In Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Saheb Biwi aur Gangster 3, former royals Aditya Pratap Singh (Jimmy Sheirgill) and Madhavi Devi (Mahi Gill) have to save their fiefdom from a fresh foe. He is played by Sanjay Dutt, the biggest star to have set foot in the franchise that began in 2011 and spawned a sequel in 2013.

The first film, Saheb Biwi aur Gangster, was a spiced-up homage to Abrar Alvi’s 1962 tragedy Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, which was set in a feudal household in pre-independent India. Dhulia placed his movie in present times in Uttar Pradesh, and threw politics, sex and lawlessness into the mix.

While Jimmy Sheirgill and Mahie Gill continued to play the feudal lord and the wife, the gangster was portrayed by Randeep Hooda and Irrfan in the first two productions. The supporting cast in the latest movie includes Soha Ali Khan, Chitrangda Singh, Kabir Bedi, Nafisa Ali, and Deepak Tijori. The film will be released on July 27.

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Saheb Biwi aur Gangster 3.

Dutt’s presence seems to have had quite the effect on the franchise, if the trailer is anything to go by. Unlike the more grounded character in the previous films, Dutt’s incarnation comes with punch dialogue, slow-motion entry, and even a song that is not about the character but the star – the Baba Theme.

Dhulia said that he did not mould his screenplay to suit Dutt’s image, nor did he try to redefine what Dutt stands for. “Changing Sanjay’s image would have been hara-kiri [ritual suicide],” Dhulia said. “Sanjay is appearing on the big screen after a long gap and I wanted to retain his image in the film. I cast Sanjay because he suited the part. His swagger and the style seeped into the film while shooting.”

The first two films revolve around political players in Uttar Pradesh who collude with criminals and local strongmen to remove Aditya Pratap Singh from his position of power. The new film takes off from the end of Saheb Biwi aur Gangster Returns, where Aditya Pratap Singh is arrested for the murder of that movie’s gangster, Indrajeet Pratap Singh (Irrfan).

Dhulia gave some leads into the film’s new supporting characters. “Sanjay Dutt plays a royal,” Dhulia said. “None of the gangsters in these films are actually gangsters, and here it’s the same.” Kabir Bedi and Nafisa Ali plays the parents of Dutt’s character, while Deepak Tijori plays his brother. Soha Ali Khan and Deepraj Rana reprise their roles from the previous films.

Chitrangda Singh in Saheb Biwi aur Gangster 3. Courtesy JAR Pictures/Rahul Mittra.
Chitrangda Singh in Saheb Biwi aur Gangster 3. Courtesy JAR Pictures/Rahul Mittra.

Chitrangda Singh plays the “purest character” in the film, Dhulia said. “She’s a tawaif, who is Sanjay Dutt’s love interest. Her family was patronised by Kabir Bedi’s family for ages. Chitrangda’s character takes dance and music seriously. She is formally trained and knows the guitar... a total devotee of goddess Saraswati.”

The gangster always dies in the end. Will Dutt’s character suffer the same fate? “That I cannot reveal,” Dhulia said, “But if indeed this film is a success, expect a sequel.”

The origins of the Saheb Biwi aur Gangster movies happened over multiple games of table tennis in Dhulia’s office in Mumbai seven years ago. “Paan Singh Tomar was done and ready for about one and a half years, and UTV [the producer] was taking its own sweet time to release it, so I was basically jobless,” Dhulia said. “So I played TT all day, and Jimmy Sheirgill and Randeep Hooda would come over.”

In the middle of freewheeling discussions, someone casually mentioned Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam. “And suddenly the title came to me, Saheb Biwi aur Gangster,” Dhulia said. “And then the image of the haveli, which is central to Saheb Bibi aur Ghulam.”

Dhulia decided to turn the title and the image into a film that could be made for less than Rs one crore. “I had made up my mind to make the film cheap and I could only do it if I didn’t take any fee myself, and didn’t pay anyone else, the cast or the crew,” Dhulia said. Sheirgill and Hooda were game.

Dhulia’s producer, Rahul Mittra, got hold of a royal mansion in Devgadh Baria, formerly a princely state called Baria under colonial rule, in Gujarat. “As if the film was destined,” Dhulia recalled. “The moment I laid my eyes on the haveli, I knew I had found my location. It’s not like we found it after looking at five-six places. We shot the entire film around that haveli itself.”

The mansion became the chief location in the first two productions, but could not be used in Saheb Biwi aur Gangster 3 because of “logistical issues”.

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Saheb Biwi aur Gangster Returns.

Dhulia has kept returning to the Saheb Biwi aur Gangster franchise in between other films, including the sports biopic Paan Singh Tomar (2012), the crime drama Bullett Raja (2013) and Raag Desh (2017), a chronicle of the Indian National Army.

“Firstly, I am in love with the characters and their world of decadent royalty,” Dhulia explained. “I have many friends from royal families, and I find their stories of the past most intriguing.”

The other reason is that the Saheb Biwi aur Gangster films gives Dhulia an opportunity to write dialogue in the ornate Urdu and Hindustani languages that he seldom finds in contemporary Hindi films. “It allows me to sharpen my skills as a writer,” Dhulia pointed out. “In these films, people talk with poise. Even their insults and threats are polite and graceful. That excites the writer in me.”

Following the release of Saheb Biwi aur Gangster 3, Dhulia will head back to the sets of his next film, Milan Talkies, in Lucknow. The film has been in the making since 2012. The cast includes Ali Fazal and Vikram Vedha (2017) actress Shraddha Srinath. “A lot of people would tell me to move on from Milan Talkies, but it’s such a sweet film that I couldn’t,” Dhulia said. “It has a very unique conflict which is different from the typical three-four angles love stories take like caste, Hindu-Muslim, or rich-poor.”

We rolled. And now we will Milan you at the Talkies. Heehee. #MilanTalkies

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Dhulia made his debut with the superb campus drama Haasil in 2013. His films reveal an acute understanding of and a love for intrigue in Uttar Pradesh. In addition to being rooted in plot and dialogue, these films are also about the outlaw spirit, a facet Dhulia credits to his love for Westerns, particularly, George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).

Dhulia’s cinematic sensibilities were shaped by his family and Allahabad, his city of birth. “Allahabad was very active politically and artistically at that time,” the 51-year-old director said. “It had an active theatre and music scene. The city was producing doyens of Hindi literature. At least six-seven prime ministers came from there.”

From a young age, Dhulia accompanied his cinema-loving parents to the local theatre. “I watched films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Godfather, All the President’s Men in the theatre with my father,” Dhulia remembered. “After the movie ended, my father would explain to me the history and the social context of the films. Who are cowboys? What is Watergate? What is the mafia, and so on. So films became a source of entertainment as well as education.”

The love for cinema was so strong in his family that when Dhulia was in his mid-teens, he watched arthouse films by Jean-Luc Godard, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Francois Truffaut. “My elder brothers loved films and they would take me to their screenings,” Dhulia said. “I didn’t understand a single thing, but the images from these films were forever embedded in my memories.”

Decades later, the National School of Drama graduate attempted an ode to the camaraderie between Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid through the characters of Saif Ali Khan and Jimmy Sheirgill in Bullett Raja. “If Saheb Biwi aur Gangster is elegant, Bullett Raja was pure pulp,” Dhulia said.

Bullett Raja was Dhulia’s most expensive film to date, but it crashed at the box office. “Before the film’s release, literally everyone who watched it, like my cast and crew, found it to be a good film,” Dhulia recalled. “But after the release, I showed the film to Salim [Khan] saab. He said two things. One, Saif was miscast. I said, probably. The other was that there were no major villains for Saif to fight with. Well, I saved the fight with Raj Babbar, who betrays Saif, for the sequel, but that is never going to be made now.”

Tigmanshu Dhulia. Courtesy Fox Star Studios.
Tigmanshu Dhulia. Courtesy Fox Star Studios.