Tigmanshu Dhulia, with Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster, pays one of the odder tributes to a film generally considered a classic. It’s not just the title he references from Abrar Alvi’s Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, but also specific scenes and characters and contrivances, leaving us in little doubt that the spirit of the older film is reincarnated in this new one (or that the new film is possessed by the spirit of the older one). Here too, there is the titular trio, shuffled around like king, queen and knave in a pack of playing cards, along with the outsider embodied in the older film by Waheeda Rehman (and here by Deepal Shaw). A rooftop sport with pigeons in the older film is transformed into a contest with kites. The death of Waheeda Rehman’s father, the hint of her marriage with the knave (who, as portrayed by Randeep Hooda here, is literally a knave, not just servant but scoundrel), the paralysis of a major character, a snatch of conversation on either side of a clothesline, an attack at the home of a mistress, the wife’s hysterics when first touched by the servant – they all flash by like photographs in a dusted-off album.
But consider the differences. Chhoti Bahu, in the older film, fell into inebriation because she believed that her husband would stay with her if she debauched herself, like his mistress. She was, otherwise, the kind of housewife who, on Ashtami, broke her fast with water that had touched her husband’s feet – and by habituating herself to drink, she was immolating herself at the altar of her worthless husband. Chhoti Rani here, played by Mahie Gill, likes to swirl her drink in a glass, and we feel it’s because she likes to and not because of any lofty reason – she is not especially faithful to her husband (you get the feeling she prefers being with him simply because she has nowhere else to go, no richer man to ensnare) and neither is she confined to the haveli. In her superb introduction scene, she makes casual conversation with someone who in the older film would have been labelled a paraya mard. We sense that she’s a little unhinged too.
As for the husband (played by Jimmy Shergill, who leaps at the part like a starving lion; it’s his most involved performance in a while), he seeks from his mistress not just her bed but her heart – unlike Rahman’s, this is an emotionally resonant relationship. Dhulia infuses through this character strains of Macbeth and Othello that were unseen in the earlier film – the murderous plotting of power-mad people; the suspicion of a loved one and her ensuing murder – though these may actually be reflections of Vishal Bhardwaj’s riffs on this material, which he set in similar badlands of interior India. As for Guru Dutt’s character, aptly named Bhoothnath (he was a prisoner of the past, and he also lived amidst ghosts, mere shells of people who flitted about in a soulless existence), he is reshaped as a brash punk who doesn’t believe in ghosts and has no use for the past. He calls himself a maukatarian, an opportunist whose only relationship is with the rewards of the present. Even the bodies disinterred in Dhulia’s film aren’t bodies from the distant past, which have rotted into the skeletons of Alvi’s film, but corpses that have just been buried. They, too, are tethered to the present.
And you have to wonder why Dhulia, for his very contemporary story, needed the crutch of a film that’s not just old because it was made many years ago but also because it harked back to an even older time. Why riddle memories of a gentle tragedy with bullets and slit throats? This is not the anguish of a fan whose nostalgia has been desecrated – merely the inquiry of a puzzled movie watcher who was entertained by the new film but was distracted, constantly, by the reminders, like a man on a first date who finds it difficult to gaze into the eyes of the woman across because she’s wearing a dress in a colour favoured by the ex and she laughs the same way. Is this a careful homage, an invested reimagining of a film that the director loves? Or is he a punk prankster who walked into a marble monument and defecated in its midst, grinning at the outrage he imagined would follow?
But one thing he does show you – that he is chalk to Guru Dutt’s cheese. (Despite Alvi’s name on the credits, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is very much part of Dutt’s doom-laden latter-day oeuvre.) Dutt was Hindi cinema’s Byronian Romantic, forever in the wilderness chasing after elusive sprites – a world free of hypocrisy in Pyaasa, respect and recognition for a life’s work in Kaagaz Ke Phool, happiness for Chhoti Bahu in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. Dhulia, on the other hand, is an ADD-ed gamesmith, someone who will, for no immediately apparent reason, fill his film with references to wild animals (squealing pigs, bloodthirsty dogs, even a reference to a leopard that cannot change its spots). With all the distractions he amuses himself with, it’s hard to care about any character, if only because they are themselves elusive sprites. At times, Chhoti Rani appears a victim, a Byronian Romantic herself, who wants to be loved so much that she finds pleasure in pressing her man’s feet and, later, sighing melodramatically, “Itna sukh mat do. Zyada khushi ki aadat nahin hai.” (This is but an extrapolation of the happiness that Chhoti Bahu sought, on Ashtami, through her husband’s feet.) But at other times, she’s the vamp toying with the men in her life, reducing them to white and black stones by her bedside, like fetish objects put out for pleasure.
The key to getting into the spirit of Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster, then, possibly lies in the observation of young Lalit (Hooda, using his intensity to good effect), a man who’s sauntered into a crumbling mansion with a backpack, a guitar, and a malevolent mission. “Is haveli ke sab log pagal hain,” he says, and the audience for Dhulia’s merrily unhinged movie is advised to keep in mind this reasonably accurate estimation of the mental faculties of its characters. Stripped of every reference to its source, this is a film filled with great lines (“Jise maar rahe ho, use dost to mat kaho!”) and sly scenes of comedy (like the flushing out of a gangster hidden in the bathroom of a minister’s office). And yet, it’s not all pomo fun and games. Dhulia’s film is as much about class as its predecessor was – it’s just that the prism of today’s India refracts this concern onto a lighter plane. When Hooda’s girlfriend says that she broke up with him because she has no class, he says, “Maine tere liye guitar bajana seekha.” That’s his idea of class. Later, he is instructed by Chhoti Rani, “Yahan badtameezi bhi tameez se ki jaati hai.” The older Rani, meanwhile, a dowager empress who relaxes with a copy of The Last Mughal, speaks of her sordid past and her subsequent elevation in social hierarchy through her husband. “Is rakhel se shaadi ki. Izzat di.”
Chhoti Rani needs this respect, this class, though she also needs to be loved – and her tragedy is that this love can be obtained only by men who have no class, men like Lalit. I walked away from Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster with the feeling that I needed to see it again, this time brushing aside the cobwebs of the earlier film and framing Dhulia’s conceits with a feminist reading. By the end, he has upended Alvi’s story of a subjugated woman and transformed Chhoti Bahu/Rani (Bahurani?) into some sort of femme fatale, who Mahie Gill embodies with exquisite relish. While most of our heroines look like little girls playing dress-up, Gill is woman from head to toe, and she doesn’t shy away from seducing us with her ripe sexuality. She is lushly photographed like something of a fetish object herself. This is not a woman who will end up banished to an anonymous and ignominious death, only for her remains to be discovered by accident. As a character remarks with not a little trepidation, “Chhoti Rani bali mangegi.” Others will die for her.
Copyright ©2011 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.