It could possibly be related to the gangster film that has its roots in Bollywood or seen to have echoes of film noir. But that would be giving Saheb Bibi Golam more credit than it deserves. The social roots in what is intended to be a crime thriller are far from clear. There is less clarity about the fearsome underbelly of a supposedly civilised society that Pratim D Gupta seeks to explore.
What does become clear is the exploitation of a perverse and permissive trend that finds a contract killer, a middle class housewife deprived of normal aspirations, disguised brokers in the flesh trade and, of course, a worthless son of a powerful father sucked into a fantasy that runs into wild excess.
The gangster film that Ram Gopal Verma had presented as a benchmark almost two decades ago had revealed smartness in style, an ability to rise to the level of extraordinary performances, a gripping treatment of thrills and serious reflections on social factors that produce a climate of terror. It gave the film effort a life beyond the instant thrills. Film noir had thrived on the orchestrated evils, reinforced by technical devices, flowing from the screen to the sensibilities of the audience. None of these experiences are revived in this far-fetched depiction of crime in the city. Equally inexplicable is the desperate appropriation of the title of a Bimal Mitra classic — as if the exploitative fantasy couldn’t be called by any other name.
What it does is take the phenomenon of virtual reality, vengeance and violence to another thoughtless level. At the centre of a formidable build-up to a world of crime protected from the law are the stereotypes that even filmmakers burdened with smart ideas cannot reject. The politician is the hypocritical crook — can he be anything else? His son is a loafer driving expensive cars, assaulting defenceless young women on a highway and hoping to be rescued by the cruel abuse of power.
Bored housewives with minds of their own live life by the rules they set for themselves to the voyeuristic pleasures of an audience that could otherwise be exhausted by the excess. There are also flashes of conscience in the most unlikely places — all in tune with the cliches that survive in popular cinema.
One can marvel at the way Anjan Dutt keeps reinventing himself with remarkable facility. He has acted with inner conflicts and sudden outbursts as scripts have demanded. He has created roles for himself to reinforce his musical credentials or his views on social change. He has lapsed into nostalgia and returned to locations to which he is emotionally attached. But seldom, if ever, has he been required to recreate something that is so much against the grain of his creative personality.
The contract killer is burdened with mannerisms down to reticent terror that he exudes without much success. But what puts the character beyond comprehension is the change that makes him the vehicle of justice. No questions can be asked about how the law enforcement authorities can go on a holiday while the killer goes on the rampage. He hits the wrong target and finally gets his man with the help of the woman who has sunk to the lowest level of debauchery and then discovers a means of satisfying her soul.
Anjan Dutt has been heard to regret the paucity of acting opportunities. What he has done in the limited number that has come his way (Kharij, Dutta vs Dutta, Yuganta) should help him sustain his credentials without having to reach out belatedly to bizarre ideas.
Much the same despair may have gripped Swastika Mukherjee, who has been around for some time but now seems somewhat confused about where her screen personality lies. The capacity to acquire a more daring look is not necessarily the mark of an intelligent performer. The weakness may lie in the script but there is always the scope for assessing the basic truth of a middle class reality loaded with debauchery and crime and then, in a final stroke of moral triumph, seek a way to the hearts of an audience that is flooded with the wrong signals.
But for the flurry of excesses and the oppressive music, the film may have survived on some aspects of its style. The treatment breaks new ground but cannot sustain either the logic of its characters or the flow of the narrative. This seems to be a recurring experience with scripts that are too thin to deserve all the colours showered on it.
Finally, Bengali cinema seems to have run into a glut of crime thrillers. It is one thing to keep tracking Feluda, Byomkesh and now Shabar through their exploits in different locations. It is quite demanding, on the other hand, to chase a mindless killer in an unnatural setting. Superficial thrills with an elegant look may have saved some efforts of this kind. This one has a stroke of boldness that surpasses several mainstream ventures but is sadly unsure about where it is heading.