Bollywood Bellwether

If you think of Bollywood's portrayal of women in India as a bellwether of societal attitudes towards them, then a couple of movies are worth considering. The first is Saas Bahu Aur Sensex and the other is Welcome to Sajjanpur. In the first movie, the gossipy, saas-bahu soap addicted kitty party ladies find their groove in the Indian stock market.

Set against a backdrop of modern day India complete with call centers, housing colonies, baristas, cable networks and mall-rats, the women in the story go back and forth between the old world and new with a dexterity that is patently desi. There is no contradiction in clinging to out-moded and often discredited values of an antiquated past while rushing headlong to embrace what is new and hip.

Shyam Benegal takes this inherently desi ability to live effortlessly in dichotomy, to a whole different level with Welcome to Sajjanpur. While this is not your typical Benegal fare, it is everything you have come to expect from someone of his caliber. He takes the hyperbole and paradoxes that are organic to desi existense to the extreme degree of unrealistic with some Bollywood style flourishes thrown in for good measure. In being able to deliver on such lies the charm of the movie.

While most of the female characters in Benegal's movie are shown to be living in the dark ages of an uber-chauvinistic society, there are some pretty remarkable exceptions to the rule. The hero, a romantic, wannabe social activist and writer culls the material for his book from his experience as a the letter writer for the illiterate residents of his village.

He encounters a gamut of characters including the progressive firebrand who will be his wife, as he plies his trade - he is the tie that binds the old with the new. Only in India can people with mindsets separated by several thousand years live congenially in the same place and time. This is what makes possible the concept of these two movies.


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