With Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns, director Tigmanshu Dhulia delivers another earthy cocktail of power games, bedroom politics, and palace intrigue. Only the stakes are higher in this sequel; the love is tainted from the start, and there’s even vengeance thrown in for good measure. Indeed the film is gripping for the most part, if you’re willing to overlook some convoluted stretches.
The saheb and biwi from the 2011 film are back: Aditya Singh (Jimmy Shergill) is wheelchair-bound after being left paralyzed in the earlier film’s bloody climax, while his alcoholic, unhinged wife Madhavi (Mahie Gill) is the elected MLA. Yet the equation between husband and wife is constantly shifting. Aditya is recovering from the accident, determined to get back on his feet. He wrests control from Madhavi, who can’t seem to lift herself from a drunken stupor on most days. A manipulative Aditya is trying to round up the other royals in the state to their advantage and grab political power, and part of his plan is to marry the soft-natured princess Ranjana (Soha Ali Khan).
This forces the hand of another player, Inder (Irrfan Khan), who is Ranjana’s paramour. Part of a royal family that’s fallen on bad times, Inder is a small-time gangster. When Aditya forces Ranjana to get engaged to him, Inder takes him on, seducing Madhavi and controlling her like a puppet with sexual power-play to defeat Saheb. Yet, Inder has a hidden agenda and a past that fuels his own ambitions.
As you may have guessed, there is intrigue at every door, a twist at every turn in Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns. This makes for a riveting first half, especially since Dhulia laces his scenes with plenty of humour. Inder is a curious character, and Irrfan plays him with elan. He lives in a carefully concocted fake world, playing polo matches and always dressing immaculately, even though he has to iron those very clothes himself. He is full of bluster, even paying to get his picture in the papers.
The dialogues in the film are crackling with wit, and even smaller characters are well constructed, like the bumbling politician caught watching porn on his laptop, or Inder’s policeman brother (Pravesh Rana) who dispenses his own justice. In spite of their machinations, there is vulnerability in each player.
Dhulia creates the dying world of the royals beautifully – how they struggle to adapt to a modern India, while living in crumbling palaces. He weaves the dirty business of politics and love into this universe, and doesn’t shy away from showing the sexual games involved. But halfway through, these political games lose steam. Dhulia throws in some bizarre scenes, and the choppy editing makes the final act over-tangled and long. Madhavi too goes from the most compelling character in the film to the most repetitive one.
In the performances, the men come up trumps. Jimmy admirably slips into the skin of the scheming, frustrated saheb again, yet it’s Irrfan who keeps you glued. He strikes just the right note as the desperate royal Inder. Mahie, meanwhile, lays it thick as Madhavi, over-slurring her words and playing the part disappointingly one-note.
Despite its many indulgences Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns is ultimately an engaging watch. I’m going with three out of five for this fascinating tale of ambition and emotions that might have further benefitted from tighter writing.