A hitman, a hooker, and a hustler all with hearts of gold: these are the three main characters in Pratim D. Gupta's latest thriller, Saheb Bibi Golaam (The Drifters).
Except, these three aren't exactly virtuous, they have their pecadillos and peculiar habits, and each of them plays an integral part in a crime against an innocent that none can ever undo. This new thriller from the Bengali journalist and filmmaker is populated with fine performances and more than enough twists to keep the viewer guessing right up until the last minute.
Anjan Dutt starts the film off as the surly hitman Jimmy Luke. Jimmy is a former cop who has lost his wife and his faith in good things and has instead turned his skills toward performing hits for various and sundry dirty dealers. When he's contacted by a local politician to clean up a mess made by his out of control bratty son, Jimmy finally hits his moral boundary and makes a decision that will reverberate beyond his control.
Anchoring the middle section of the film is the unhappy housewife Jaya, played by Swastika Mukherjee (Detective Byomkesh Bakshy). She leads a dreadfully unfulfilling life with her apathetic husband and his domineering mother, the only bright spot is her daughter, for whom she endures it all. When she's tipped off about a seedy opportunity to make some money she might use to escape, she takes a chance, and this leads into complications that she never could have prepared for.
The last third of the film is the story of Javed (Ritwik Chakraborty), a cab driver who dotes on an upper class girl who doesn't even know he's alive. His insistence on being prepared for her inevitable drunken taxi needs leads to more. However, one night she makes a seemingly innocuous decision that changes everything.
As I type this, I'm painfully aware that it feels as though I'm giving away a lot; however, Gupta's script is so full of wonderful character development and unforgettable twists, that I've only just scratched the surface. This film marks Gupta's second feature film after 2012's Paanch Adhyay. He shows a lot of growth here, and his maturation process has sped up over the last few years as evidenced by his wonderful segment in Sudhish Kamath's 11-part omnibus romance X - Past is Present.
Saheb Bibi Golaam isn't particularly violent or fast paced, in fact, it took me a good 25 minutes or so to settle into the film's rhythm, but once it gets going it doesn't let up. The lead performances from Dutt, Mukherjee, and Chakraborty are quite good, and that's crucial because they all essentially lead their own short films within the greater connective tissue of the film. Gupta plays with non-linear structure in very easily understandable way, if anything, the formal nature of the film is its greatest weakness in spite of the somewhat experimental script.
It is worth noting that Saheb Bibi Golaam has been initially denied certification in Bengal due to "some savage sexual scenes and tremendous amount of erotica." While there is certainly a sequence or two that is perhaps a bit more sensual than the usual Indian film, I think most non-Indians would consider it a stretch to call it "erotica."
There is very little sexual language and no nudity in the film, however, there is a sequence in which a woman is shown to be enjoying her own sexuality outside of the context of marriage, and perhaps that is where the censor board's trouble comes up. The film ends up showing that woman can enjoy and own their sexualities in much the same way that we see in other modern feminist films like Leena Yadav's Parched and Pan Nalin's Angry Indian Goddesses.
Indian thrillers are a dime a dozen these days, every major and regional industry cranks them out with disturbing regularity, however not many are quite as smart as Saheb Bibi Golaam. Gupta's script and the performances of the lead actors make for a potent combination that - while not perfect and certainly leaving room for improvement in the execution - are most definitely welcome and give me the desire to see more work from everyone involved. This one is definitely worth checking out.