SAHEB, BIWI AUR GANGSTER RETURNS (Dir. Tigmanshu Dhulia, 2013, India) – A Royal Affair

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Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster Returns is an uninspiring title to what is one of writer-director Tigmanshu Dhulia’s best films to date. Less of a sequel and more of a continuation, Dhulia reunites the main leads of Jimmy Shergill and Mahie Gill in a story that reaches back to the past. Unlike the first film which utilised more traditional noir narratives, with echoes of Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, this seeks to frame a contemporary power struggle between Aditya Pratap Singh (Shergill) and his enemies (including his duplicitous wife) against a quest for revenge led by fallen prince Indarjeet Singh (Irfan Khan). This time round Dhulia adds a layer of political intrigue to the narrative but his thematic focus on the decadence of the royal families of India still remains a central concern. The role of Aditya Pratap Singh as a seemingly untouchable Nawab (prince) belonging to a once important Royal family based in the state of Uttar Pradesh and whose power and prestige has faded away a long time ago is a poetic, tragic and sinister figure. It is a role, which Jimmy Shergill performs with real assurance, offering a charismatic yet flawed symbol of India’s past. Pratap Singh’s faded power is rendered even more symbolically as his incapacitation in a wheelchair, as a result of the gunshot wound from the first film, becomes both an intertextual nod to masculine impairment in the noir universe and points to an incapacitation related to a deeper ancestral powerlessness. Estranged from Madhavi (Mahie Gill), Aditya has a desire to remarry and sets his eye on Ranjana, the daughter of a wealthy Nawab, played surprisingly well by Soha Ali Khan.

The first film drew its strength from the antagonism between Aditya and Madhavi, and this bitter rivalry between husband and wife provides the film with much of its narrative tensions. Dhulia is careful to never lose sight of the centrality of Madhavi’s character to the overall narrative and she is deadly as ever. Madhavi is a contemporary variation on the traditional femme fatale and unlike the first film in which sees uses his sexuality to cause havoc, Dhulia expands such predatory instincts by depicting her rise to power as a means of re-working the femme fatale vernacular. A new addition is Indarjeet Singh, a prince whose entire family was wiped out by the ruthless Pratap Singh family, now headed by Aditya. Indarjeet’s revenge quest is complicated by his relationship with Ranjana whom he intends to marry once he is avenged his family’s honour. If Indarjeet has any hope of ruining Aditya completely he has to woe Madhavi, which he does, and she becomes an ally in exchange for political power. However, it is not long before Indarjeet is embroiled in an affair with Madhavi. Ultimately, Indarjeet succumbs to the poisonous sexual manipulations of Madhavi, eventually taking up the position of the doomed noir protagonist. Yet such a doomed and fatalistic state gives the relationship between Indarjeet and Ranjana a genuinely tragic dimension.

Dhulia knows his cinema and pays homage to numerous classic Hindi films. The tragic love story, fraught relationships and decadent settings suggest this is a film in love with the past and could easily have been made in the 1950s. One striking connection to Hindi cinema of the past is the deployment of the title track ‘Lag Jaa Gale Ki…’ from the 1964 film Woh Kaun Thi? (Who Was She?). The song, a notably haunting one and sung beautifully by Lata Mangeshkar, is about doomed love and is used sparingly by Dhulia in key moments of the narrative to underline a loneliness that afflicts the main characters. Although the film is set in Uttar Pradesh, the first film (and I am assuming this one too) was shot in Devgadh Baria, a small town in Gujarat with a royal past. Remarkably, the history of the town’s royal kings that were abolished after India gained independence may have in fact formed an inspiration for the film itself. A key ingredient in conjuring up a strong sense of the past is channelled through the architecture of the royal ancestral house in which much of the film takes place. The house is a disembodied place and the characters are made to seem uncomfortable, dwarfed by a faded grandeur in the empty rooms. Moreover, the ruined fort, once occupied by the ancestral family of Indarjeet, is another site of ghostly memories and tragedies inevitably consuming those who refuse to reconcile.

Only Indarjeet’s narrative is resolved, tragically though, while the other remaining dilemmas faced by the characters of Aditya, Madhavi and Ranjana are left open. Indarjeet succumbs to pride and commits suicide when he realises his sweetheart Ranjana has betrayed him. However, Indarjeet convinces Madhavi to smuggle Aditya’s gun out of the house and he uses the gun to commit suicide, thus directly implicating Aditya in the murder. As Aditya is arrested and taken away, Kanhaiya, his loyal bodyguard and shadow, is seen lurking in the background, hinting at Kanhaiya’s potentially decisive role in the final part of the trilogy. Like the first film in which men are the casualties and victims of Madhavi’s scheming, Dhulia ends on a similarly refreshing note, with the camera tracking a transformed Madhavi as a fashionable politician making her way to a meeting. Out of all the characters, Madhavi is the one character that manages to consolidate her power and Dhulia relishes transforming her into a proto-feminist icon, leaving the film open for a potentially fascinating third part in which arguably political power relations will be contested in a grand finale.

CHENNAI EXPRESS (Rohit Shetty, 2013, India) – Postmodern Masala

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This is an uneven action comedy from the Manmohan Desai school of filmmaking. Director Rohit Shetty is one of Hindi cinema’s most bankable directors and while it is tempting at first to lump him together with the likes of Sajid Khan, his postmodern sensibilities are much more palatable. While competency may not seem much to embrace, Chennai Express just about works and does so because of two very straightforward reasons: SRK’s star image and the intertexts to Tamil action cinema. Although it harbours the notorious problem of being thirty minutes too long, Chennai Express is an event film that arrived on Eid and has gone on to break numerous box office records. On a cynical level, it is a tentpole blockbuster purely out to make money, but we could say the same about most mainstream Hindi films. SRK has reached that point in a star’s career whereby self reflexivity has become a source of on screen humour and off screen critical commentary. Underneath the contrived situations are a site of postmodern intertexts that riff on the on screen Rahul persona cultivated by SRK and while postmodernity as a mode of address may be more common in mainstream Hindi films, it still demands a level of cultural capital from audiences.

In my opinion, Hindi ‘masala’ cinema operates on a number of levels with audiences and its not as simplistic as the narrative some of these films venerate. Since my knowledge and viewing of Tamil cinema is a cinephile blind spot, I probably missed a lot of these so called regional intertexts. It was only later I discovered the father is played by a famous Tamil actor and political activist Sathyaraj, who incidentally has more screen presence than both SRK and Deepika combined. I don’t object to ‘masala’ cinema since it is the lifeblood of populist Hindi cinema and offers more reliable entertainment than many of the Hollywood blockbusters currently clogging up cinema screens. In terms of thematic trends, Chennai Express could be situated amongst recent films like Singham and Dabaang since they all chart a ‘return to the rural’ by re-presenting the village as not only a symbol of tradition but a reminder to audiences that India has been masked over by a new post liberal shift. In many ways, the reinstatement of the village in the landscape of contemporary postmodern Hindi cinema could also be seen as a reactionary attempt to recall more conventional, if not, regressive iconography.

AURANGZEB (Dir. Atul Sabharwal, 13, India) – Iconographic Assemblages

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Aurangzeb defines its very cinematic existence on the platitudes of old Hindi cinema, refabricating familiar and outlandish tropes with a sensitivity that touches you emotionally. Invoking the double role, the fragile mother figure, the dirty cop(s), a murky political context and a tale of brotherly disharmony finally aspires to 1970s populist Hindi cinema which other Yash Raj productions have failed to reclaim. The failure of Tashaan springs to mind. What appeared to be a fad for the 1970s and 1980s action cinema has given birth to a cycle of retro po-mo masala films fetishizing the hard body. Aurangzeb succeeds since its homage to such tropes is underlined by a modulated sincerity which doesn’t sit well with critics and audiences expecting a film of this nature to be simply in awe of its referents. The failure of Aurangzeb at the box office is not surprising given the absence of a major star other than the Yash Raj banner under which it was produced. I couldn’t help but be reminded of films such as Trishul, Deewaar and even the elaborate Desai narratives of coincidence. In a way, this is a film that understands masala melodrama and gives it to us unfiltered in a contemporary context. Like many of the great Hindi melodramas of the 1970s such as Deewaar, Aurangzeb rejects conventionality in terms of content by distancing song and dance for more thematic avenues. Given the comparison to Deewaar, I’m wary of placing it in such exalted company but it’s a film that isn’t ashamed of its masala roots and gives it to you very obviously and genuinely. It is also a film populated by the likes of Anupam Kher, Amrita Singh and Rishi Kapoor, redeployed, as is Jackie Shroff, in customary iconographic assemblages that evoke the infectious hyperbole of a bygone era. Films like Aurangzeb could be re-theorised under a new auspice, that of neo-masala cinema.