WTF ASIA 109: Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008)

Tales of a small town. Lots of superstition, very little literacy. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but that does not mean much if the writer is a wimpy little weasel of a man.

Available in AustraliaCanada,  the United Kingdomthe United States, and maybe a few other countries. Approximately 131 minutes.

 

 

Mahadev has had to learn the hard way that having a college education does not necessarily lead to getting a job. Yep, welcome to the real world circa 2008. His hopes of writing a religious novel dashed, he returns to his village to live with his mother (his father had run off). Mahadev finds that he can make some money writing letters on behalf of the villagers who are illiterate. He sometimes takes creative and dramatic liberties in his work, which actually makes him more popular with those who have trouble expressing themselves. Yet, since this is a job, he often takes any job given to him, no matter how ridiculous or prosaic.

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There are many narrative threads in this film, though it is rarely difficult to follow them. This does make it a little difficult, however, to summarize the plot. There is simultaneously a lot of stories and little story. Characters weave in and out of the film, sometimes showing up early on only to disappear for an hour or so. Others get introduced almost halfway through the film. Yet, pretty much all of their storylines involve Mahadev’s writing in one way or another. His clientele includes, in no particular order:

A compounder (that might be like a pharmacist or chemist, but I am not sure) who falls for a widow. He can write, but he wants Mahadev to be his Cyrano in order to woo her effectively, even though she is under the thumb of her strict father-in-law.

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A man who wants to purchase a tractor. This is done via text messaging on the man’s cell phone.

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A landlord who is wants his wife to be elected one of the female village elders (it is implied that she murdered a rival candidate). Mahandev is to spread rumors that the husband of another rival is a spy for Pakistan.

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A hijra (sort of a eunuch or transgendered person, though neither is entirely accurate) who seeks to challenge the landlord’s wife in the election and wants Mahandev to write a campaign song.

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A group of Maoists who want to perform a play protesting the building of a factory. Mahandev begs to have his involvement secret when he learns that they got arrested.

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A man who pressures Mahandev to send a snail-mail version of a chain letter. It is a pretty massive chain letter.

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A woman who is believes that the astrological circumstances of her daughter’s birth has made her unmarriageable and is looking to combat the curse. The procedure may involve marrying her off to a dog. No, she doesn’t understand it either, but this is how things go.

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A snake charmer who is looking for his father…his father might be a snake.

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Last, but definitely not least, is Kamla. Kamla and Mahadev had gone to grade school together when they were young and Mahadev had a major crush on her. However, Mahadev’s childhood attempts to kiss her drew the ire of their teacher. Kamla was subsequently taken out of school due to a seizure, but Mahadev thought that it was due to his behavior. Worse, word spread that he was a bad boy, which poisoned marriage prospects even back then. Now Kamla has entered his life again, and her ability to read and write has still not improved since the day she left school, and it was already bad back then.

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Kamla is married, much to Mahadev’s secret disappointment. She has not, however, seen her husband for four years, as he had been working in Mumbai, struggling to make enough money to allow for her to move there and live with him. As Mahadev’s romantic fantasies turn into envy and resentment, his penchant for creativity may interfere with the task at hand.

 

 

Welcome to Sajjanpur is supposedly a remake of 1977’s Palkon Ki Chhaon Mein. I have not seen it yet, but it was, apparently, a critically acclaimed flop. As for this film, it is one of the more mainstream films from Shyam Benegal, who is probably more known for his independent films. Perhaps the traces of depth and darkness are a sign of the director’s experience in independent cinema, but the movie itself remains deliberately commercial and highly accessible. In any case, this one did pretty well at the box office.

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This movie is really funny. It is somewhat of a warm and quirky satire of rural life, views of modernity, and what it means to be Indian. The story shows the diverse cross-section of the village, how they get along or clash. There are times where it seems to imply that these simple villagers are actually better than crafty and elitist Mahadev, though there is one bit near the end that…complicates this notion. Though the film likes to poke fun at the superstitions, it provides little in the way of combating them or finding a way to bring more than the superficial trappings of modernity to the village. Mahadev, who had once thought of writing a religious novel, is extremely skeptical of both the snake charmer and the mother of the supposedly cursed woman. Despite his reservations and frequent arguments, he always ends up writing for them. He is just doing his job.

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Despite a little segment towards the beginning that veers towards bad taste and a somewhat grim plot twist towards the end, the movie is quite light. There is, however, a somewhat darker story underneath at all times. First off is the landlord, who uses his wealth and the threat of violence to maintain a stranglehold over the village. For all the talk of democracy, the landlord keeps an iron grip on things. One might think that the protagonist of this story will end up standing up to such thugs by the end. One would be wrong. Just like with all of his clients, Mahadev eventually gives into the demands of the landlord, regardless of his personal reservations. Any act of true resistance on his part is indirect and involuntary, a result of pressure from other people. Mahadev is like a tool. His literacy and his way with words can be used as weapons. Yet, unlike most tools, Mahadev theoretically has the power to say no. He has the ability to teach these people the error of their ways. He doesn’t. Of course, it might be difficult to do so. Not only are so many of them set in their ways, but a few of them see him as pathetic for not having a real job, even as they take advantage of his talents. So what is the point? Just take their money, do as they ask, and deny involvement if confronted. His only set of actions that he takes on his own is his manipulative nice-guy attempt at undermining the relationship between Kamla and her husband. Not exactly noble of him.

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Mahadev is unable to fully come to grips with the consequences of his involvement in certain actions until the damage is done. Perhaps all of these things would have happened anyways had the village had a higher literacy rate; perhaps not. While the plot of the movie may be difficult to map out, the main dramatic thread is wondering whether Mahadev will stop being so cynically self-centered and disdainful of the villagers, maybe doing something because it is the right thing to do as opposed to being paid or coerced into doing anything. That he should use his powers for good instead of selfishness or apathy. This may be similar to a lot of fish-out-of water movies, I suppose. Yet, the change has to come from within, not from the outside. Usually, though, the protagonist either imparts his knowledge unto the uneducated masses or he picks up their ways. Neither of those things happen here. He does not change the village, nor does the village change him, at least not to any significant degree.

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Speaking of the villagers, the grasp of modernity is shaky at best. The landlord points out that even women are allowed to hold public office now, skipping over how the gender quota had been in place for fifteen years already. Then there is a little bit in the end that I will not spoil. Most important, though, is the level of illiteracy. Lack of literacy leads to a subtle divide in status, but it does not seem to limit what people feel that they can do. Anyone, including the landlord, can just pressure Mahadev to write for them. The landlord does not believe that illiteracy is an obstacle in holding public office. Certainly, he has more power than Mahadev or the widow does. The ability to read or write is treated like a skill; the level of its usefulness is somewhere in between knowing how to drive and learning how to play the bassoon. The village may be slowly changing with the times, but Mahadev cannot change the village any more than the village can change Mahadev. In both cases, the change has to come from within.

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I suppose that I should note that the epilog to the movie may seem a bit tacked on, and I did feel that way the first time around. There were a few loose ends to stories that I suppose did not necessarily need tying up, especially since the way that they did get tied up posed more questions. There was also that reveal that had me exclaim “WHAT” the first time around, even though it did sort of address a part of the movie that I had had trouble with…again, though, more questions. All in all, though, the epilog does show what happened to Mahadev as a person and how life in the village goes on.

If you are looking for a lighthearted comedy with a…slight…bit of depth to it, you could do far worse than Welcome to Sajjanpur. It is funny. It has heart. It has some nice music. I really like it. You may as well.

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WTF ASIA 110: The Kiyosu Conference (Japan: 2013, approx. 138 minutes)

Wikipedia

Available online.

 

WTF ASIA 111: Devils on the Doorstep (China: 2000, approx. 138 minutes)

Wikipedia

Erm…well, it had been available online…uh…