Qalandar Reviews SAHEB, BIWI AUR GANGSTER (Hindi; 2011)

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I won’t say much about Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam, because Tigmanshu Dhulia’s film has little or nothing to do with Abrar Alvi’s 1962 classic (although never a personal favorite). Which isn’t to say that the 2011 film is bad (or not for that reason) — but simply that the film is so removed from the sensibility of Guru Dutt, Alvi, and Bimal Mitra, that I couldn’t help but wonder why Dhulia felt the need to raise the specter here (one could just as easily have done so with Ishqiya if one had been so inclined; mercifully, Abhishek Chaubhey was not). Of course, that much was clear from the trailer; the fact that I nevertheless went to watch Saheb, Biwi aur Gangster in the cinema testifies to Mahie Gill’s considerable charm, and to my determination to do my bit to reward Jimmy Shergill for turning in consistently charismatic performances (and, perhaps, to the interest on the principal of Dhulia’s Haasil (2003), a film that deserved more viewers than it received). And, I can’t really say I was disappointed: I expected atmosphere and the two gills to be the best things about the movie, while Randeep Hooda was always going to be a misfit, and Dhulia served up exactly what I expected. Nevertheless, the fact that this could have been a very good film had it been better written, specifically, had its characterization been more consistent, rankled. [Hey, it’s rare enough when non-Punjabis get some representation time in Bollywood, and the most has to be made of these chances (who knows when the next one will materialize?). Dhulia does not disturb that other maxim of contemporary Bollywood: only representations of Punjabi culture get to be happy ones; the rest of us are just plain violent.]

Saheb (Shergill) is the latest in the line of Devgarh rajas, the family’s glory faded in the face of the modern world’s predilections for commerce, elections, and competition. In contemporary U.P., Saheb is simply one of many jockeying for advantage, his exalted self-image incongruous given how hard-up he seems to be as far as money is concerned. Even his palatial haveli is sparsely populated — most of his retainers have left for greener pastures, leaving only a few ghosts to haunt the manor. Saheb, however, is not the kind to quietly fade away, and uses a mix of thuggery, political wheeling dealing, and tenders for road work, to try and turn his fortunes around. One of his rivals, the decidedly more plebeian Genda Singh (Vipin Sharma) decides to settle scores with Saheb, and plants a spy in his household, in the form of Lalit (Randeep Hooda), hired to chauffeur the haveli’s discontented, psychologically unstable Rani (Mahie Gill). The Rani has reasons for dissatisfaction: her husband is not only authoritarian but besotted with another woman; Lalit, himself dumped by a woman who felt he wasn’t classy enough, is the right man at the right (or perhaps wrong) time. Some truly awful music (Lalit crooning “Choo Choo” has to be experienced to be believed) and many twists and turns later, the film suddenly ends, in an unconvincing climax that I won’t spoil here. Suffice it to say that the film is never kinetic enough to suggest that it is building up toward something; and both the Rani and Lalit are so poorly written that the actors inhabiting them can hardly be blamed for not being able to redeem these roles. Lalit, for instance, seems like a callow youngster who periodically has to remind himself that he is supposed to be animated by class resentment; likewise, the Rani seems off her rocker early on in the film, but forgets her way to melancholy sanity the rest of the way (her spunky independence also seems to lapse into docility the more she gets close to love, an accidental domestication all the more disquieting because Dhulia seems to view it as natural). And the Rani and Lalit are the lucky ones: other, less central characters, are taken up, appear to portend something, but are abandoned (not to mention that at least one is a condescending portrayal of a “village girl” (Deepal Shaw’s lively Bijli, enjoyable enough in her attempt to resurrect Deepti Naval); and then there’s the usual lazy contempt for India’s politicians, especially ones from the heartland).

Which isn’t to say that the actors don’t compound the script’s problems. They most certainly do: Randeep Hooda has wandered into the wrong film, and screams “fake” with just about every scene, Exhibit “A” for the truth that it takes more than pronouncing a “z” like a “j” before one can earn even Bollywoodized bhaiyya chops. Mahie Gill is also disappointing: although ravishing as ever on that strange boundary she inhabits between limpidity and erotic initiative, she (as a friend wisely observed) channels Maqbool’s Tabu far too much to use her own strengths, and simply does not register the requisite impact in a film where she has the title role. If these two were all there was to the film, I’d be urging people to skip the film. [Not everyone agrees — Tushar Amin seems to have watched a different film than the one I did.]

Mercifully, Jimmy Shergill completes the trinity of the film’s title, and his fine form here (perhaps the best of his roles that I have seen) serves as further reproach (after the likes of Eklavya and Tanu Weds Manu) to an industry that doesn’t seem to be able to get him more quality work on a regular basis. Shergill’s thakur is fantastic, in itself worth the price of admission: the script denies him any real interiority or growth, but none of that seems to matter when the Saheb seems sculpted from the landscape, every inch of him asserting that he and his kind do not agree with any reading of history that confines them to the safety of the past. His accommodations with the modern world are simply those sufficient to enable him to carry on as before (even as neither he nor Dhulia seem to appreciate that the nature of those accommodations make him just another gangster in U.P.’s rough and tumble countryside, a far bigger gangster than Lalit could ever hope to be). There are two reasons to watch Saheb, Biwi aur Gangster, and Jimmy Shergill is definitely one of them.

The second is simply the setting: Dhulia seems to have tracked down some outstanding havelis, and their faded splendor elevates this film. In scene after scene, I found myself marveling at the architecture, and just as important, at the interiors (whether these are sets or on location, the art director deserves an award) — the milieu was completely transporting, and I found myself wanting to re-visit scenes from the film even as I was exiting the theater criticizing the movie. In his third feature, Dhulia has gotten many things wrong about what goes into making a good film, but the importance of creating a plausible world, of a sense of place that, whether or not “authentic” in some anthropological sense, is compelling as its own place, is surely not lost on him.

22 Responses to “Qalandar Reviews SAHEB, BIWI AUR GANGSTER (Hindi; 2011)”

  1. Great to get a piece from you after a long time. This one too, as always, makes for a wonderful read. Haven’t seen the the film yet but was hoping for a stronger script here. Will revisit this piece when I do watch it. Do agree on the overall point you’ve made on Shergill. He’s been surprisingly effective in certain outings of his in recent times.

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  2. A wonderful read and good to see a piece from you after a while as Satyam says. Am glad Shergill has done well. Kind of disappointed with Hooda as I would have expected more.

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    • Thanks guys — apart from work, I’d been in a kind of funk of late, and am now coming out of it. I’d barely even watched any films for a while, but that’s changing. It doesn’t help that there is so much crap out there!

      Satyam: have you seen or heard of a German film called Die Welle? It’s a bit “rushed” but well worth checking out…

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  3. By all accounts it seems that inspite of its weknesses this is a vastly superior film than Force and is only fitting that it did only 20% of Force’s business on the first day.

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  4. I agree with the other two. Great read AND great to hear that Jimmy gets a role worth digging into. Might catch this one on DVD.

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  5. Alex adams Says:

    Wonderful writeup qlandar
    Nice to hear u liked jimmy sheirgill— happy for him– heis du for something good as per the “law of averages ”
    Agree even without seeing the film about hooda the hoodlum.
    Watched a bit of “d” ( a wannabe Satya )– he spoilt it totally
    Agree entirely — as k mentioned somewhere else –hooda is not even a “talent” forget a good one
    If this type of “brooding intensity” can be conjured easily, every Tom dick n Harry wouldve starred in a self conceptualised deewAr/kala patthar!!!
    Agree-lol”-Randeep Hooda has wandered into the wrong film, and screams “fake” with just about every scene, Exhibit “A” for the truth that it takes more than pronouncing a “z” like a “j” before one can earn even Bollywoodized bhaiyya chops.”

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    • There were reports earlier that Randeep Hooda was angry that he had been left out of the promotions of the film… seems he should have been left out of the film entirely.

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      • alex adams Says:

        Hahaha Filmigirl–agree entirely
        Hate this “hooda” guy

        btw just noticed that u have a lovely blog of your own—is that your blog?

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  6. ideaunique Says:

    Haasil was a damn good movie….i m glad u mentioned it here….Haasil also reminds me of Hrishita Bhatt….the girl had everything – looks, talent…..nothing worked for her….nothing….she tried extremely hard (to the extent that she did some C grade movies also where she was the lead and showed lot of skin) – nothing worked…..i was really sad to such an end to a very promising girl who didn’t have any roots in the industry….

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  7. NY Times:

    October 2, 2011
    Movie Review | ‘Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster’
    An Amorous Triangle, Spiced Up by Gunplay
    By ANDY WEBSTER

    For all its flashy sunglasses and gunplay, there’s a folk-tale essence in Tigmanshu Dhulia’s “Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster,” a riff on “Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam,” a 1962 Hindi classic. That film concerned the chaste bond between a married noblewoman and a servant; Mr. Dhulia’s take offers Sahib (Jimmy Shergill), a rural mob godfather of declining fortunes, and Biwi (Mahie Gill), his neglected, hot-tempered wife. The gangster (Randeep Hooda), hired as a chauffeur, is secretly on a mission to set up Sahib for a hit. There’s nothing chaste about his designs: He covets Biwi and Sahib’s status as well.

    Mr. Shergill, with a curled mustache and crumbling empire, displays sufficient hauteur. The voluptuous Ms. Gill, however, dominates the film with her alternately haughty, ardent and enraged moments. It is not a one-note performance. As a bodyguard’s tart-tongued daughter, Deepal Shah is also vivid. Mr. Hooda, whose character’s hotheadedness matches Biwi’s, has the requisite virility but few layers.

    Political machinations, bloodlettings and (of course) musical sequences are tossed in. But for all its high emotion the film feels enervated, like an excuse to shoot attractive people in amorous rapture amid lavish but decaying real estate. On that level it delivers; there is more suggested nudity and lovemaking here than in many Hindi productions. If there is a metaphor about corruption within India’s ruling classes, it is hopelessly lost in erotic gauze.

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  8. Terrific write up and not least because I find a kindered spirit when it comes to appreciating Jimmy Shergill. His ascent has been quite remarkable (in acting terms, that is) and I would like to see more of him.

    I can’t promise I’d check out this film because I’ve been in a funk myself…haven’t seen anything since Dhobi Ghaat (not completely true; did watch ZNMD and wish I hadn’t!). The only film I’m looking forward to (salivating in absolute terms) is the new Batman, which will be a fight between the caped crusader and Bane.

    I actually went through all the relevant issues to research this particular story arc and it’s a very odd one but also quite fitting. The man who started the reboot with Batman Begins should naturally bring the story to its conclusion. Without giving too much away, Bane is the super-villain who broke the Batman’s back…and left him a cripple!

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    • While discussing Jimmy Shergill, one has to wonder at the vagaries of fate. Here’s a terrific actor who’s good looking, eminently identifiable with the multiplex crowd, or so one would think …and yet his struggles to come out of the small league never cease to end.

      Contrast his case with Ranbir Kapoor’s or Imran Khan’s and you’d see just how cruel destiny can be at times…

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      • Is it Destiny or Lack of Big League Contacts?
        Normally every decade, you have a couple such ‘outside industry’ talents who make it to the big leagues. But none in the decade of the 2000s. Since SRK and Akshay in the 90s, no one else has broken out into the big league without having any sort of Godfather or family contacts. Goes to show how entrenched the industry has become in providing to its ‘own’.

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    • On paper, that is a great story Saket — but only on paper (no pun intended). That is, Bane was for me always a plastic villain, the sort of character conceived by committee to increase sales (his Marvel counterpart is Venom) — and hence there was always something plastic about him in my book. I fully expect Nolan’s Bane to be better than the comic book version (not something I can say for the best comic book renditions of Two-Face).

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  9. I think Shergill will get meatier parts on a regular basis. He has kind of proved himself over the years and SBAG should hopefully seal the deal.
    It would be a shame if he doesnt.

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  10. ideaunique Says:

    watched SBG yday, agree that shergill was the best of the lot and hooda was the worst….i wonder why many critics are going ga-ga over his perf.?

    btw, movie was definately made on an extremely shoe-string budget and maybe shot in 30 days or so – thats why even if movie collected 10-15 cr – it is profitable and they start shooting for the sequel this month!

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  11. Just saw the moviie and agree with Q’s review overall, however besides Jimmy Shergill, I felt Mahi Gill was also pretty good.But like Q said the screenplay did not have anything new- wohi politicians, wohi gangsters, wohi jelousy,wohi jungle raj and so damn easy to kill at will etc……..

    I was expecting much more from Tigmanshu after Hasil..

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  12. Satyam….where did you get hold of “haasil”…I see that you are watching it (upper right corner)….Thx

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