Tuesday, July 31, 2018


Release date:
July 27, 2018
Tigmanshu Dhulia

Mahie Gill, Sanjay Dutt, Jimmy Sheirgill, Chitrangda Singh, Deepak Tijori, Kabir Bedi, Deepraj Rana, Soha Ali Khan, Zakir Hussain, Nafisa Ali

Jab naam ke alaava kucch bacha na ho toh naam ko bacha bacha ke chalna chahiye (When you have nothing left but your name, you would do well to fiercely protect that name),” says a nautch girl to an arrogant aristocrat in Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster (SB&G) 3. The effect is lost in translation, but in Hindi this is the kind of zinger written and delivered without sounding self-conscious and bombastic that made Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster (2011) and its sequel, SB&G Returns (2013), such fun to watch. Five years after Jimmy Sheirgill, Mahie Gill and Irrfan Khan crackled and popped on screen in Tigmanshu Dhulia’s second film of the series, comes the third.

Sheirgill and Gill remain the saheb (master) and biwi (wife) of the title. The gangster played by Khan is gone, of course, and in his place arrives Sanjay Dutt, a once charismatic superstar with a sensitive face who has, in the past decade, allowed himself to become a listless, lumbering giant barely able to move a limb or a facial muscle.

It is evident from the opening scene that Dhulia intends to make this Dutt – the star, not the character he plays – the centrepiece of his enterprise. And so we are treated to several minutes of the man, yet unnamed, playing Russian Roulette with a parade of hapless fellow humans in a London nightclub called House of Lords. His invincibility is underlined by the Baba Theme track which goes – I exaggerate not – “Dekho dekho dekho dekho dekho dekho dekho dekho dekho dekho dekho aaya / He’s the Baba, he’s the Baba, he’s the Baba / le aaya tera baap.”

As every Bollywood buff knows, these lyrics allude to Dutt’s infantile real-life nickname, which serves to stress his public image of an overgrown, golden-hearted baby who is too innocent to know what he is doing when he messes up. There is not an atom of fierceness in the teddy-bear-like sobriquet, so using it in this film makes no sense since he plays a royal with a reputation for ruthlessness and violence here.

This is the first hint of Dhulia’s seeming disinterest in this project, which appears to have been slapped together to give everyone on the team something to do. In SB&G3, we are back with Aditya Pratap Singh (Sheirgill), member of a former princely family trying to retain some significance by having a political career in a post-Independence India that no longer recognises royalty and titles although the families themselves hold on to “His Highness”, “Yuvraaj”, “Kunwar” and other dregs of an era long gone. Aditya has been away in prison, while his first wife Madhvi (Gill) honed her own skills as a politician and his second wife Ranjana (Soha Ali Khan) honed her passion for alcohol.

Uday Pratap Singh (Dutt) is the son of another royal family of Rajasthan, whose ties with his father (Kabir Bedi) and brother (Deepak Tijori) are strained. Uday is in love with the beautiful dancer Suhani (Chitrangda Singh).

As with the earlier two films, here too someone is lusting after someone he ought not to be eyeing, several players in the story are bitter, and some are planning revenge on those they resent or hate. Given that two-thirds of the principal cast is the same, you would think that this is a safe formula, but nothing is foolproof in the absence of solid writing. 

Except for a couple of clever dialogues like the one quoted in the first paragraph, and Madhvi, the rest of the lines and characters are barely developed and lack spark. Madhvi’s actions in her first few scenes are laugh-out-loud hilarious and cheeky, which is exactly what we have come to expect of this volatile creature who is unapologetic about her sexual appetite and her anger towards Aditya.  Sheirgill is sincere as always, but suffers because Aditya’s graph lacks fizz. Still, the structuring of their first scene together on a terrace is a reminder of how effective SB&G and SB&G Returns were because Dhulia was evidently committed to both.

Here, the writer-director makes the mistake of forgetting that the volcanic nature of the first two SB&G films came from the gangster entering the Aditya-Madhvi relationship. Irrfan Khan and Randeep Hooda (who was in Part 1) are among Bollywood’s finest actors. Dutt is an able actor who gave up trying a long time ago. In the absence of an explosive third angle in this triangle, the story moves along mechanically with a handful of somewhat interesting turns but no major plot point worthy of a gasp.

Too many characters hang loosely around, including Aditya’s loyal lieutenant Kanhaiya (still played by Deepraj Rana), Kanhaiya’s impactless daughter and that lukewarm girl Aditya has lukewarm sex with out of the blue, as though someone suddenly remembered, “Yaar, there was lots of great sex (uncommonly explicit by Bollywood standards) in the first film. Yahaan bhi kucch karna chahiye, nahin?”

The editing, which was such a strong point of the first two films, is lackadaisical here. The music is run-of-the-mill unless you insist on counting the brief use of the gorgeous classic Lag ja gale. And the sound design and editing in a fight scene involving Uday in his father’s palace is slapdash enough to draw the attention of even an inexpert ear.

To be fair to the film, it does manage to summon up an eerie atmosphere of foreboding through its background score by Dharma Vish, along with DoP Amlendu Chaudhary’s low-lit frames and Dhananjoy Mondal’s production design in the corridors and gloomy rooms of Aditya and Madhvi’s palace. And Gill does still manage to make Madhvi a character deserving of a viewer’s emotional involvement. The film could have been so much more than the passably entertaining fare that it is if Dhulia and his co-writer Sanjay Chouhan had spent more time polishing up her story and fleshing out the multiple characters around her, including Uday, rather than leaning on Dutt’s stardom for support.

Sanjay Dutt is not Salman Khan whose films may often lack depth and sensitivity, but who absolutely has to be credited for being completely invested in his fandom and in maintaining himself. Sanju Baba has rested on his laurels and his natural charisma for too long to be trying his hand at this stage at those self-referential lines and inside jokes that seem to resonate so well with Salman fans (even if they are now boring to critics and non-fan audiences). Here he tries a Salman on the viewer when his character says: Zindagi ka mazaa humne bahut kam liya hai. Ab waapas lauta hoon. Zindagi bhar ka mazaa loonga (I have not lived life to the fullest so far. Now I am back. I intend to enjoy a lifetime of happiness).” Coming as they do on the heels of the indulgent biopic lovingly crafted for him by his good friend, director Rajkumar Hirani, that has been a box-office blockbuster, these lines brim with Dutt’s desire to make a comeback in the public eye. He has a right to that ambition, but why was a filmmaker capable of such lovely works as Haasil, Paan Singh Tomar and Raag Desh, unable to see that the actor lacks the fire to hold up a weak script?

The first two Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster films were gratifying action-and-vengeance-packed rides. This one is just okay.

Rating (out of five stars): *1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
2 hours 20 minutes 

This review has also been published on Firstpost:


Release date:
Kerala: July 13, 2018. Delhi: July 20, 2018.
Anjali Menon

Prithviraj Sukumaran, Nazriya Nazim Fahadh, Parvathy Thiruvothu, Maala Parvathi, Ranjith Balakrishnan, Atul Kulkarni, Devan, Roshan Mathew, Darshana Rajendran, Santhosh Keezhattoor   

“Coach Ashraf was the first person to ever pass the ball to me,” Sophie tells Joshua, on a gray day up in the mountains of southern India. She is a rebel who has been paying a price for her self-respect, and is grabbing a moment of solace here with an old friend.

Joshua is young like her, but his shoulders are slightly hunched under the crushing burden patriarchy places on men. “Actually, I was the one who passed the ball to you,” he corrects her shyly, before acknowledging that the coach had asked him to do so.

A lesser filmmaker may have framed this brief dialogue such that it cries from rooftops, “See this, viewers! See how socially conscious I am!” Producer-director-writer Anjali Menon though leaves us to make of it what we wish. Read it, if you will, as an exchange of inanities between two people hesitantly picking up the frayed threads of a precious relationship snuffed out in its infancy. Or read in it thoughts left unspoken – by a woman remembering a mentor who backed her when she took the reins of life in her hands as a child, and by a man who may still not grasp the magnitude of that moment but is glad he was in it anyway.

Koode uses words sparingly. Menon even cheekily stresses the risks involved in this creative choice during the early banter between Joshua and his sister Jenny, when he laughingly takes a swipe at her incessant chatter and she shoots back: “If even I don’t talk, this will become some kind of award-worthy art film.”

Jenny is what conformists might call “comic relief” in an otherwise intentionally languorous narrative. But to speak in terms of formulae would be a disservice to this lyrical film. Koode is a remake of Sachin Kundalkar’s Marathi venture Happy Journey in which a sister who has barely met her brother while she was alive appears to him after her death. Kundalkar is credited with the story and Menon with the screenplay and dialogues of Koode. In the Malayalam retelling, Joshua is the older sibling who was sent off to work in the Gulf at 15 since he was floundering at school and the family desperately needed cash to treat baby Jenny’s congenital, life-threatening condition.

The film opens with an adult Joshua (Prithviraj Sukumaran) returning home on receiving news of Jenny’s death. From the moment we first meet him, his entire being seems enveloped in a halo of sadness. It soon becomes clear that Joshua has long resented his family for destroying his youth. He is now resigned to a future of loneliness but Jenny (Nazriya Nazim Fahadh) comes back and will have none of that. Joshua is the only one who can see her, and she tries to help him see beyond his fatalism and bitterness. Whenever she is on screen, she lifts his spirits and Koode’s melancholic air.

Parvathy Thiruvothu plays the schoolteacher Sophie, who was kind to Joshua when they were classmates and on whom he had a teenaged crush. In a bow to Happy Journey, the coach they love is played by Atul Kulkarni who was the lead in the Marathi original.

Koode” means “with” or “in the company of”. It is a word not usually seen on its own. By picking it as the name of her film, Menon therefore seems to be reminding us that solitude is one of life’s many acceptable possibilities and that relationships are worth having not to fulfill social obligations but when they enrich us. The title is perhaps rooted in Gandhi’s favourite hymn Abide With Me, a Christian funeral anthem of sorts, a Malayalam version of which, Koode parkaan, can be heard playing after Jenny’s passing.

So much is said without being said, about fleeting acts of consideration that can alter lives, about how a patriarchy that overtly stifles women also covertly smothers many men, about the consequent silence around male child sexual abuse and the social opprobrium a divorcee in a small town faces, about how financial independence gives women the courage to opt out of suffocating relationships, and about the very human fear that we are or will be forgotten when we are not physically around our loved ones.

Menon does it all in a film that is almost dreamy in its tone, with bursts of energy and sunshine provided by Jenny and sections of the soundtrack. Raghu Dixit’s background score and the songs – by Dixit and by M. Jayachandran – move smoothly from languid to lively, depending on the mood of the narrative. Having listened to the music in a loop since watching Koode, I am not yet sure of its standalone appeal for me independent of the film, but within the landscape of Joshua, Jenny and Sophie’s story, it is a great fit.

The atmospherics of Koode would have been impossible without its spectacular camerawork. Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where it was reportedly shot, are nature’s gift to every gifted cinematographer, but DoP Littil Swayamp serves us beauty even in grubby pictures. From that breath-stopping opening shot of a group of men at an oil refinery to dreary desert sands to a wealth of greenery to the actors’ speaking faces, everything is an opportunity in his hands. He makes particularly good use of repeated aerial shots that, apart from visual magnificence, provide some perspective on the lead trio’s place in the larger scheme of things, which further serves to underline a point Jenny makes about focusing on the here and now since the past is gone and we know not what comes next.

Parvathy has the most challenging role in Koode since she has the least dialogues and the least screen time of the three leads. I felt vaguely dissatisfied with the limited space given to this interesting individual, but the actor makes it work, imbuing Sophie with both a sense of intense dejection and a fire that marks her out as a contrast to Joshua: he is mostly battling inner demons, hers are external.

The writing and Nazriya’s acting often cutesify Jenny, but it is possible to explain this away as the fallout of her being a sickly, much younger, possibly pampered child around whom her whole family’s existence revolved as long as she was around. Though this sort of hyper-bubbly girl is too familiar a sight in commercial Indian cinema, Nazriya’s charm is hard to resist. Besides, Jenny provides a necessary foil to the despondent Joshua.

The fulcrum of Koode of course is the scripting of Joshua and Prithviraj’s brilliance. He turns his eyes into bottomless pools of sorrow while playing this broken man, every line and angle of his physique embodies the pain Joshua carries inside him, and yet whenever he is with Jenny, the actor manages to lighten up and transition into an attractive young man who has not, after all, forgotten how to laugh. It is a pleasure to see this fine artiste so absorbed in a character, especially because Mollywood often taps his stardom in films undeserving of his immense talent.

Of the top-notch supporting cast, Ranjith Balakrishnan stands out for his sympathetic performance as Joshua’s auto mechanic father. I did not quite get the cameo by Sajitha Madathil as a teacher whose initial harshness towards the unwell Jenny is not consistent with her later actions. On the other hand, Devan is cast well in one of the film’s nicest satellite parts, as Jenny’s father who is, to overturn a cliché, the man behind this gutsy woman.

Anjali Menon is best known among serious cinephiles outside Kerala for her direction of the blockbuster Bangalore Days (2014). Critically acclaimed though it was, I confess I am not thoroughly sold on it. Sure I enjoyed it for the most part, but I found Dulquer Salmaan’s briefly stalkerish behaviour and the othering of Nivin Pauly’s girlfriend problematic, as was the faux youthful hipness of some elements in the film. I fell in love with her work actually with Ustad Hotel (2012), which she wrote but did not direct. The trivialisation and othering of DQ’s European girlfriend was troubling there too, but it was a barely-there reference barring which the film was a gem.

Koode’s vastly different storytelling style proves Menon’s versatility. It also tells us that she is a mistress of the unsaid. There are no banner headlines in this film so watch it carefully or you may just miss that hand sliding down a body where it ought not to be, a man in a conservative world reacting without judgment to a younger woman’s sexual curiosity and adventurousness, a girl in a position in which we tend to expect boys in music troupes, or the flash of a realisation that a woman at a steering wheel in a vehicle in which a man is also a passenger is a rare sight in an Indian production.

I might have preferred it if the concluding scenes involving Joshua and Sophie’s stories had completely abjured social conventions or been left to the imagination, but that is a marginal quibble in a film that is, in its entirety, a near spiritual experience. Anjali Menon’s Koode is a sharply observant, occasionally humorous, emotionally stirring piece of cinema.

Rating (out of five stars): ***1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
2 hours 35 minutes 

This review has also been published on Firstpost: