Tapping into the middle class’ increasing frustration over rapid inflation, Saare Jahaan Se Mehnga, directed by debutant Anshul Sharma, is a well-intentioned satire constructed around a promising premise. But the film’s writers fail to build on their clever central idea, and ultimately deliver an undercooked script that lacks the consistent wit of 2010’s Phas Gaye Re Obama, that tongue-in-cheek take on recession, set in the world of UP gangsters.
This story unfolds in a small town in Sonipat, Haryana, where Puttanpal (Sanjay Mishra), a state-employed cattle breeder is struggling to make ends meet even with the additional income his wife earns running a small beauty parlor from home. When he learns about a 3-year interest-free loan that the government is offering to enable young entrepreneurs set up their own business, he applies for one in the name of his good-for-nothing younger brother on the pretext of setting up a shop. With this cash, the family stocks up on groceries and provisions to last them three years, so as to protect themselves against rising prices. But when a loan inspection officer (Zakir Hussain) comes around to check the new business, the family must set up a fake shop, only pretending to sell their supplies, in order to get him off their back.
Setting up a believable but amusing portrait of a community straining against hard times, director Anshul Sharma draws you into his world with nicely etched characters. Like Puttanpal’s beautician wife (Pragati Pandey), who offers cost-effective solutions to brides to look good on their big day. Or the town’s deluded bicycle repairman, who conducts dharnas in the square, demanding that black money stashed away in foreign banks be distributed among citizens. Or even Puttanpal’s crabby father, who’s permanently at the end of his patience.
The atmosphere and the characters in the film have an authentic texture, but the story itself is half-baked. There’s little meat in that romantic subplot between Puttanpal’s brother and the daughter of the local grocer. And the film’s climax is a melodramatic mess in which our protagonist delivers a long, impassioned monologue on inflation. The idea of hoarding as a means to combat rising prices is an interesting one, but the script never goes beyond that idea, making the same point in another subplot about dowry demands for an arranged marriage.
Sanjay Mishra is in good form as Puttanpal, and you’ll be surprised by moments of real tenderness in the scenes between him and his supportive wife. There are laughs to be had in the family’s many attempts to fool the loan inspection officer, and some dialogue is simply crackling. Still, the film never becomes more than the sum of its parts, and the blame for that rests squarely with the writing.
I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Saare Jahaan Se Mehnga. It’s not a bad film at all; it’s just not as good as it could’ve been.