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Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Ayushmann Khurrana, Vijay Raaz, Brijendra Kala, Srishti Shrivastava, Farrukh Jafar
Director: Shoojit Sircar
An Amazon Prime Video release helmed by Shoojit Sircar under Rising Sun Films, Gulabo Sitabo is a tussle taken from an eponymous puppet show from the city of Lucknow. A narrative with two puppets, who are always at each other’s throat. It is a bickering tale between two lead characters – the owner of a haveli (mansion) and an impoverished young man as the tenant. The haveli completes the love-hate-triangle set in the City of Nawabs.
The mansion, Fatima Mahal, is under the care of Mirza Chunnan Nawab (Amitabh Bachchan), who is a scraggy gaunt old man with a pronounced hunchback. Mirza wears owl-eyed glasses along with a peculiar ugly scowl on his face. He consistently dreams of owning Fatima Mahal one day. He is like Uncle Scrooge, who keeps counting his pennies with a hope that his days are not numbered. Mirza’s intense avarice can be understood through his devious decision not to have progeny, so that he can be the sole owner of the haveli after his wife’s death.
Baankey Rastogi (Ayushmann Khurrana) is a young one who runs a decrepit flour-grinder and stays in the haveli with his three sisters and his parents. He lisps and drools in a lingo, which is not only funny but has a nice chime to it. Mirza and Baankey, who for reasons known only to them are always at loggerheads - be it about rent, repairs or relationships - you name it and they are at it. At the same time, it is not all hunky-dory between Mirza and other tenants. The contentions are the living conditions, rather lack of it, between owner of the haveli and the other mute tenants in general and ever-so-vocal Baankey in particular.
The dilapidated structure referred to as Fatima Mahal is another lead character along with the two protagonists and the ‘property’ (as the English-lover lawyer puts it - ‘Law mein haveli ko ‘praperty’ kehte hain’) is the reason for all their bickering feuds. The haveli seems a beautiful structure of yore with an ornate, though now a creaking crumbling facade and dates back to Mughal era. The haveli gives every possible impression that it has seen its better days.
A day’s decay outpacing that of summed up decade’s toll but it’s situated in the middle of city’s upscale commercial part. It’s of interest to realtors as they keep harping they are looking for only three aspects in a ‘property’ - location, location and location. For once - realtors, politicians, historians and archeologists all agree - geography is destiny.
The tug of war gets going when a part of wall of a weary washroom comes down with a shove of rage from Baankey. It does bring in all the hidden agendas to fore. The caretaker-owner’s wish to usurp it all with his wife, Fatima Begum’s demise, which he wishes with every breath he takes; the lead tenant, Baankey who harbors a dream of becoming the default heir of the childless-loveless owner couple; and then there are sidekicks to the greed-usurp shit-show in the form of an archeology department government officer – Gyanesh Shukla (Vijay Raaz), who never ceases to announce that he is ‘archaeology’ and a lawyer – Christopher Clarke (Brijendra Kala), who is self-declared expert in cases of property disputes. The movie rolls on with small instances and interactions among these cast of characters at times with dry and at times with wry humour. Gyanesh wishes to seal Fatima Mahal as a historical monument in turn to sell it to a petty out-of-power politician and Christopher desires to push off the property to a shady builder, while all the tenants just wish to hold on to what is theirs for the taking.
Amitabh Bachchan as Mirza keeps hitting the high notes in this out-of-sync orchestra and he keeps you engaged with his croaky voice, awkward gait, shabby attires, and a demeanor bursting with greed at all its seams. He delivers a magical performance and lives the part as if that’s what he has been doing all his life. He successfully treads and balances the path of being very greedy without being evil.
Bachchan is the lynch pin along with ever dependable Ayushmann Khurrana as Baankey. Ayushmann gets his dialect bang on (but surprisingly not Lucknawi) and creates a lisp, which adds the ‘hiss’ to his serpent like character. Both these characters’ physicality has been created with an eye for detail. They spar, jab and box each other in corner with verbal spats, which are a treat to watch and are the high point of the movie. It is the chemistry and the concoction that they conjure up with their screen presence, which saves this movie from drowning into depths.
Vijay Raaz as Gyanesh Shukla is his usual self and he slips in character as liquid into a container. He plays it natural and catches the pulse of the government servant in safari suit with finesse. The other characters who fill in the universe are also at the top of their game - be it the lawyer Chritopher Clarke with broken English played by Brijendra Kala, who plays it sly and underhand. Srishti Shrivastava (Guddo) as Baankey’s grown up amorous sister is also fantastic and she puts her all to not only get into the skin of her finely sketched character but also stands out well in such an august company of proven performers. Last but not the least is Farrukh Jafar (Fatima Begum), who even when she chides or insults her harried husband does so with her nuanced Lucknawi grace and etiquette. Her Urdu-laced accent is to die for! She does not get much of the screen time but is more than handful when she does and she holds on to her own.
Gulabo Sitabo is a character driven vehicle, where the plot takes a back seat. Though the script and dialogues do act as skilled navigators but the journey is passable to say the least. Shoojit Sircar (Director) and Juhi Chaturvedi (Writer) did create the milieu, characters, events and happenings very earnestly but every now and then, the vehicle careens off the track and it is only the high octane calibre of the performers which holds it on to the path it aims to ride on.
The team creates a universe of utter misery and malice in a city known for its cheery and benevolent outlook. It’s paradoxical to discover the greedy aspect of this carefree town. The last time we experienced Lucknow in all its regal splendour and glory was Satyajit Ray’s classic ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’ and Ray’s influence on Shoojit Sircar is very well chronicled and known. He recently shared that while shooting for this movie, he stayed where his idol stayed - Hotel Clarion, when he directed the aforementioned classic.
Gulabo Sitabo is certainly not the best of the Shoojit Sircar’s work till date. The movie hurtles from one episode to another in a jerky way and events do not flow as smoothly as Sircar is known for. Another interruption, which one keeps noticing is the background score (not songs), which is jarringly repetitive and boringly one-dimensional and is highly unexpected from the talented Shantanu Moitra. The movie is a typical Shoojit-Juhi formula that they have mastered - present a slice of life story with acutely examined incidents and experiences.
Overall, the movie is a sonorous sojourn saddled with bumps - a ride worth taking but can get tad jerky and juvenile at places. A tepid affair from a seasoned director; salvaged dutifully by competent team of actors. In the hindsight, it can be safely said that an online release will turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the offering. It’s more a fit for such digital platform than a big screen multiplex viewing. Give it a go for some non-ROLF banter, great performances, deft camerawork and lively locations.
Stars: 3 on 5