By Utpal Borpujari
In the context of contemporary Hindi cinema, Tigmanshu Dhulia is an important maker. He is one director who has a keen eye & ear for north Indian socio-politics, which was amply reflected in his debut feature film Haasil. Since Haasil, he has made Charas and Shagird, which somehow fell quite short of the levels he had achieved as a filmmaker in Haasil, and the yet-unreleased Paan Singh Tomar, based on the real-life story of an international athlete-turned-Chambal dacoit.
With Sahib, Biwi Aur Gangster, Dhulia has reclaimed his place as a fine visual narrator of dramatic stories, a position that he had achieved through Haasil but yielded in his two subsequent released films. Indeed, SBAG is one of the significant mainstream pieces of cinema that captures a fictional story with sublime reflections of contemporary socio-political life of the country through a multi-layered screenplay (written by Dhulia and Sanjay Chouhan).
SBAG works at several levels as a film, and it is this layering that comes as a much-needed fresh breath of air at a time when the humongous Box Office hits have been meaningless, ‘critic proof’ pieces of masala films like Salman Khan-starrers Ready and Bodyguard which deploy audience-bamboozling publicity to exploit a particular star’s current popularity levels among the star-struck masses, giving two hoots to the craft of cinematic storytelling.
A film like SBAG is obviously not a mass product like the aforementioned films or Ajay Devgn’s Singham. It will probably cater more to those who like their cinema that treat the viewer as a bit intelligent creature. But at the same time, if one does not look at or care for layered storytelling in cinema and wants his or her cinema to be just an entertainer, SBAG would work for such a viewer too, even if it does not boast of an A-list starcast, and rather has a cast that is highly competent of delivering some memorable performances given a chance.
On the surface of it, SBAG is a story of illicit love between a lowly gangster (Randeep Hooda, coming up with a tantalisingly-fine performance) and an ever-on-the-edge queen (Mahie Gill, superb as a woman neglected in love of body and mind by the husband) of a small town princely state somewhere in Uttar Pradesh (though the film does not state where exactly it is set in, the number plates of vehicles point at UP), where the ‘king’ (Jimmy Shergil, who after a long time has got ample scope to display his talents) has to depend on alms from his step mother (to whom his father had bequeathed most of his wealth) and also a lot of illegal activities for his survival. Looked at through another prism, it is also a story of a multiple love angles set in a violent society in the hinterland of northern India which the rules of a ‘civilised’ society virtually never applies to. That is for a viewer who just likes to enjoy one’s cinema without making much use of one’s intellectual juice. For such a viewer, there is plenty of action happening in the film throughout its course – murders, violence, illicit love and a bunch of highly-interesting characters and some really smart dialogues.
But if you are one who likes to scratch the surface of the story whenever you get to watch a good piece of cinema, you will find plenty to explore in SBAG.
Take for example, the characters. Essentially, each of the key characters of SBAG is a loner. If the king is a loner in that though he still behaves like a king in public domain, he knows that his days as a ruler are over, but that he has to continue the charade for which he needs tough-to-get money – in big amounts and regularly. Shergil as the Sahib brings comes up with a nuances performance as a man caught between destiny and reality. Despite his lean and thin body built, Shergil is able to give a required gravitas to the character purely through his performance that relies to a great extent on his expressions rather than the physical aspect of it. As a man caught between the worlds of past royalty and present roguishness, as also between a woman who pines for his love and another whose physicality he pines for to get, as he says at one moment in the film, ‘sukoon’ (inner peace), Shergil lends various shades to his character, just as the script demanded of him.
As the neglected ‘queen’ who shows glimpses of lurking insanity resulting from continued neglect by a husband whose love she pines for, and then turns to physical intimacy with the gangster-masquerading-as-the-driver in a desperate bid to not only find love but also overcome her frustrations, Gill coveys the myriad emotions of another loner. Randeep Hooda’s gangster is another loner, who is frustrated that the woman he pined for rejected him because he was not sophisticated enough, even though he is a graduate and speaks English. Then there are numerous other characters – the Sahib’s loyal and only-remaining aide (Deep Raj Rana), who has seen all his colleagues killed one after another by the enemy, his daughter (Deepal Shaw), who knows the realities of the palace but is forced to accept her and her father’s fate, the Dalit gangster-cum-contractor (Vipin Sharma) for whom spiting the Sahib also means his social ascension and not just usual power play, and the Sahib’s concubine who hopes one day her lover would make her his legal partner – all loners in their own ways. It is to Dhulia’s credit that he finely weaves the stories of all these loners together to conjure a world of deceit, lust and power politics in a way that leaves the viewer asking for more.
Spot on casting and fine acting by the ensemble cast – Delhi businessman-and-sometime-actor Rajiv Gupta’s act of minister Prabhu Tiwari is a treat to watch – combined with the fast pace of storytelling makes SBAG one of the finest pieces of Hindi cinema of recent times. The subtle way of incorporating social realities – such as establishing without even once directly mentioning Gainda Singh’s character as a Dalit who wants to show the Sahib that in the new socio-politics of India, former Kings and their erstwhile untouchable subjects can move in the same corridors of power and have the same social position – is something that lifts the film’s level by several notches. In fact, every major character in the film uses every other possible person to achieve his or her own ends, and the intricate relationship gameplay comes through without any hiccups, to the credit of the director, the writers and the actors each of whom seem to have got totally submerged in their characters.
The film’s weakest moments are at the very beginning, in the manner in which the characters are introduced in an on-your-face manner. The contrast becomes glaring as the film progresses and the screenplay unfolds its subtleties one after another. Dhulia continues with the recent trend of films having multiple music composers, but unfortunately, while individually a couple of songs are interesting, they tend to jar the tone and tenor of the film that is paced fast. In a story like the one here, it is easy for a director to lose his way in the climax – we have seen that happen in many films that start promisingly – but Dhulia’s interpretation of women power at the end is simply lovely. SBAG is a film which you would take away much from. It will be counted as the film through which finally Dhulia managed to achieve and surpass the promise he had exhibited in Haasil.
(Published on http://www.dearcinema.com, 30-09-2011)