Shyam Benegal's tales of village life are mostly tense, dense, gritty affairs. Welcome to Sajjanpur, though, is none of the above. Though not without substance or statement, the movie is light for the most part, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Neither is it a wry, dry humor like Benegal's Mandi. It is jaunty, airy, even self-consciously silly - the sort of film where characters have theme melodies that chime as they strut onto the screen.
Mahadev (Shreyas Talpade) longs to write novels, but to make ends meet he charges a small fee to write letters for the largely illiterate residents of his village, Sajjanpur. It seems a simple enough job, yet it lands him in the middle of several sticky situations. A local thug Ramsingh (Yashpal Sharma) uses Mahadev's services to manipulate local politics to favor his wife's bid for village head. Her opponent in the election, the hijra Munnibai (Ravi Jhankal) hires Mahadev to write a catchy campaign song - and also to write to the state government for protection when Ramsingh threatens her. A superstitious mother (Ila Arun) has him write to her brother as she schemes to break a curse against her ill-starred daughter Bindiya (Divya Dutta) by marrying her to a dog - against the modern, sensible Bindiya's wishes. And Mahadev's childhood sweetheart Kamla (Amrita Rao), now grown and married, engages him to write to her husband, who is working in Bombay. Mahadev, attracted to Kamla, tailors the letters in hopes of driving a wedge between them and winning Kamla's heart.
The best thing about Welcome to Sajjanpur is Shreyas Talpade, whose performance is comic, physical, and likeable. Many movies tell stories in which terrible things happen to loveable people. Mahadev, by contrast, is a loveable person who does a reprehensible thing - and it speaks to both Benegal's and Talpade's own deft touch that Mahadev remains so darn cute even when you want to smack him upside the head for his wrong-headed attempts to sour Kamla's marriage.
Backing up Talpade is the colorful parade of side characters, also all perfectly cast and rendered. Welcome to Sajjanpur is far from the first movie to provide a series of village vignettes or a pastiche of village archetypes, but I never tire of seeing such stories when they are as well-executed as this. Ila Arun fills the screen in her appearances with a performance that is loud, and physical - she seems to never stop talking and her scenes are incredibly funny. After just a few lines, Divya Dutta as the scowling, scolding Bindiya had me wanting to see a whole movie about her. Other characters add more hues, as well as more comic situations for Talpade to work for all they are worth - like the peculiar snake-charmer (Daya Shankar Pandey) who keeps offering virility potions in payment to a very uncomfortable Mahadev. The weak link in this bustle of villagers is, unfortunately, Amrita Rao, whose demure, rural mannerisms never quite stop feeling affected.
Despite all the levity, Welcome to Sajjanpur is grounded - or, arguably, burdened - by a number of polticial statements. Indeed, you can play "Shyam Benegal bingo" while watching it, checking off the social issues it systematically touches - anti-Muslim prejudice; corruption in the election process; the effect of big-business development on rural life; various traditions surrounding the rights and treatment of women, especially with regard to marriage; and polilical enfranchisement of marginalized communities, embodied in this case by the hijra leader Munnibai. I never quite know what to make of hijras in the movies, largely because of my near-complete ignorance of them and their standing in different quarters of Indian society. Sometimes they are portrayed as vile, sometimes as pitiable; Benegal here walks a fine line between these two, eventually landing firmly on the side of respecting them both as human beings and as a political force.
The film's ending puts a puzzling twist on the notion that life is stranger than fiction, and muddies the social message a little by pulling a switcheroo, where one side character's happy ending turns tragic, and another character's tragic death is undone. Perhaps Benegal is saying that it's not the destination that matters so much as the journey; that regardless of whether these specific individuals live or die, the social issues raised by their stories remain real and meaningful.