Sahib, Biwi Aur Gangster holds out hope for commercial cinema.

Playing at a multiplex near you are two movies that, for me, epitomise the hope and despair that I feel for Hindi cinema.

The first film, Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster is about all that is right with Bollywood. The second, Rascals, sums up much that is the problem with commercial Hindi cinema. That Sahib… is a relatively small-budget movie and Rascals is a big-budget one are not incidental factors; they are at the core of what is right and wrong with these two films.

If you haven't seen Sahib… I would urge you to. It is a film that has its flaws, I have to warn you: it is no Omkara. But it stays with you. This is a film in which you can smell the badlands of Uttar Pradesh in landscapes and locations that are not dressed up for the camera, that are postcard-pretty when they need to be and grimy and paan-stained when they have to be. Though this is a film about erstwhile royals, there are no chandelier-lit sets and opulent costumes; indeed, the opulence is all in Aseem Mishra's rich cinematography.

Of course, Sahib… has shades of its obvious inspiration, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam — a decaying haveli, an errant husband and a lonely wife yearning for the solace of alcohol and attention of a young man. But its poignancy does not have the tender, elegiac quality of Abrar Alvi's masterpiece; here, it is closer to the raw, dark evil of Omkara (itself, of course, inspired by Othello) in its portrayal of ambition gone wrong, of gut-wrenching betrayal and love that does not trust.

It's the kind of movie that warms your hopes for commercial cinema and you wish you could see more of — no mega-budget, plastic razzle dazzle or flashy acting, no popcorn emotions or formulaic sets, just a great script, some terrific acting and technicals. In short it's high in the basics, low on the frills (even if it has an item number and too many songs on the whole).

In fact, Sahib… is a line-up of talents that have not really got their due in my view. Director Tigmanshu Dhulia started off with the gritty Haasil, a movie about student politics that got it absolutely right. But then he made a disaster called Charas, and his next, Shagird, flopped too, and he dropped off the filmi radar for a while. (What also didn't help was the fact that he didn't make your typical romcoms.)

Then there is Jimmy Shergill (who plays the Sahib), an actor who simply hasn't had the success he deserves. Unlike, say, an Om Puri or a Naseeruddin Shah, he's good-looking, plus, he's a really good actor — both the Munnabhai movies, A Wednesday and Yahaan come to mind. All these were acclaimed movies but Shergill hasn't really hit the big time.

Mahie Gill (the biwi) and Randeep Hooda (the gangster) have had their successes and their disasters — but then who hasn't? Certainly, Sanjay Dutt and Ajay Devgn have. The most recent being the insufferable Rascals, the sort of movie that brings you near-physical pain and which needs all your commitment to cinema to sit through.

To watch three vastly experienced, undoubtedly talented people like director David Dhawan, Devgn and Dutt put out this trash is beyond baffling. That it's said to have tanked at the b-o will hopefully discourage other filmmakers from going down this brain-dead path.

Devgn, who made a career of playing the smouldering rebel and opted to work with a director like Prakash Jha in a series of memorable films, has, of late, chosen to throw his lot with crass, dumb-to-the-point-of-retarded comedies because that's what seems to be the easiest way of bringing in the lolly these days. Some of his scenes in the Golmaal series have been totally cringe-worthy, including one particularly disgusting one in drag.

Sanjay Dutt has always had a mixed bag — some outstanding movies like the Munnabhai films or earlier ones like Vaastav and some atrocious disasters. That's been the pattern with him, so you're not surprised, just annoyed, at the odd stinker.

You could say the same for director David Dhawan, a director who does know his craft and who has given us some genuinely fun movies like Judwaa or Biwi No. 1, but has also dared to put his name to a movie like Rascals.

Why, why, why, you mutter, even though the answer stares you in the face.

If some of our biggest names, who have proved they are capable of far better, can get down so low in the chase for the lolly, what can we expect from others lower down the food chain? Heart-warmingly, the answer is sometimes movies like Sahib, Biwi Aur Gangster or Khosla ka Ghosla or Iqbal or Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi.

When films like Ready and Partner, or even the Golmaal series, are busting the box-office, it takes some courage not to be tempted. Devgn and Dutt are not alone; Salman Khan has his share in the Hall of Shame; Akshay Kumar is pretty matter-of-fact about some of the brain-numbing movies he makes, and there are supremely skilled actors like Anupam Kher and Paresh Rawal who have succumbed to the lure.

There are not many truly big stars who haven't made such compromises: Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan come to mind. Of course, they've given in to the demands of the box-office often enough. And they've got some glorious turkeys in their careers too. But there's a Laxman Rekha that they haven't crossed… yet. You never know.

shashibaliga@gmail.com

(This article was published on October 13, 2011)
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