In one of many beautifully crafted scenes in Gulabo Sitabo, as Mirza (Amitabh Bachchan) shuffles out of a house — where the family’s literally spat on his face — with his lawyer Christopher Clark (Brijendra Kala) the latter wonders, why did they treat him with such disdain? What had transpired in the past? Mirza turns to him, genuinely puzzled, “Did they? I thought they treated me fine.”
And if he’s numb to all the poison spewed his way, it’s because the septuagenarian Mirza has single-minded focus. To get ahold of the crumbling mansion in old Lucknow where he lives with his much older wife, Fatima Begum (Farrukh Jafar). Said decrepit structure is named Fatima Mahal, so that clears any doubts with regards to its ownership. The Mahal also houses a host of tenants on the ground floor in rooms that run around its central courtyard, who pay a pittance in the name of rent. This rankles Mirza no end, who’s been put in charge of maintaining the property by his wife. And he religiously goes about badgering the tenants for rent and a hike in the amount. Amongst those at the receiving end of his ire are Baankey Rastogi (Ayushmann Khurrana), his sisters, and his mother. The family’s lived there for a generation or two and the only thing that’s changed in the rent they hand over is the currency version, not the amount.
Director Shoojit Sircar (Piku, October, Madras Café) and writer Juhi Chaturvedi take this premise (of a story and real estate) and turn it into a deliciously decadent and leisurely look at human greed, foibles, and that sense of superior control that we so often tend to think we have over situations. Things aren’t different for Mirza and Baankey who squabble endlessly, the former only pausing to pray that his completely-out-of-love wife departs from her abode to a higher one, so he can stake a claim on the house. But the two gents aren’t the only ones within and without the crumbling structure who think they’re controlling the narrative. Casting director Jogi Mallang (cameoing as a politico) gets out a character-actors’ list that’s supremely effective. As Mirza’s lawyer Christopher Clarke — a reference to the Anglo-Indian community in Lucknow — Brijendra Kala is smackingly good, his expressions a riot of manipulation and know-all. Baankey’s got his own ammo in the form of Gyanesh Shukla, an archaeologist who’s with the government, and sees in the mansion a historical spin to make gold. Shukla’s played by the superb Vijay Raaz with a slick oiliness that threatens to slip up anyone who crosses his path.
Adding to the battle of wits is Baankey’s sister Guddo (a fabulous Srishti Shrivastava) who’s got a mind of her own and knows how to apply it for pleasure and business. There’s another no-pushover woman in the story, and that’s Baankey’s girlfriend, Fauzia, played with deadpan surety by Poornima Sharma. Fauzia has her ambitions and her needs neatly packed in separate silos, and as she says, if you keep pretending you’ve arrived , you eventually will.
Director Sircar keeps the movie ambling along, pausing to observe and banter with his characters; the pace is a quiet reflection of towns where folks have all the time in the world to diss each other, gossip, and ruminate about their fates. And cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhyay captures their lives within nostalgic, sepia-tinted frames, save for one bright, sunny scene where Mirza thinks he’s gotten good news and he hurries to the nearby bazaar. As Fatima Begum, Farrukh Jafar — getting top billing in the open credits, and deservedly so — is lovely. Her act of disdain and defiance is as regal as she is, even as the actor— and her character — bask in the sunshine of their own space. It’s not that Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana get all the scenes for themselves, but where they do, they score effortlessly. The former is in glorious form, hunched over, stuck with a (Groucho) Marx-like nose, mumbling, shuffling, and dripping with acquisitiveness. And Khurrana, playing to his small-town act, is the perfect foil, adding a barely discernible lisp to his act of hiss and recoil. Their play-offs are sheer fun and finesse.
The movie derives its title from Uttar Pradesh’s traditional puppetry story form, the two hand puppets delivering life’s lessons and downs in song-form. It’s also perhaps director Sircar and writer Chaturvedi’s nod to Gulzar’s immutable line from the breezy, hanky-soaking classic Anand: “Hum sab to rangmanch ki kathputliyan hai jinki dor upar waale ki ungliyon mein bandhi hai” (“We’re all puppets of a theater whose strings are controlled by someone above us all.”) As Mirza and Baankey discover, those lines never rang truer. It’s only a matter of figuring out just how far above them that puppeteer is.Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.
Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.
Gulabo Sitabo is streaming on Amazon Prime and is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years).
Director Shoojit Sircar Time 2h 4min
Writer Juhi Chaturvedi
Stars Amitabh Bachchan, Ayushmann Khurrana, Farrukh Jafar, Vijay Raaz, Brijendra Kala, Srishti Shirvastava, Poornima Sharma
Genres Comedy, Drama