The law of diminishing returns has finally caught up with one of the most unlikely film franchises in recent memory. Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Saheb Biwi aur Gangster 3 is the latest in a study of feuding ex-royals that began fruitfully with Saheb Biwi aur Gangster and continued in a lesser vein with Saheb Biwi aur Gangster Returns.

While Saheb Biwi aur Gangster 3 has a few more characters than the previous films, it has lost much of its narrative coherence. In the first movie in 2011, Dhulia and co-writer Sanjay Chauhan delivered an inventive take on Abrar Alvi’s Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam by relocating the 1962 movie’s elegiac critique of feudal decadence to a power-hungry and perverse present. Set in the fictitious Devgarh town and teeming with scheming ex-royals who trade their morals in between hopping bedposts, Saheb Biwi aur Gangster ranks among Dhulia’s most sharply observed films.

The movie benefitted immensely by casting Jimmy Sheirgill, who played a fresh-faced student in Dhulia’s debut Haasil in 2003, as a haughty feudal lord who sorely misses the good old days of untrammelled privilege. Sheirgill perfectly depicted Aditya Pratap Singh’s overweening sense of entitlement and inherited machismo, and Dhulia’s faith in the character and the actor ensured that Sheirgill had the movie’s best lines and scenes.

Aditya was, however, checkmated at the end of Saheb Biwi aur Gangster by his long-suffering wife Madhavi (Mahie Gill). A less effective sequel, Saheb Biwi aur Gangster Returns, followed in 2013. The surprise element in the original film – the gradual revelation of the depths to which its supposedly aristocratic characters sank to regain their perceived lost status – had already calcified into a gimmick-laden round of moves and countermoves.

The ambition to milk the formula for a franchise has proven to be as unyielding as Aditya’s quest to reclaim his legacy. Saheb Biwi aur Gangster 3 picks up from where the previous movie ended. Aditya is in prison on a murder charge. Working hard to keep him there is Madhavi, who enjoys considerable influence as a Member of Parliament. Madhavi has made her peace, in a manner of speaking, with Aditya’s second wife Ranjana (Soha Ali Khan), but when her husband emerges from jail and returns to his meddling ways, Madhavi begins scheming all over again.

The gangster of the title is Sanjay Dutt, looking every inch a Mumbai mobster rather than a former royal. Dutt’s Uday is living in self-imposed exile in London, where he runs the fancifully named nightclub House of Lords. Uday is an expert practitioner of the family tradition of Russian roulette, and he plays the deadly game of chance even better than Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter (1978). Uday knows exactly where the single bullet nests in his gun, so it is a surprise that he walks right into Madhavi’s trap after he returns to Devgarh to lay claim to his share of family property.

Saheb Biwi aur Gangster 3 (2018).

The plot just about kicks in around the interval, and the 140-running time is squandered on sketchily drawn characters, including Kabir Bedi as Uday’s father and Deepak Tijori as his brother, Vijay. An outsider struggling to surface in the sea of chiffon saris and bandhgalas is Uday’s sweetheart, the dancer Suhani (Chitrangada Singh). Suhani is reduced to twirling through a handful of songs and cooing into Uday’s ear, and Chitrangada Singh contributes as little to the narrative as does the lumbering Sanjay Dutt.

The movie snaps to attention when Aditya and Madhavi are around. United in their mutual hatred but equally soldered together by their contempt for the world outside their bubble, Aditya and Madhavi are perfectly paired. This match made in hell has its share of crackling repartee, inventive schemes for revenge, and moments of wanton behaviour. The scenes from a marriage in which sex is used as a leveller and relationships are purely instrumental considerably enliven the overstretched running time. Mahie Gill works hard to humanise the unlikable Madhavi, but the best moments and lines are reserved yet again for Jimmy Sheirgill. In this game of thrones, the feudal lord never loses his crown.