HELL HATH no fury like Irrfan Khan. Or so seems to be the premise of Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s sequel to his 2011 homage to Guru Dutt’s 1962 masterpiece, Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam. After all, he’s had his wife-to-be abducted by Aditya Pratap Singh, the Saheb (Shergill), in the grand tradition of royals abducting wives-to-be; he also bears a grudge against Aditya’s family for wiping out his own. Enlisted by his prospective father-in-law to diminish Aditya’s considerable political clout, he goes about his task not by the Bollywood hero manual of singlehandedly fighting his way through an entire army, but by playing a goofy bahrupiya, the mirthful Machiavelli enjoying many a joke at the expense of his less intelligent enemies, lurking around the corridors of power as well as those of Aditya’s antechambers, sealing alliances and exploiting his weaknesses.
One such weakness is Madhavi (Gill), the Biwi. Unlike the typical Bollywood sequel, which exists in a universe where the first film does not exist, Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns carries the story forward with all the trauma of the first part still fresh in the characters’ minds. Madhavi has gone off the deep end with her drinking — Mahie Gill, unfortunately, seems to think that this is all there is to the character, hamming it throughout in a disappointing performance — not emerging from her room for days, shunned by her husband, who has been consig ned to a wheelchair after the climax of the first film. When he decides to take a second wife (“You’re talking like a democrat,” he chides the father of the bride, when he objects to him alre ady being married), she realises she is truly powerless, and more importantly, has lost her access to the Saheb’s coffers to fund her drinking habit. Irrfan (who replaces Randeep Hooda as the Gangster, which can only be a good thing) helps her use her one source of power — the fact that she is an MP — to regain some sense of self-worth, and more importantly, make Aditya’s life harder.
The plotting that sets up an engrossing film in the first half is countered by the second, which, much like Madhavi, is a slurring, confused, guntoting mess. I suppose it helps maintain the suspense if nobody knows what the hell is going on. There are manoeuvres and, eventually, countermanoeuvres, but these occur only in fits and starts, with little or no explanation. Most of the second half is unnecessarily over-indulgent, tho – ugh some of it can be excused for dealing with characters from the first film who do not play a major role in the sequel. The twist that turns the tide for Aditya appears almost as contrived and out of character as a professional wrestling storyline. The climax, by no means as gory as the last one, is clumsily presented, proving no more coherent than the rest of the film.
For a film released on International Women’s Day, Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns is remarkable in the extent to which the gender politics is skewed in favour of the men. Some of this, no doubt, is intended as commentary on the patriarchy of the aristocracy. However, even while making a social comment on the powerlessness of women, it is possible, almost necessary, to depict stronger female characters than the will-do- anything-for-my-daily-fix Madhavi and princess-in-peril Ranjana (Soha Ali Khan). Of course, the acting plays a major role: while Mahie Gill and Soha Ali Khan play just one note, Shergill and Irrfan Khan deliver masterful performances. But its treatment of women is symptomatic of how this film loses a great opportunity due to its flawed execution.