Thursday, March 1, 2012

Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster: Not a Guru Dutt Film

I am not a snob when it comes to the provenance of my films. Big name production or small budget film, if it’s good, I will watch it. Alas, the market doesn’t have the same flatness when it comes to distribution and it’s much, much easier for me to see the latest big studio release than a smaller film from a smaller production house which may not be distributed overseas unless there are special circumstances - like during cricket season when few big films are being released.

All of this is really a long-winded way of saying that director Tigermanshu Dulia’s films are on my radar but not on my cinema screen and I find this frustrating. Last year I missed not only Shagird (featuring one of my many uncle crushes, Nana Patekar, as a bad ass cop) but also one of the most buzzed about films of the year - Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster.*

Thankfully, Netflix stepped up their game and took a break from offering the worst movies money can buy (still don’t want to watch We Are Family, thanks) to bring me Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster.



Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster is an old-fashioned drama, the kind of film you might have seen Ashok Kumar and Meena Kumari starring in back in the day. Set in a moldering haveli somehwhere in (I think) Uttar Pradesh, “Saheb” (the always excellent Jimmy Shergill) and his wife Madhavi (Mahie Gill) have the balance of their lives disrupted when the ambitious Babloo (the doofy Randeep Hooda) enters their employ. Is Babloo playing the couple off of one another or are they playing him? Who is really in charge of this game? You’ll have to watch the film to find out the answer!

Tigermanshu Dulia uses his talented cast to full advantage because although Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster does use songs in the narrative, it’s actually not structured like a typical hero-driven film** and is actually more of an ensemble piece, with plenty of screen time for all the character actors. We get to see how Madhavi puts on a formal face for her husband’s clients and how Saheb lets down his guard to be with his mistress (Shreya Narayan) and how Babloo puts on airs with the other members of the Saheb’s staff - especially the cheeky Suman (Deepal Shaw). We see Saheb’s right hand man (Deepraj Rana) tamp down his emotions and do as he’s told. We meet MLA Prabhu Tiwari (Rajiv Gupta) and local boss Gainda Singh (Vipin Sharma), both of whom resent Saheb and the respect he commands despite the fact that he’s a) powerless and b) broke as a joke. Best of all, we get to meet Saheb’s novel-reading, cigarette-smoking, purse-strings holding step mother (whose name I don’t know but wish I did).

The film wallows in the human emotions that fuel political and social drama, the greed, the jealousy, the betrayal, the ambition, the pride, and the affection. It passes no judgement nor does it attempt to offer any answers. People are people; drama is drama. And this drama happens to be particularly well scripted, acted, and directed.

I don’t have much more to say about the film other than “I enjoyed it” but I do want to spare a few words for Jimmy Shergill and Mahie Gill, two solid talents who are criminally underused in Bollywood. In this film, Jimmy Shergill gives that rarest of all birds - a performance that manages to be both subtle and effective. His Saheb isn’t demonstrative or loud - that would be too low class. Jimmy plays Saheb quiet and contained, impotent rage simmering below the surface. Scrambling for money is beneath him but it hurts worse to be broke. That is the misery of Saheb.

Mahie Gill’s Madhavi, on the other hand, is a gaping wound of misery. Mahie understands that Madhavi is like a caged animal and her actions are those of the tiger in a zoo, grown mean and vindictive in captivity. It’s a wonderfully complex and very smart performance. It’s too bad that Bollywood hasn’t figured out what to do with her. Looking back, out of the two women to emerge from Dev.D, she is clearly more talented but less marketable than Kalki Koechlin (as much as I love Kalki.)

So, if you have Netflix streaming, give it a watch! Maybe if the number of viewings is decent, they’ll get us Shagird next.

*And this weekend, I’ll also be missing Irrfan Khan in - and as - Paan Singh Tomar so our cinema can screen two tired looking rom-coms.

** Although I can guarantee you that Randeep Hooda assumed he was the star... just judging by his performance. It worked well for the character, though a stronger actor could have done more with the role.

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