To watch the majority of the Bollywood movies that grace our multiplexes week after week would be to assume that the majority of India lives in upscale apartments, has upscale problems and travels the length and breadth of foreign lands without ever needing to wait for visas or endure the hell of packing.
So it often comes as a surprise to watch movies set in the real India, the one not populated by Gucci and Prada-sporting leading men and women; the one where every other young man is not named Raj or Karan. And so it is with the latest from Shyam Benegal.
Well Done Abba is set largely in a little village near Hyderabad and is the tale of one Armaan Ali (Boman Irani) and his quest to build a well on his patch of agricultural land at a time when water is becoming increasingly scarce in his corner of the world.
Back home on a month's leave from his job as a driver to a senior executive in Mumbai, Armaan arrived with the intention of marrying off his teenage daughter (Minissha Lamba) who he worries will grow up to be a less than desirable bride because she doesn't wear a burkha and is adamant about getting a complete education.
One thing leads to another, he learns about a scheme whereby the government will pay for him to have a well on his land and then falls foul to the machinations of a long line of government officials who will not lift a single finger to assist him unless he promises them a share of the money handed out at every stage of the well building process.
Ours is a rich storytelling heritage and within that heritage, the oral form is much valued as a source of entertainment and information-dispersal. There appears to have been room for this movie to have played out as a tall tale a man weaves to keep his job when he returns to work three months after requesting one month's leave.
The leading man throws himself whole-heartedly into a performance that requires him to fit into the skin of a man far removed from his own off-camera reality.
But Mr. Irani pulls it off. That scene where he keeps rearranging his expression as per the demands of the photographer shooting his passport picture is one to be archived for future highlight reels and best-of-year compendiums.
In its attempt at depicting life in semi-rural Andhra Pradesh Well Done Abba appears not so much to fail, as to offer a version of such lives crystallized from Bollywood's limited engagement with the region and its people. So the dialect is there but different actors have varying degrees of fluency with it.
In its attempt at underlining the frustrations of an average man trying to wend his way through the system, it paints a disturbing picture. But because it plays the events for laughs rather than pathos, I wonder whether the impact of the real situation will be felt (or appreciated) by us city folk without ties to the rural life.
Credit is due to the filmmakers for having explored nearly every plot possibility that presents itself in a situation like the one faced by Armaan Ali.
All told, this is a film for hardcore Boman Irani and Shyam Benegal fans. The former will not be disappointed. The latter... it is a tougher call. If you liked the director's previous film, this one should meet with your approval. For the rest, there is always the IPL.