Value for Money

Saare Jahaan Se Mehnga

DIRECTOR: Anshul Sharma

CAST: Sanjay Mishra, VM Badola, Pragati Pandey, Ranjan Chhabra, Pramod Pathak, Zakir Hussain

Rating: **1/2

People like us like to go on and on about inflation and rising costs, but the chatter is confined to newspaper headlines and squiggly TV graphics. Poverty as a central theme has been pushed so far from our flashy multiplex-obsessed times that it is almost like encountering an alien creature when it raises its head in a film. Especially when it is done with such sincerity as it is in Saare Jahaan Se Mehnga, a film that reminds us how crushing the spiralling bhaav of the proverbial aata and daal can be.

Puttan (Mishra) works at a government-run animal husbandry outlet, helping reluctant cows and bulls get in to the family way. His bad-tempered father (Badola) hovers around blackly, cursing all comers and goers from his rocking chair on the verandah which abuts the narrow street. It is a small mohalla in a small town in Haryana, but it could be anywhere at all, give or take a Jat accent and an overflowing drain or two. His wife Noori (Pandey) runs a beauty parlour where first time dulhans are enticed into waxing half an arm as a gift to their husbands. And his younger brother Gopal (Chhabra) is a jobless sit-at-home who makes eyes at the mingy grocer's girl, when he does anything at all.

This milieu used to be an integral part of the Hindi movie scene till the '70s and '80s, and then vanished in post-liberalised India, only to surface on and off via those directors who are busy trying to get back the "real" India into the movies. Saare Jahaan Se Mehnga mainlines these characters and their constricted lives with compassion and knowledge, and makes it a surprisingly watchable film. The bane of their lives is rising costs, which stops them from having mutton, or kheer, or ghee even once in two years. And, in a nice touch, the reaching out for instant noodles, amidst the gur and ration-waali-shakkar is made a commodity of desire between the young boy and girl: Maggi is "modern", it is the future.

The film has been written zippily by people who know this world. It looks and feels authentic, minus exaggeration. And the actors look as if they belong. Mishra tamps himself down, which is a relief, and carries the film. Most of the cast is unknown: the actors who play the wife and the brother (those curly, shoulder-length lovingly tended locks which Chhabra sports are spot-on) are effective. Badola goes over the top, though, and the plot wearies a bit by the end: complaining about aata and daal is fine, but kaala dhan (black money) locked in Swiss banks, which is what Puttan and co are made to get hot and bothered about too, becomes a bit much.

Still, there's enough for you to want to cheer on these people and their plan to banish mehngai and get sastaai in their lives: roti, kapda aur makaan is still as much a challenge as it has always been.

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