Gulabo Sitabo Review: A Bittersweet Film Elevated by Amitabh Bachchan, Ayushmann Khurrana’s Chemistry

Bollywood

Gulabo Sitabo Review: A Bittersweet Film Elevated by Amitabh Bachchan, Ayushmann Khurrana’s Chemistry

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Over their last two outings (Piku, October), Shoojit Sircar and his regular collaborator Juhi Chaturvedi have perfected the kind of storytelling that excels at locating the real action in the screenplay. Their films take longer to write than to shoot. Gulabo Sitabo, the duo’s latest collaboration now streaming on Amazon Prime, is cut from the same cloth: It took Chaturvedi a year and a half to write the film’s script and Sircar just 32 days to wrap up shooting. That is to say, the grandness of the ideas in the narrative – themes of mortality, co-dependence, possession, and caregiving – are translated onscreen with a simplicity that lends the film an impressive no-frills quality. It’s perhaps why their films can easily be summarised in a line. For instance, Piku is about a father-daughter road trip, October is a story about a young comatose girl in the same way Gulabo Sitabo is a film about an ageing landlord locked in a game of one-upmanship with his younger tenant. But the achievement of Sircar-Chaturvedi outings are that their summaries are merely a cleverly orchestrated ruse, meant to give the viewer a sense of the bigger picture.

Gulabo Sitabo, the year’s first Hindi film to skip a theatre release and directly premiere online as a result of the pandemic, is a movie that invariably sounds better on paper than on screen. Set in Old Lucknow and shot on location, the film unfolds in a dilapidated, sprawling mansion called Fatima Mahal and revolves around Mirza (a gamely Amitabh Bachchan), a 78-year-old crooked, miserly landlord and Baankey Rastogi (Ayushmann Khurrana), his scheming tenant. Baankey and his family – a widowed mother and three young sisters – are one of the five tenants who share the same roof as Mirza and Begum (a scene-stealing Farrukh Jaffar).

The grouchy Mirza, always pulling petty pranks and hurling abuses, wants nothing more than to rid his mansion of the “termites,” who in accordance with leases signed decades ago pay pittance as rent and on some months circumvent paying anything at all. Except his tenants, living a similar economically impoverished existence as him, have no desire to leave, forcing Mirza to seek the help of Christopher Clarke (Brijendra Kala), an eccentric lawyer specialising in both nabbing houses and vacating them. Thrown into the mix is the Indian bureaucracy, represented by Gyanesh Shukla (Vijay Raaz), an archaeologist who is of the opinion that the mansion is a potential heritage site and should be handed over to the government.

The grandness of the ideas in the narrative are translated onscreen with a simplicity that lends the film an impressive no-frills quality.

Initially – in the first half hour or so – the film lives upto the expectations of being an easy comedy of errors built on the frequent clashes between Mirza and Baankey and the ripple effect of destruction that it creates. The title of the film is borrowed from a traditional Uttar Pradesh puppet art that features Gulabo and Sitabo, two rival wives at odds with each other. Sircar deploys it as an obvious metaphor for the antics of Mirza and Baankey and Avik Mukhopadhyay’s camera diligently sets up the stage for battle by capturing the neglect inside the mansion as matter-of-fact. There is easy chemistry between the two lead actors, the dialogue packs a punch, and the comic set-pieces are incessantly charming.

Halfway through, when the film starts peeling its layers, it becomes all the more captivating. Mirza is inarguably a fascinating personality, someone who betrays no emotions or concern for the people around him. For him, every human interaction is essentially a transaction. From the beginning, it’s evident that his greed, whether it is stealing things around the house to make quick money or admitting to not having kids so that he could be the sole owner of the mansion, is the only thing that defines him. Bachchan, his face caked under prosthetics, loses himself in Mirza, playing him with a naivete and a laboured gait that makes him appear physically harmless, giving his crookedness a pleasant edge. But what makes him more than just a narrative device – someone the viewer can laugh at – is his underlying sadness that the film hints at on more than one occasion. It infuses his selfishness with a dose of tragedy that is elevated by the actor’s phenomenal turn in the film’s climax. Opposite him, Baankey, the bitter breadwinner of a family habituated to a hand-to-mouth existence, doesn’t hold much bite.

Even then, Chaturvedi’s screenplay finds quiet ways to land its heavier themes, centred around excavating the origins of greed and observing its aftermath. On his part, Sircar, a master in melancholia, deftly builds a pervading mood of desperation to a point of suffocation, powerful enough to turn men into puppets. In a way, most of Chaturvedi and Sircar’s films interrogate stories of arrested development, whether it is emotional or sexual. In Gulabo Sitabo, their eyes are peeled at the consequences of financial regression for a section of society that has to adopt deception as its mother-tongue to survive.

Gulabo Sitabo, the year’s first Hindi film to skip a theatre release and directly premiere online.

Throughout, the film touches upon contrasting ideas of ownership, charting out the redundancy of loving something to possess it, rather than valuing it with a lightness of touch that saves it from becoming a morality competition. Mirza for instance, goes out of his way to chase a semblance of power instead of embracing the pleasure of co-existence. In his own way, Baankey acts out in a similar fashion, not leaving any opportunity to have an upper-hand on his landlord. But what they seem to forget in racing each other and what the film keeps revealing to the viewer through small details, is that both of them are destined to eventually share the same fate.

Although Gulabo Sitabo can at times feel weakly paced, its clarity in digging through the most primal human tendencies outweigh the minor quibbles. There is much to admire, especially the film’s take on the female ingenuity borne out of trying circumstances: This is a film where the women, whether it is Begum, Baankey’s lover, or his sister (Srishti Srivastava is in fine form) find a way to take charge of their fate head-on instead of trying to deceive it. Throughout Sircar offers ample evidence to imply that Baankey could so easily turn out to be a Mirza in the future, a man so wronged by his circumstances that he becomes prone to wronging others. And this is what makes Gulabo Sitabo all the more bittersweet.

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