By Hindustan Times
Director: Tigmanshu Dhulia
Actors: Randeep Hooda, Jimmy Shergill, Mahie Gill
Rating: ***1/2 "
Iss haveli mein sirf wafadar reh sakte hain (Only the truly trusted can stay in this palace)," says the queen to her chauffeur. "Aap wafadar hain? (You're the faithful one?)," casually snaps the driver. This is when the chauffeur and the queen, far away from the king, are locked in passionate love. It's a cracker line. This film is full of such; the skill and wit in its writing shows.
The owner of the said palace, the Sahib (Jimmy Shergill) of this story, is sovereign of a small town called Deogarh. He is of course a king in name only: "Rutba hai, rupai nahin (He has class, no money)".
We're in the heartless badlands of Uttar Pradesh. These are deeply politicised parts of India that run on patronage of criminals, who are brokers of both power and state money (government tenders, contracts, etc). It's a mysteriously scary place that outsiders can rarely make sense of. Which is probably why there are such few outsiders in the first place.
From a family that once deemed itself royal, the young dapperly dressed Sahib's now reduced to being the top local fixer, a glorified hit man. He appears to be going through a rough patch lately. His closest rival (Vipin Sharma) seems to have an upper hand in this political game of deceit and profit.
Every popular culture, you'll notice, has a weapon of choice for street fights. It is usually borrowed from sports. American kids take each other on in movies with baseball bats, British ones go armed with the cricket bat. The hockey stick demonstrates the phallic bravado of raw Indian youth. The hero here knocks the hell out of a boy with one of those sticks. That boy's in coma now.
Hero needs help. Who else but a politically connected criminal in middle India can save you from the proverbial 'law taking its own course'. This is how the Sahib's rival and the hero meet. He doesn't need to go to jail. In return for the favour, he has to plant himself as the spy at the Sahib's palace. He's the wife's driver now.
You get the gist of the plot: The chiseled faced chauffeur, and the mentally unstable queen, are in love. He gives her sex. She gives him access. There are obviously defined limits to their hushed relationship. One of them is willing to cross it. The husband, of course, is too busy with his mistress. It gets better from hereon.
Randeep Hooda, Naseeruddin Shah's fine theatre protégé, plays that charming hero: "Ghar ka naam (name at home) Babloo. Bahar ka (outside)? Lalit!" Since his debut with a minor role in Monsoon Wedding (2001), you could tell, a solid acting talent being undone by third-rate movies alone (Ru-ba-ru, Risk, other such rubbish). This film finally does him justice. He lives up to it with a convincing, self-assured performance. The picture in parts, though, is a bit theatrical, annoyingly over-dramatic. None of the songs match up to the soundtrack's soothing, minimalist number (Yeh ek bhawra) either.
It's the page-turner script that steals the show. It's packed with enough turns, intrigues and twists to hold your attention, keep you guessing. All of it bound by some sort of logic still. At least as much logic as you'd expect from a drama or thriller that doesn't embarrass your basic intelligence. This doesn't.
The title is rightly a nod to Guru Dutt's Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam (1962). Somewhere the film reminds you more of Vishal Bhardwaj's Shakespearian adaptation Maqbool. I'm not too sure why. Maybe it's got something to do with the general spirit of a tragic, Macbeth-like storyline. Or perhaps the leading lady (Mahie Gill -- Tabu's blatant look-alike, with at least half her flair).
Either way, game-changers in movies aren't necessarily the commercial successes of their years. Back in 2003, Bhardwaj's Maqbool was a good example of that: ignored by masses at large, adored by film-buffs, it is considered a classic among connoisseurs already. This one is admirably inspired, is almost a sophomore effort. As you'd know, that's a pretty hefty compliment to pay.