With 2011’s Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster, Tigmanshu Dhulia gave us a fascinating contemporary take on Abrar Alvi’s Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam. Like the 1962 film, Dhulia’s narrative revolved around the titular trio of a dissolute nawab, a neglected alcoholic wife and a rustic young man who gets increasingly embroiled in the intrigues of the haveli. The stark villainy and innocence of the older film had already been replaced, in the 2011 reimagining, by a loving embrace of gray. With Sahib, Biwi Aur Gangster Returns, Dhulia shakes himself entirely free of a desire for cinematic homage, setting his superbly etched characters free to roam. As free as they can be, that is to say, in the stifling universe he has created for them.
For this is a world of princely privilege, no doubt, but there is something rotten at its core—and even its proudest inhabitants cannot ignore the stench. In a scene about halfway through SBGR, the eponymous Sahib – Jimmy Sheirgill, absolutely stellar as the wheelchair-bound but still rakishly virile Aditya Pratap Singh – chances upon his more-or-less estranged wife – a voluptuous, bored Mahi Gill – displaying the treasures of their drawing room to a camera-wielding American and her Indian handler. This is my house, not a museum, he says angrily as he shows them the door – it is a mahal, not yet a maqbara. But even the incandescence of his rage cannot prevent us from seeing that while the Sahib may be alive, the world his haveli represents is in its death throes.
Dhulia does an even better job than in the previous film of mapping this murky new universe, where a hereditary claim to royalty is no longer enough to run things, and power must be grabbed by the scruff of the neck, even if it gets one’s hands dirty. The Sahib may wish to be continued to be called Raja sahab, but he is most definitely on his way to becoming a neta—and finding the word distasteful does not prevent him from being a very clever one.
Set in the fictitious ex-principality of Devgarh, in the poverty-ridden badlands of Uttar Pradesh, SBGR unfolds against the backdrop of a political move to partition the state into four (something actually suggested by real-life Chief Minister Mayawati in 2011). And like in the previous film, Dhulia allows himself the luxury of a buffoonish neta – Rajeev Gupta in a masterful performance as the blue-film-watching Prabhu Tiwari.
But the electoral politics of democracy has by no means succeeded in leaching this world of its fascination with lineage. And nowhere is this fascination more evident than in the figure of Inderjit Singh – the titular gangster, not born to kingly splendour but insistent on acquiring it. Played with brilliant insight and flourish by the incomparable Irrfan Khan, Inder exemplifies the strange stranglehold of India’s old world over the new. He may not be a raja, but his admirers call him Raja Bhaiyya – and he himself lives in the hope of recapturing the imagined lost glories of his royal blood.
Lineage, in fact, is the very lifeblood of Dhulia’s narrative universe. And while the masculinity of its men is tied irrevocably to their notions of caste pride and family honour (“Khamakha ek thakur ke haath ek thakur kam ho jaata,” goes one wry line), keeping a lineage going needs women. So it is the Badi Rani who actually sets the film’s plot in motion, by showing up one morning to incite her stepson to produce an heir—and when he bitterly dismisses the possibility of doing so with his current wife, by tempting him with the photographic vision of a new one. And even the romance between Irrfan’s rough-tongued Inder and Soha Ali Khan’s properly delicate Ranjana, for all its tender playfulness, cannot but be seen also as part of Inder’s plan to reacquire princely status – for what better way to do so than by marrying a princess?
But if princesses are made pawns in these carefully plotted games, they do not quite act as the willing footsoldiers their men might have liked. And in their desperate, unpredictable departures from the paths dictated to them lie the intricacies of Tigmanshu Dhulia’s plot.
It would be criminal to give away any of the multiple twists and turns that animate the film, but let me just say that SBGR doesn’t have a boring moment. It is aided by the almost uniformly high quality of its actors. Sheirgill and Khan may walk away with the honours, but Gill must get credit for having perfected the near-stumbling alcoholic’s walk and slightly unhinged flirtatiousness of her inherently over-the-top Madhavi. Soha Ali Khan does not have the world’s most mobile face, and she is often somewhat wooden here too. But she is perfectly cast, springing so superbly to life at one magisterial scene at the royal breakfast table that one cannot but think of her real-life princess-ness. There is also the pleasure of watching Raj Babbar inhabit a nicely written role as Soha’s father, the perfectly nicknamed Bunny Uncle.
If any complaint can be made about this film, it might be that occasionally there is too much going on – never too little. Between these murders and machinations, plots and counterplots, it affords its greedy audience the pleasure of vicarious glimpses into the life of the classy rajwara: polo matches and rifle practice, shairi and jazz bands. But – and this is where Dhulia shows how fine his grip is on both his material and tone – even the retro jazz crooner in her golden gown is not meant to provide an escape from this stifling world. In Dhulia’s measured, unforgiving vision, she can only be a lyrical medium for a cruel comment on thwarted dreams.
(Published on Firstpost.)