Gulabo Sitabo is the first Hindi release since the start of lockdown that’s made me miss cinema halls. Shoojit Sircar’s film isn’t a “big screen watch" in the typical sense – it has no set-pieces or CGI or franchise potential. Its virtues are more contained. The corners of the frame are alive with action. Avik Mukhopadhyay’s cinematography has a lovely burnished quality. There’s always some fascinating ephemera lying around. There are ornate insults that would have been fun to hear with an audience.
It might make you long for human company to watch it with, but the film isn’t enamoured of humankind. In fact, Gulabo Sitabo – the latest from Sircar and screenwriter Juhi Chaturvedi, makers of Vicky Donor, Piku and October – is a stronger argument for hell being other people than the Anurag Kashyap film last week. At its centre are two unprepossessing men in a decaying haveli in Lucknow: the mansion’s nominal owner, Mirza (Amitabh Bachchan), and Baankey (Ayushmann Khurrana), a tenant who’s lived there all his life. Because of ancient property laws, Baankey and the other tenants cannot be evicted, or be made to pay more than a meagre rent.
The haveli is in the name of 94-year-old Fatima Begum (Farrukh Jaffar), Mirza’s wife. She’s not quite there – her husband has to remind her that she once eloped with someone else, not him – but she’s still around: a headache for Mirza, who married her for the mansion but doesn’t know if he’ll inherit it after she passes. His cold-blooded wait for her death and his daily fights with the belligerent Baankey gain urgency when an official from the archaeology department (Vijay Raaz) gets wind of the mansion and begins the process of declaring it historical government property.
With the prospect of their home passing into the hands of the government or, worse, another owner (Mirza has engaged a lawyer to sell the place before it’s seized), the tenants band together. Mirza – huge nose, hunched gait, outsized spectacles, guttural croak – is a Scrooge without redemption; he’s couched in comic terms, yet is one of the darker characters Bachchan has played (more shocking than him saying “I’m waiting for her to die" is his admission that he never had a child with his wife because he wanted the house). But this isn’t Khosla Ka Ghosla – there isn’t a virtuous side to root for. The tenants are just as grasping and mendacious, each working their own schemes to keep their squatter rights and get ahead in life.
There is no love lost between the people in the film, but they’re lovingly drawn: the slightly dense Baankey and his three sharp sisters; Raaz’s unflappable bureaucrat, who announces himself with “Archaeology hain (I’m archaeology)"; Brijendra Kala’s lawyer, with his insistence on speaking broken English; Fatima, enjoying head massages and trips to the city and the spectacle of her husband losing his mind. The setting is even more affectionately rendered. Chaturvedi is from Lucknow and the film is, among other things, a love letter to the city, namechecking Qaisar Bagh, Aminabad, Chowk, The Residency, the two Imambaras. Baankey draws a tenuous parallel between Mirza and the mother of Asaf-ud-Daula, Nawab of Oudh, as the tenants stand around one of the 19th century canons at La Martiniere, a school founded by a Frenchman who joined the British army (the bricks in Fatima Mahal are later deemed to be a 20% match with “French-British structures"). Instead of an overarching old-Lucknow speaking style, we hear a variety of tongues, some old-fashioned, some bracingly modern, each with a knack for caustic put-downs.
In its more eccentric moments – an invasion of foreign tourists, Mirza digging for gold – Gulabo Sitabo threatens to become a shaggy dog story. But the two ticking bombs – Fatima’s impending death and the government sealing – keep it from straying too far. Khurrana switches off the charm; his grumpy, unambitious Baankey feels like a supporting turn in front of Mirza, an authentic villain, played with gusto by Bachchan. Though it must be said that the real villain is Shantanu Moitra’s score, especially the clarinet motif that plays every time something funny happens.
For all the affection, this is a clear-eyed film. Throughout, we’re shown professions that are struggling to get by in the modern world: roadside puppeteers performing the warring-couple routine that gives the film its title, pawn shops, tongawalas. The film’s characters too, living in a hundred-year-old building, are being left behind by the world. They're clinging to an archaic law, and it’s notable that the ministry of ancient things – archaeology – is the one that comes calling. Even Baankey’s flour business is judged behind the times when a customer asks for an organic variant and moves on when she’s told there isn’t any. The film itself seems to leave its dusty world behind with the last two shots: a modern-looking bridge, and an antique chair with a hefty price tag in a posh store.
Gulabo Sitabo is on Amazon Prime.
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