A nawab (Jimmy Shergill) latches on to the ways of the old, turning a blind eye to the paint peeling off the walls of his decrepit mansion that reflects the state of his being. He kills for contracts and contract kills; so short he is of money and morals. And yet he commandeers the village’s respect in his steely façade… and respect is all that the men in the milieu strive for. His begum (Mahie Gill) also wants recognition – but only from him. She has been driven to schizophrenia and has fleeting bursts of madness, brought on by the nawab’s indifference to her and an open relationship with his mistress. Add to this complicated triangle a local minister who looks to align with the first person he can find for profit; a gang leader who considers himself an equal to the nawab and relentlessly (and often clumsily) plots against to kill him; the nawab’s man Friday who personifies loyalty; and finally a driver Babloo (Randeep Hooda) caught in the lure of the begum’s quirky charms, falls in love, and has delusions of becoming the sahib. All these people inhabit an eccentric world where infidelity and guns are the norm, the slightest transgression resulting in death.
Tigmanshu Dhulia revisits themes from his earlier movies: innumerable double-crossings, unconventional settings, and complicated telling demanding the viewer’s attention. His characters are shaped with precision, the story is captivating for most part, and the outstanding feature of the writing is the dialogue: laconic, witty (refreshing for film set in rural India), and original. And while one misses the raw magnetism of Haasil and a sense of sympathy his characters usually generate (Nana Patekar in Shagird), Sahib, Biwi, aur Gangster is Tigmanshu Dhulia’s most polished work: not only in thought, but also technically.
The characters are so rich, that it’d take a second viewing to catch the nuances in hindsight. Babloo the driver’s love for power blinds him. He acts like a sahib, clicking his fingers for attention, screaming at deaf ears in fury, but he rarely elicits a response. The only person indulging him is his begum, but is it simple madness or a calculated motive that encourages her? Dhulia keeps you guessing. An old driver talks in auto metaphors, and the loyalist has many tricks up his sleeve. Literally. As usual, there are some standout scenes that will stay with you well after the film is over… the MLA tells the CM over the phone of his trip to Thailand (where, he says, for all the fooling around there is no feeling of guilt) even as the Sahib and his rival are squabbling and close to shooting each in the same room.
The only complaint one has with SBG is that it marginally loses traction in the second half. Instead of a solid buildup towards an unpredictable climax, we have scenes that tease and continue to explore characters. There are stretches where the story is placid and the eventual ending is old hat: a variation of the Mexican standoff. Also, there is a sense of déjà vu throughout. You’ve kind of seen it all before – the sex, the lies, the MMS – but the divergence in presentation more than makes up.
Dhulia has paid close attention to the craft here. Even with a limited budget, he has managed an uncompromised look with visuals and sound design well above par. The extensive use of close-ups and mid-shots keep the frames full and viewer focused on the story and character. Music is used smartly and the songs are picturized in a no-nonsense way.
Jimmy Shergill’s screen presence is admirable; his acting abilities remain underrated despite some fine work of late. Mahie Gill blows hot and cold with practiced precision, and Randeep Hooda – who has the toughest role here – manages to keep his head above the water.
With its violence, depiction of sex, and alternate themes, SBG is not necessarily a film for everyone. Neither will it blow you away in any way. Still, it is one more inclusion in the list of audience-specific new-age genre films and deserves your attention.