Synopsis – Two scheming men get caught up in a game of one upmanship, each one attracting other members to their clan and each one with an agenda of his own.
My Take – Marked as the first mainstream Hindi film to release on a streaming platform (in this case Amazon Prime) amidst India’s nationwide lock down, this Shoojit Sircar helmed feature does come with a lot of expectations.
After all the filmmaker, whose bouquet of critically acclaimed and commercially successful films include Yahaan, Vicky Donor, Madras Cafe, Piku, October and Pink (which he wrote and produced), is known for his strive for excellent storytelling and for playing a pivotal role in redefining mainstream cinema in the last decade or so, by bringing in realism and offbeat topics into the mix. And this one is no different.
Inspired by Allahabad’s famous traditional Puppet show of the same name, here, director Sircar re-teams with powerhouse performers Amitabh Bachchan (Piku and Pink) and Ayushmann Khurrana (following his debut Vicky Donor) to bring us a dramatic satire explaining the impairing effects of greed has on a man.
Honestly, the film isn’t a big screen watch in the typical sense, as it suffers from severe pacing issues and seems to drag on longer than needed, however with the main focus centered on an argumentative relationship and the wit filled banter equipped with it, you can’t help but keep smiling for its entire 124 minutes run time.
Though I would count this one as a pleasant yet his weakest directorial effort till date, it does serve well as a welcome distraction in these times and is definitely worth a watch simply for its refreshingly written characters, colorful dialogues and stellar performances, especially from the legendary Amitabh Bachchan.
Set in Lucknow, the story follows Chunnan “Mirza” Nawab (Amitabh Bachchan), a 79 year old stingy old man who is well regarded as a greedy miser in the community. And despite his age, he remains dedicated and obsessed with owning Fatima Mahal, a dilapidated and crumbling 100-year-old mansion under the name of his 94-year-old wife, Fatima Begum (Farrukh Jaffar).
Though Begum is not quite in senses mentally, owing to her age, she remains around, being a constant headache for Mirza, who doesn’t know if he’ll inherit it after she passes. And is getting by pawning off fixtures and belongings from the mansion.
But his biggest trouble remains the mansion’s tenants, especially Baankey Rastogi (Ayushmann Khurrana), a young man who has lived there all his life and is struggling to make enough to feed and educate his family comprising his mother and three younger sisters. With each tenant paying less than Rs.100 as rent to the miserly Mirza, who is determined to change his situation, but can’t, as ancient property laws state that Baankey and the other tenants cannot be evicted, or be made to pay more than a meager rent.
However, their daily one man ship to outwit each other gains urgency when Gyanesh Shukla (Vijay Raaz), an official from the archaeology department, gets wind of the mansion and begins the process of declaring it historical government property.
The film is not zippy like director Sircar‘s earlier films, nor is it over-emphatic with any point it makes. It starts out as a funny story about a landlord and tenant and quickly dives into greed and you begin to pity the old man who loves the mansion more than he does his wife. It is a slow burn, more on the lines of October (2018) despite its sense of humor and mischievous characters. It also isn’t like Dibakar Banerjee‘s excellent Khosla Ka Ghosla (2006) as there isn’t a virtuous side to root for. The poor tenants who appear as simpletons, are just as grasping and mendacious, each working their own schemes to keep their squatter rights and get ahead in life. And when seen with a pair satirical lens you realize how real and bitter the film is exposing human nature describing the irony of human relationships taking advantage from each other’s situation.
The film is a slow burn takes its complete time to introduce and to make every character familiar which was completely justified as this film heavily relies on its supporting casts rather only to its leads. Without a doubt, the best part of the film is the wisecracks between Baankay and Mirza. When Mirza knows that his manor is worth more than what the tenants are paying, he doesn’t lose any time in coming up with a plan to vacate them. Neither does Baankay to stay absolutely resolute in not vacating the premises. Is it greed? Not really, but you can say both have an overwhelming attachment to the mansion.
But clearly neither of them genuinely love the mansion or understands its value and neither feels an iota of love for its original inhabitant among them, its rightful owner, Begum. It is just 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.
However, the real star of the story, is Fatima Mahal itself. Tucked away in one of the many old, forgotten pockets of Lucknow, Fatima Mahal is one of the many palaces, laden with history, that pepper the town. Here, cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhyay takes his time and lovingly shows off every nook and cranny of the ruin, in all its dilapidated glory. Its presence is felt even when it’s not on screen, thanks to Juhi Chaturvedi’s writing. It looms over the story, in the dialogues and in the eyes of the characters.
On the flip side, the film travels at the pace it wants, perhaps it needs to travel at that pace to accomplish what it set out to do, nevertheless, it might not work for a certain section of the audience especially ones looking for slapstick. As the humor here is mostly subtle and draws on old-world charm and while it’s pleasing, doesn’t extract too many guffaws.
Coming to the performances, it should not come as a surprise that it is Amitabh Bachchan‘s show all the way. The powerhouse of talent is simply a treat to watch, as he once again hits the bull’s eye with his sparkling performance. The heavy prosthetic, used as an element of caricature, push the actor out of him, who deftly uses his face and dramatically changed gait to bring nuance.
Unsurprisingly, Ayushmann Khurrana does a fine job and exudes confidence with his dialogues and expressions, all the while matching the senior actor with a toned-down rendition of the common man, a character that’s come to define his career now. In supporting roles, Vijay Raaz and Brijendra Kala manage to be a hoot as always while Srishti Shrivastava gives a taste of the firebrand actor she is.
Farrukh Jafar, best-known for her role as Amma from Peepli Live, manages to be adorable as well as a bad ass. In other roles, Nalneesh Neel, Tina Bhatia, Tina Bhatia and Poornima Sharma manage to leave a mark. On the whole, ‘Gulabo Sitabo’ is decent entertainer that works due to its enduring performances and old-world squabbles.
Directed – Shoojit Sircar
Rated – NR
Run Time – 124 minutes