An old professor of mine, well known for his generosity in handing out F grades, suddenly turned lenient as he progressed towards retirement. When asked why, he said, “When I used to regard my students as my children, I was tough on them. Now they seem like my grandchildren, so I find myself pampering them.”
And so it is with Shyam Benegal who, in the twilight of his career, has made two comedies, both of which are quieter and nicer to the material than it seems to deserve. Well Done Abba is a Vadivelu sketch stretched out to feature length, elevated to political satire. But the laughs don’t come often, and the lampooning is gentler than it perhaps needs to be.
The tale is narrated by Armaan Ali, driver to a high-powered executive in Mumbai, who decides to have a well dug in his backyard, applies for a Government grant to do so and finds himself up against corrupt bureaucratic machinery at every turn. Left to himself, he might have given up. Or maybe not even gotten started on the well in the first place. But his daughter Muskaan (Minissha Lamba) is made of sterner stuff. And so begins the satirical portion of the story, where Muskaan gets her Abba to fight back in a manner that is familiar to anyone who has spent quality time watching Vadivelu clips on Sun TV.
While a political version of the emperor’s new clothes plays out in the glare of the media, other subplots tick away in the background. There is a little romance between Muskaan and a neighbourhood mechanic (Sammir Dattani), a sex-crazed engineer who wants his wife to get implants (Ravi Kishan pouring every ounce of his inner hawas ka darinda into the role), a single mother of five who gets one of her daughters sold married and despairs of the fate of the other four, a crooked couple who seem to have figured out how to brazen their way out of any sort of trouble, a henpecked police inspector who grows increasingly irritated by the fact that everyone around him seems to be complimenting the emperor on his Armani…
The strange thing is, Benegal never pushes too hard for a laugh. He seems content with a chuckle here and there. The cases where he tries really hard — Ravi Kishan is a prime example — work as often as not. On top of which, he uncharacteristically shoehorns in a couple of songs that really don’t work and almost threaten to derail the entire enterprise.
Despite the inconsistent writing, there are moments when the film works wonderfully. The scenes involving the panchayat sarpanch and her husband, for instance, tell an entire story on the sidelines. The performance of some of the supporting actors is fantastic, sometimes better than the material deserves. Ila Arun, for instance, in a role that the film doesn’t need, steals almost every scene she is in. The ones involving her encounter with the police are among the most entertaining.
But holding it all together is a magnificent performance by Boman Irani, who by now comfortably wears the mantle of best character actor of his generation. His Armaan Ali is a meek man, loves his daughter and his wayward brother (Irani again, in another role the film doesn’t need) and wishes to be a lot more progressive than his environment seems to approve of. Boman Irani portrays his character arc through a process that is more inward than outward — as Armaan meets more and more people who want their share of the Government’s largesse, he seems to shrink into himself. When he finds the courage to fight back, it is not in the chest-beating, in-your-face manner favoured by the people around him.
What makes his performance so interesting here is that, for the most part, Armaan is simply reacting to the developments around him. Despite the fact that he is not the prime mover in the proceedings, Irani portrays the transition from meekness to despair to courage so naturally that he makes it seem like he is.
He deserves the compliment in the title. As for the film itself, I’m not so sure.
ps: Ah, I almost forgot to mention the little zinger that the film ends with. It is directed not so much at a character in the film as at us. We who sink into our multiplex seats and chuckle good-naturedly at the proceedings. We who hear about the farmer suicides, cluck sympathetically for a moment and then change the channel. We who deserve not the grandfather’s indulgent smile but the father’s ire at our indifference. The real story underneath doesn’t just deserve a better satire. It deserves a better audience.