Sunday, October 02, 2011
SAHEB, BIWI AUR GANGSTER (Hindi; 2011)
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 tinity 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.