Director: Tigmanshu Dhulia
IE rating: ***
There is a brilliant sequence in the first half of Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns where a small-time politico is wrestling with a laptop he doesn't know how to switch off. His visitor lets the 'chutbhaiya neta' get red-faced at the blue film, and only then reaches across and finds the right button, both for the machine and the man. In this brief joust, Tigmanshu Dhulia shows just how good a director (and writer; the dialogues are his) he can be: here are characters being played to the top of their strengths, speaking in a tongue they own, leaving us smiling with pleasure.
If Dhulia had been able to maintain the pitch and balance of this memorable bit, the sequel to his 2011 Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster would have been a triumph. The 'return' is a better film, but it stops short of being excellent. The smooth build-up in the first half leads to a confused, too-crowded second, which lets the film, and us, down.
But while the going is good, it is all most gripping. The sequel starts from where the first film had left off . Saheb ( Sheirgill) is now a cripple, bound to a wheelchair. Biwi ( Gill) spends her time being soused, having become adept at negotiating the curves her bitter spouse throws at her while displaying all hers. And Gangster ( Irrfan) is the interloper who turns up to make things more interesting.
The story-telling in the first half is so seamless that you overlook the things that had been a problem the first time around. This is UP, we are told ( Irrfan's character is even called, ahem, 'Raja Bhaiyya' ) but we never really know where exactly; there's a whiff of several neighbouring states in the 'rajwada' and their polo matches and their parties : the pretty young princess ( Ali Khan), who is adored by Raja Bhaiyya, and who becomes barter in the battle for power between him and his mentor ( Babbar), and Saheb, is generic North Indian. So is the walk-on cast , which includes the superb Rajeev Gupta as the fumbling-watcher-of-porn-on-laptop.
How politics and lost glory and intrigue and the greed for power mesh together, tempting and corrupting everything they touch, is the theme that runs though the film, just like in the earlier one, which was fashioned as a tribute to the classic, `Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam'. Saheb is more concerned about holding on to his seat than tend to his needy wife, nor be mindful of the younger woman's feelings. Both Gill and Ali Khan and their surroundings are sketched with vivid, bold strokes, and Gill is more in control in this than she was in the earlier (she does a good job with staggering just slightly, the mark of a practising alcoholic), but the latter comes alive only occasionally.
It is the men who rule. Jimmy Shergill fits his part well, but it is Irrfan who rises above the film in a terrific performance : he is wounded poet and warrior, and passionate lover who is betrayed and betrays. He keeps us with the film in both its highs and lows.