Shyam Benegal's contribution to Indian cinema is immense. One of the few who pioneered the New Indian Wave in the 1970s, he made Ankur, Nishant and Manthan in his early years. These movies focused on the country's social conditions, including class exploitation. More provocative than entertaining, these films gradually gave way to a cinema in which Benegal learnt to narrate profound stories with a liberal dash of humour. His latest work, Well Done Abba, is a riveting socio-political satire set in an imaginary village, Chikatpalli, near Hyderabad. The movie centres on the trials and tribulations of a car driver, Armaan Ali (Boman Irani).
Well Done Abba begins on a tense note with Ali being given marching orders by his BMW-owning boss in Mumbai for going on leave without notice. After much persuasion, the boss agrees to let Ali drive him to Pune, and explain his absence while driving. Ali then tells him a story of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.
Since his daughter Muskaan (Minissha Lamba) has to walk a long distance to fetch water in Chikatpalli, which is gripped by drought, he decides to dig a well outside his house under a government-sponsored scheme.
But little does Ali realise that he will have to deal with a web of intrigue. A vicious cartel operates with impunity: the village chief, the junior engineer, the bloc development officer and the official photographer among others are hand-in-glove to claim their own pound of flesh. Poor Ali finds that by the time he has bribed all these guys, he is left with no money from his first instalment of the fund to actually dig the well. So, he asks for the second instalment that will be sanctioned only when more bribes are paid and, worse, the photographs of the well being constructed are submitted to the government. No problem, quips the photographer who delivers the pictures obviously through computer manipulation.
At the end, when Ali's well remains mere imagination and image, Muskaan and her secret admirer, motor mechanic Arif (Samir Dattani), come up with a brilliant idea to net the corrupt. Elections for the state assembly come in handy with the minister nervous about losing his seat over a well that exists on every official record and photograph, but not physically!
Like Benegal's earlier movie Welcome to Sajjanpur, Well Done Abba uses authentic situations to examine one of India's most pressing problems, water shortage - a perennial cause of communal clashes and electoral flash points. Benegal's story and Ashok Mehra's screenplay look at the enormity of this issue at the microcosmic level of a village and, more significantly, through the experiences of one man and his daughter.
Barring a few editing glitches and a weak spot in the screenplay, Well Done Abba is a marvellous mix of art and entertainment. Amusingly narrated and acted out with natural ease (Irani and Lamba in particular), the Reliance Big Picture production is certainly a delight.
Cast Boman Irani, Minissha Lamba, Samir Dattani
Director Shyam Benegal