A revenge drama with a dash of political satire and a double love triangle dovetailed into a dark thriller, writer-director Tigmanshu Dhulia’s follow-up to Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster is an intense, effervescent and eventually melancholic film.
A slimy politician is caught watching porn on his laptop. A bunch of self-serving MLAs are spirited away to a remote bungalow and held captive there ahead of a crucial vote in the Assembly.
That apart, a state of the Indian Union is on the verge of being carved up into four parts, a ruthless feudal lord is addressed by his minions as Raja Bhaiya, and a woman legislator is reduced to a mere front for a powerful husband whose untrammeled writ runs in the constituency.
Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns is littered with many such allusions to the ground realities of the land. It isn’t, however, just a political film.
The feudal power structure is the scaffolding around which the director builds a tale of individuals who are too hopelessly out of touch with the nation’s democratic norms to really care about, let alone understand, what they might be losing out on.
“You are talking like a democrat,” the saheb protests vehemently when a fellow royal dithers on the former’s offer to take the latter’s daughter as his second wife. “I am a King. I can afford an extra wife.”
You cannot miss the delicious irony of the situation when the same “King” asserts that the government may have divested him of his powers, but his regal traits can never be snatched away from him.
Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns is a story of lust and lies, power and pelf, and lost glory and desperate measures that plays out in a strangely neutral milieu where political affiliations really do not matter and elections are only referred to in stray snatches of dialogue.
The landscape is peopled with pliable politicians, greedy contractors and highway robbers who operate with impunity.
The politicos in this drama are all Independent legislators – and they are independent not just in the electoral sense. As individuals, too, they follow no known rules of model behaviour.
Flush with vibrant colours and cinematic flourishes, Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns is a riveting and buoyant film that, despite being nearly two and a half hours long, manages to keep the viewer interested in the strange, strange ways of men and women bent upon pressing the self-destruct button.
The dramatic narrative core of the film is suffused with a delirious quality that is both delightful and disorienting.
The film has many wonderfully written sequences followed by stray moments that aren’t that convincing. But the dialogues, penned by director and scriptwriter Tigmanshu Dhulia himself, are never less than sparkling.
The biwi of the title, on her first meeting with the gangster, laments: “Why do I meet only men and not poets?” The man replies: “I’ll become a poet.” The lady ends the conversation with “Poets are born, they aren’t made.”
In another scene, the saheb asks: “Why are men given to using cuss words? He proceeds to provide the answer himself: “Because they cannot cry.” Interestingly, the men in this film, mean-spirited and bloodthirsty as they are, do not hurl expletives at each other.
In narrative terms, this film is an extension of the precursor. Two of the eponymous characters – the ruthless but now wheelchair-bound saheb (Jimmy Shergill) and the perfidious and alcoholic biwi (Mahie Gill) – are back to take the story forward.
The biwi, wrapped in her own loneliness and perpetually drunken state, immerses herself in the mournful Lag jaa gale ki phir yeh haseen raat ho na ho as the love song plays every night on her music system. And like the first time around, she jumps into bed with the enemy with the fervour of one who believes that kal (tomorrow) is never going to come.
The film’s high point is the insouciant but restrained swagger of the new ‘gangster’ (Irrfan Khan), a wily ex-royal out to settle scores with the family that drove his once thriving clan out of its abode and authority several generations ago.
A fourth figure, a straight-arrow princess (Soha Ali Khan) who is in love with the gangster but is sucked against her will into a welter of intrigue that she can barely comprehend until it is too late, serves as a counterpoint to the outrageous amorality of the world she inhabits.
But Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns isn’t an average vengeance saga either. Its characters are a somewhat deranged bunch quite capable of doing the unthinkable without batting an eyelid.
Nothing could be better for the viewer – thanks to its gallery of distressed deviants who will stop at nothing, the film is as full of surprises as the prequel was.
The sequel is certainly better in one respect – the tragic climax is sharp, unfussy and marked by great sense of economy.
The film does not end in a messy bloodbath. The final few scenes are sprung upon the audience without much warning, which perceptibly enhances their impact.
That is not to say that there nothing wrong with the film. For one, it is set in Uttar Pradesh but you get to see nothing at all of that state.
The background score is too raucous for a film that is otherwise very well modulated. And what, pray, is a shoddy item number (Mugdha Godse) doing in a film like this?
The performances, too, are rather uneven. Irrfan is as brilliant as ever, Shergill is impressively steady, and Pravesh Rana (in his Bollywood debut) uses his voice and physique to great effect in the guise of a newly commissioned police officer.
However, the two leading ladies do not quite measure up – Mahie Gill’s the-devil-may-care act borders on the hysteric, while Soha Ali Khan, playing the tormented princess, just about passes muster.
As for the film as a whole, there can be no room for any doubt. It is recommended unequivocally.