Shyam Benegal has been making movies for 37 years. His cinema has wisdom and a deep humanism that comes though even in the most biting social critiques. Benegal?s characters are nearly always flawed but he depicts them with such affection that you end up liking them too.
So, in his latest Well Done Abba, the most memorable characters are a newly married, permanently-in-heat engineer who is trying convince his wife to have her breasts enlarged and a loudly bickering couple who will steal anything including water.
Based on two short stories, Well Done Abba is about a Mumbai driver Armaan Ali, played by Boman Irani, who goes back to his village Chikatpali near Hyderabad hoping to get his daughter married.
He decides to utilize a government development scheme and have a well dug in his yard. But what seems like a simple job becomes a Kafkaesque maze that involves so many bribes that eventually Armaan has no money to actually construct the well.
There are many good things in Well Done Abba. Benegal creates a darkly comic theater of the absurd, which indicts every level of government from the irrigation minister to the local sarpanch who attests that she has tasted the sweet water of a well that was never dug.
Parts of the film are very funny, including Ravi Kishan as the sweaty, sexed up husband and Ila Arun as a screaming banshee of an aunt. And there are some nicely done moments, including one at the end in which Armaan Ali discovers that his prospective son-in-law might not be who he thinks he is.
And yet, Well Done Abba doesn?t soar mainly because the screenplay doesn?t move. The first half crawls at a snail?s pace and the second picks up only marginally.
Too much time is spent on repetitive scenes ? Minissha Lamba playing Armaan?s daughter Muskan is always flying kites and Sammir Dattani playing her love interest, seems to always be repairing cars or trying to recover money he loaned to Muskan?s uncle.
Both have important roles but neither is a compelling or charming enough to carry the load. Of course, most of the burden lies on Boman Irani?s able shoulders.
As the twin Ali brothers, he is consistently good but an edge of caricature seems to have crept into his portrayals so that you?re never sure about how seriously you should take his emotions.
Well Done Abba also tries to tackle too many issues ? there is a nod at women?s rights, a quick mention of the right to information act and a climactic plea for religious tolerance.
The end result is that Well Done Abba is heart-felt and intermittently funny but not flat-out delightful like Benegal?s last film Welcome to Sajjanpur. You need oodles of patience to enjoy this one. I recommend that you wait for the DVD so you can speed up things yourself.