June 12, 2020
Farrukh Jafar, Amitabh Bachchan, Ayushmann Khurrana, Srishti Shrivastava, Ujali Raj, Ananya Dwivedi, Brijendra Kala, Vijay Raaz, Naushad (the puppeteer)
In the Gulabo-Sitabo tradition of theatre in Uttar Pradesh, my arts encyclopedia tells me, these two ladies’ names are bestowed on glove puppets: Sitabo is a man’s exhausted and overworked spouse, Gulabo is his fresh-as-dew lover.
In director Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo, written by Juhi Chaturvedi, the duo can be viewed either as a metaphor for Lucknow in which the story is set, or as an allusion to its warring leading men.
Amitabh Bachchan plays Mirza here, a cantankerous, greedy septuagenarian landlord who is constantly at odds with the tenants residing in his haveli. Ayushmann Khurrana is Baankey, the wily leader of the pack who not only refuses to pay more than a pittance as rent but also ropes his fellow tenants into plotting against Mirza. Bickering is a fixture in their daily routine.
The haveli is the inherited wealth of Mirza’s Begum (Farrukh Jafar), who also lives there. Baankey shares a room in it with his widowed mother and three younger sisters.
In the past nine years, Sircar and Chaturvedi have collaborated on a bouquet of critically acclaimed, commercially successful projects that have played a pivotal role in redefining what mainstream means in Hindi cinema in the 2010s. Their subjects have been as off the beaten track as they can get – a sperm donor who keeps his ‘profession’ a secret from the woman he loves (Vicky Donor), the stormy equation between a difficult ageing man and his equally difficult, feisty daughter (Piku), a youngster mourning a former colleague with whom he did not have any significant relationship before an accident that sent her into a coma (October). Each of these films has been completely rooted in the respective cultures and communities in which they have been set.
Gulabo Sitabo is arguably more overtly entrenched in local traditions than its predecessors in the Sircar-Chaturvedi filmography, yet is also, if you choose to read it that way, the most politically current of the lot.
On the face of it, Gulabo Sitabo is about a bunch of people fighting over a mansion. The storytelling has a fable-like quality to it, its folksy feel underlined by Shantanu Moitra’s delightfully impish-and-ruminative-by-turns background score and Bachchan’s styling – for his role as Mirza, the actor has been given the look of a wizened old man who fits as perfectly into the ancient city of Lucknow in the 21st century as he might have in a tale of an unspecified yore.
Mirza and Baankey’s battle is remarkable, because neither of them genuinely loves the haveli or understands its value and neither feels an iota of love for its original inhabitant among them, its rightful owner, Begum. Like India and Pakistan fighting over Kashmir, treating it as a coveted piece of land rather than a home to its present and former inhabitants, ultimately, neither the Gulabo nor the Sitabo of this tale has any actual affection for the individual, i.e. the haveli, they wrangle over – he/it is a practical compulsion for one and a useful object for the other, nothing more. And they fight and they fight until the person to whom it truly belongs serves them a life lesson they were not expecting.
Irrespective of the interpretation, Gulabo Sitabo is one of the quirkiest, cheekiest, quaintest films to emerge from Bollywood this past decade.
Among its many lovely impertinences is the fact that though it features two of Bollywood’s biggest male stars in its cast, it does not seem overly preoccupied with showing off their presence – they play characters in a story, like everyone else.
That Gulabo Sitabo is not an unthinking follower of convention is exemplified by the way it gives Jafar pride of place over Bachchan and Khurrana in the opening credits, not as a patronising symbolic gesture, not even solely because her stature merits it, but because she is indeed the leading lady of the proceedings.
Jafar, who is in her late 80s, is best-known to Bollywood watchers as Amma from Peepli Live. She is adorable as Gulabo Sitabo’s clever Begum, her eyes sparkling with a light and her speech brimming with an energy that defy her age.
Bachchan’s facial expressions are occasionally hard to detect behind all that prosthetic make-up, but his voice and body do more speaking than you can imagine. Mirza, a role that might have been lazily caricatured, is thankfully not. Over and above all this is the pleasure to be had from watching this legendary star merrily experimenting with such an unorthodox role just months away from his 78th birthday.
Playing what is perhaps his least showy character till date, Khurrana imbues Baankey with an air of hesitation and helplessness and effectively erases his naturally strong presence. I loved the way he summons up awkwardness, guilt and trepidation on his face and in his demeanour in that shot in which Baankey peers through a hole he kicked into a crumbling wall in the haveli complex, thus kicking off another round of quarrelling with his elderly bete noir.
This is my favourite of his performances till date.
In this constellation of talents, Srishti Shrivastava playing Baankey’s sister Guddo is my pick of the cast. She is a firebrand as an actor and, as it happens, gets to play an incredible firebrand in Gulabo Sitabo.
In a small but crucial role, Brijendra Kala is a hoot. Watch his face in the scene in which Guddo confronts him – that look of reluctant admiration for a woman who has just insulted him.
Gulabo Sitabo could not possibly have been what it is without Avik Mukhopadhayay’s sweeping cinematography, Mansi Dhruv Mehta’s production design that makes the haveli, Fatima Mahal, a character in its own right, and the eclectic music by Moitra, Anuj Garg and Abhishek Arora.
What Mukhopadhayay did for Delhi’s trees in October he does for Lucknow and Fatima Mahal in Gulabo Sitabo. The atmospherics he conjures up in the city gives us a Lucknow rarely seen before in Hindi cinema. And the way he captures the grandeur of the haveli without erasing the grime reminded me of the gorgeous Maithili film Gamak Ghar that was recently available on MUBI India and Anjali Menon’s Manjadikkuru (Malayalam) that, sadly, is not streaming anywhere right now. The lingering shots of the haveli towards the end are painterly compositions that ought to be freeze-framed for museum viewing.
There is so much more in this unusual Hindi film to discuss and dissect in the coming days. Such as the thread of caregiving running through Sircar’s films from Piku to Pink (which he produced but did not direct), October and now this one; the non-stereotypical treatment of the elderly in Chaturvedi’s scripts, from Vicky Donor’s daadi (the only genuinely modern entity in Delhi along with the Metro, according to her grandson) to the irritating dad in Piku, the scoundrel Mirza and no-babe-in-the-woods Begum in Gulabo Sitabo; or even why the manner of use of the problematic, patriarchal term “ghar jamai” made me uncomfortable.
Gulabo Sitabo’s soundtrack is as thoughtful and amusing as the film. (I would strongly recommend the jukebox which is available on YouTube.)
Quite appropriately, the beautiful Do Din Ka Yeh Mela Hai (with music by Garg, sung by Indian Ocean’s frontman Rahul Ram) runs with the closing credits, its lyrics by Dinesh Pant celebrating the blend of pooja and azaan in the innocent, naughty stories blowing in the wind.
Gulabo Sitabo is not zippy in the way Vicky Donor and Piku were, nor over-emphatic with any point it makes. It is a slow burn – like October – despite its sense of humour, mischievous characters and the tongue firmly placed in its cheek. The film’s unobtrusive politics, including its quiet feminism, are blowing in the wind – there for us to hear if we wish as the unusual, entertaining narrative silently flows by.
Rating (out of 5 stars): 3.5
Gulabo Sitabo is streaming on Amazon Prime Video India.
This review has also been published on Firstpost:
Poster courtesy: IMDB