Welcome to Sajjanpur is a somewhat welcome return to form for Shyam Benegal, whose previous films like Zubeidaa (2001) and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2005) were clinical, correct and yes, flat and prodding. But while Welcome to Sajjanpur has its moments (yes, quite a few of them), it still falls short of 'being there.'
For once, the script is not entirely to blame. In fact, Welcome to Sajjanpur is one of the better written films in recent times. Since the plotline is thin, the film has to depend on the strength of its scenes and dialogue and Ashok Mishra has done quite a fine job in this regard. The lighter scenes with well-written dialogue are subtle even within the rural flavour of the film and constantly bring a smile to your face rather than being loud and slapstick. For once a film has real situations with real characters and real issues be it caste politics, widow re-marriage or superstition and that too thankfully without being preachy. Even the ending of all stories is not necessary a happily ever after scenario as after all the film is a slice of life and in life one has to take the good with the bad.
Another strength of the film is in its acting department. The cast rises to the occasion. Shreyas Talpade is spot on and carries the film on his shoulders. Here at last is an actor who looks real and acts real. Amrita Rao is a pleasant surprise but still a little too filmi as compared to rest of the cast. Ravi Kishen is over the top as the compounder in love with a widow but likeably so. The Bengal regulars Divya Dutta, Rajeshwari Sachdev (see her read her love letter in front of her father-in-law!) and Ravi Jhankal are all reliably efficient as is Yashpal Sharma. Ila Arun leaves her mark even if a trifle loud.
The film disappoints technically and in its cinematic treatment. After a rousing crane shot taking in the village, the camera is thereafter largely static and plays very little role in effective story telling. It is here that Benegal once again falls into the trap of the film being too simple, clinical, correct, flat and prodding. Conceiveing scenes interestingly with long takes and combining well-thought out character movements and camera movements, once his forte, seem totally missing here. The script too falters in the second half as the film is unable to sustain itself on its thin plot and character driven premise. Due to the multiple characters, certain tracks are left forgotten for long periods of time and brought in suddenly as if recalling they too have to be resolved like the Ila Arun - Divya Dutta track. All this makes for an uneven and choppy narrative flow with the end explanations and resolutions taking too much screen time. A more innovative editorial approach was needed here. Then there are the logical loopholes. Surely Amrita Rao's husband would wonder where the Rs 50000 came from. Especially since it has been given to him supposedly from her without her knowing anything about it. Would he accept it so easily, buy a house and call her over to Mumbai? Surely he knows how she and his mother have been living in the village. How would they ever raise that kind of money? And even then, what explanation would she give him for once they are together in Mumbai that's the first thing he would ask her. All this is conveniently left unexplored.
The music too does little to help the film often unsuccessfully mixing electronic music with usage of actual instruments. The best composed number is undoubtedly Sitaram Sitaram accompanying the opening credits. Among the other songs, Bheeni Bheeni Mehki Mehki Hawaein and the dream sequence song do nothing for the film and bring the narrative to a grinding halt. And the less said of the picturization of the dream sequence song the better. It is, to put it simply, unimaginative and awful.
All in all, the film is a good but not great watch.