Gulabo Sitabo is a story about relationships. Between people and spaces, writers and places. Juhi Chaturvedi’s new film, directed by Shoojit Sircar, is an ode to Lucknow of yore, a love letter written with yearning and despair. The whimsical film, first to circumvent theatrical release and stream on Amazon Prime as a result of the pandemic, is about many things but foremost it’s interested in exploring greed and the moral ramifications of sheltering notions of rapacity.
It enters this idea through spaces and how they define us, how we delude ourselves into claiming ownership over them and how the loss of a house, owned or sublet, gets inextricably tied to our identities.
Amitabh Bachchan plays Mirza, a bitter, rapacious old man who owns, or at least he believes he does, Fatima Mahal, a debilitating mansion that has been rented out to 5 families, one of them being Ayushmann Khurrana’s Baanke. As was the norm with leases signed decades ago, Baanke pays a pittance for rent, as do the other families. This routinely brings them in conflict with Mirza. Baanke is semi-orphaned and unlettered and runs a flour mill to support his three sisters.
The petty fights between Mirza and Baanke escalate to a point where Mirza intends to pursue legal remedies to rid his mansion from the tenants, who he refers to as ‘termites’ while Baanke is hoping to get subsidised government housing, by getting the property declared as a heritage site. The conflict? The property is in the name of Begum (Farrukh Jaffar, stellar as ever), Mirza’s wife, a nonagenarian that both men hope will soon kick the bucket.
Chaturvedi’s screenplay, brought to life by Shoojit Sircar’s deft direction, evokes a profound sense of nostalgia. Her own familiarity with Lucknow informs the narrative’s lexicon: if you’ve ever known a local from Lucknow for long, you would agree that there are hardly ever straight answers to be found.
Straightforward questions are greeted with sarcasm and irony, as if the recipient is offended by the banality of your inquiry. Chaturvedi gets this and the repartee that she conjures between characters not only infuses them with life and humour, it locates them in a very specific cultural milieu. In Gulabo Sitabo’s Lucknow, the fights are petty, but the curses have dignity, as evident when Begum politely tells Mirza, “To jaiye... mar jaiye” in all earnestness.
Yet another gem involves a conversation between Baanke and a visitor.
“Abki bahut dino baad tapke, Pandey ji?”
“Ab pakke the, to tapak gaye.”
The banter between Baanke and Mirza, Mirza and Begum, Begum and her help, the sisters and Baanke and other supporting characters (Vijay Raaz, Brijendra Kal, Srishti Shrivastava) are rooted in the petty scandals of everyday life, inconsequential to those who do not belong in that reality but a matter of life-and-death for those that do.
Along with Baanke, Mirza and Begum, Lucknow, too, is a character in the movie, brimming with quiet dignity and forgotten glory. It’s as if the city is disappointed but not surprised in its inhabitants. Having witnessed many sieges and wars, it is yet again at the center of a rebellion, but this time, the walls are unadorned and listless, its facade bearing quiet resignation at the pettiness and self-centeredness of both, the young and the old.
Between Baanke and Mirza, the latter is certainly more miserly. From unscrewing functional light bulbs to stealing from his wife’s repository to pilfering flour from Baanke’s mill, Bachchan is effective as the insufferable old man who lacks both, dignity and empathy, and doesn’t quite care about it. However, going easy on the prosthetics would’ve been a good idea.
Behind those oversized glasses, large nose and a flowing beard, he resembles a cartoon but there’s depth in his depravity, as we later learn. Khurrana, reliable as ever, plays a minor variation of the exasperated-young-hinterland-man, tired and bitter at life’s sundry disappointments. Both characters are vain and selfish to the point of being ugly and thankfully, there isn’t a redemptive arc to save either of them.
Gulabo Sitabo, as the title suggests, might largely revolve around the two main characters but it’s the women who’re the film’s actual brains. Whether it is Begum who makes her disdain for Mirza clear, or Guddo, Baanke’s sister who spares no opportunity to call out his lack of tact or Fauzia, who Baanke goes out with, the women in the film are determined and assertive, pointing out male inadequacies without a shred of trepidation or self-pity.
Avik Mukhopadhyay illuminates Lucknow in dark, understated hues, giving the city an otherworldly quality in the night while the indoors of the mansion feel appropriately claustrophobic: dimly lit and mysterious, as if a coup is underway (which it often is). In the day, the city has a washed off quality, exuding the kind of freshness a place does after absorbing torrents of rain. A lot of the film’s visual language also comes alive thanks, in no small part, to the meticulously detailed work of the film’s production designer Mansi Dhruv Mehta and art director Pradip Jadhav.
And yet, despite the promising premise, Gulabo Sitabo begins to lose narrative momentum somewhere through the halfway mark. Fights turn repetitive and scenes that initially appeared quirky and funny begin to feel and look more of the same. There isn’t too much clarity on what it is that both the warring parties seek as the goalposts keep shifting.
A few scenes feel disingenuous and reverse engineered to service the location as opposed to the plot. Like the scene that gives you a quick tour of old Lucknow over a bike ride where we hear (and see some) of Musa Bagh, Dilkusha Kothi, Farhat Bakhsh Palace, Imam Bara and Chota Bara, Asif ud-Daula residence and so on.
Which makes you wonder, what’s the film’s big idea? That desires stemming out of greed seldom end well.
In the last 20 minutes, the film quickly gains momentum and though, at first, the end feels a bit of a deus ex machina, a closer reading of the film (I saw it twice) tells you that the hints were generously strewn all over the narrative. It’s a satisfying end that makes you reevaluate the differences between love and marriage, companionship and codependency, self-awareness and self-reflection.
Because, ultimately, Gulabo Sitabo is also a love story. Between people and spaces, writers and places. And at times, you have to divorce the space to reach a place of realisation and love.