make more such movies

Shyam Benegal is a genius. He has come a long way since Ankur and has given some of the excellent films, not to forget extraordinary actors launched by him. Well Done Abba is like fresh air in a closed compartment. Not many directors could approach political corruption the way Benegal has done. Movie was light comedy with bits of emotions here and there but the philosophical review done here motivates one to have a relook at the film.

Posted By: Sarita Sinha
Dated: Tuesday, April 13, 2010

 
 Other Articles by Sudhirendar Sharma in
Socio-Economic Development  > Indian Society > Sports and Entertainment

The Politics of Raajneeti
Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Raajneeti is not an epic but a film that mirrors the political reality on one extreme and the masses disconnect with reality on the other. Behind its unexpected success lie its disturbing undercurrents.

Naya Daur in New Age
Saturday, August 15, 2009

A movie like Naya Daur, first released in 1957, is still relevant to India more than four decades later for its gripping presentation of people v/s profit conflict.
 
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Corruption Watch

The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

Poor. Who?

Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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