Film: Well Done Abba
Director: Shyam Benegal
Actors: Boman Irani, Minissha Lamba
A “mota taaza” Armaan Ali (Boman Irani), with a thick Hyderabadi twang, drives a Mercedes Benz in Mumbai. He’s still poor enough to fake a ‘Below Poverty Line (BPL)’ certificate from a local office. Not a surprise. Even a minister had recently found himself under the said BPL list. At least Armaan’s a chauffeur by profession -- the Merc’s his boss’s. His is a more genuine case.
On payday, Armaan says, he falls above the poverty line. By first week, when he’s paid off rent; sent money, like many immigrants, back to his village; he certainly dips below the poverty line. That BPL certificate promises many a life of several freedoms: free home, electricity, cheap food… Armaan’s gotten himself sanctioned a free well.
Home for him is an Andhra hamlet called Chikatpali, where water is scarce, a woman by reservation is sarpanch, and pretty much everyone is open to corruption. Armaan has a twin Rahman, who is a bit of a baimaan (a rogue). He has a young daughter (Lamba; in top form, full of zing).
By now he also has that precious well in his compound. He’s bribed off every babu, over multiple rounds, even delivered a ‘cut’ to the local trick photographer. The well exists. But only on paper, and in pictures. The scheme, like many, is a bureaucratic trap.
It’s the sort of mirage that followers of Bihar’s fodder scam will appreciate best: farm animals were conceived on paper; raised on fictional feedstock; some even died along the way. And officials, down the food-chain, gobbled up all the fodder.
Benegal’s certainly locked in a lyrical, layered screenplay here. The subject’s grim. The optimism is unique. Armaan realises along the way the power of an election coming up, the RTI Act, the mike, and the media. The state legislature debates a stolen well.
The film remains a fine black comedy, which could only disappoint in parts for its weakened pace, or the director’s discomfort with a soundtrack to help with the movie’s commerce.
1962, the year Benegal made his film debut, Nehru was still the prime minister; man was many years away from stepping on the moon; and it’d be over 20 years before we’d get Doordarshan as national broadcaster.
Over close to six decades, Benegal’s conscientiously put his head down, honestly scripted for himself a career more meaningful than an entire film industry put together. His work is the subject for doctoral theses.
That an unassuming, gentle intellectual, gifted with gravitas – rare for Indian public figures – should choose movies as his profession, is to the great fortune of Indian cinema alone. Local audiences have largely let him down, and occasionally for the right reasons.
Lately, the filmmaker has injected a sense of humour to his work (Welcome To Sajjanpur; and this one): something that’ll instantly warm him up to a newly emancipated, multiplex audience across.
And beyond Naseer, Om Puri, Anant Nag, or Rajat Kapoor (his stock-hero), I suspect, Benegal was really waiting for a Boman Irani: a self-taught gem, who entered films only a few years ago. It’s astounding how that actor, with a stunning range, in such short span, has wholly delighted a nation (two Munnabhais, 3 Idiots, Don, Eklavya, Khosla Ka Ghosla….)
This is Boman’s finest work yet. Truly, well done, both Benegal, and Boman then!