Gulabo Sitabo on the surface may look like the usual banter comedy between a landlord and his tenant, a relationship often thrown in movies as a side note to generate some easy laughs. But here, it is not all laugh and fun. Because deep beneath the surface, the film reveals itself as a introspective look at the futility of all the greed, and what one really stands to gain at the end of it all. Kya Leke Aayo Jagme , Kya Leke Jaayega croons Vinod Dubey in one of the songs in the movie.
In one scene, the main character asks an expert on what is the value of the prize that they are after. “Priceless” comes the reply. As in life, the characters here too only learn the true value when the thing they are after is truly gone. As the film winds down, we find one of the character finds himself losing his past, everything that he held on to all his life, while the other helplessly watches his potential future disappear into thin air as his girlfriend moves on.
In Shoojit Sircar’s world of Gulabo Sitabo, the prize referred earlier here is that of Fatima Mahal. As glorious and majestic it the name may sound, the real condition of this age-old mansion is deplorable. And yet, everyone seems to be after a piece of this almost-in-ruins rundown ‘haveli’. The caretaker of the mansion is the grouchy Mirza (Amitabh) who is handling the things for the real owner of the property, his wife, the Begum (Farrukh Jaffar), who is seventeen years older to him. Ayushmann Khurrana plays Baankey Rastogi, one of the tenants,who has been living with his family for years, and one who is hardly able to cough up the paltry rents of Rs 30-70 that is being asked. So, Mirza is determined to get rid of Baankey and hence the two is constantly at loggerheads with each other.
However, with the archaeology department swooping in in the form of Gyanesh (Vijay Raaz) and on the other end, a property specialist lawyer Christopher Clark (Brijendra Kala) coming into the picture, the race for the claims to the dilapidated mansion literally gets out of hands.
Unfortunately, this game of one-upmanship between the parties involved takes too long to set up. And once in, we keep going in circles for long lengths making its mere 120 mins seem much longer than it actually is. The plot, like the ‘haveli’ in question, is certainly not going anywhere but writer Juhi Chaturvedi uses the space and time to give broader strokes to her characters. It isn’t until the fag end of things when things finally get a move on. But by then, one feel it maybe a little too late.
The real problem is the distance audience have with the characters. Juhi is content letting the characters be as they want to be, not confined to black and whites with no one judging anyone. There is no coloring to make the characters likeable or appealing. So, we are not connected or emotionally invested in that sense to neither Mirza’s or Baankey’s struggles. Certainly, by design. And yet, when the whole purpose of their rather purposeless tiffs disappears, one is left with a melancholic wave.
Set in the old-world charm of Lucknow, director Sircar draws out a love letter of sorts to the city, with the non-intrusive cinematography of Avik Mukopadhyay, letting us slip into the locales. And writer Juhi takes advantage by bringing in the flavor of the locality and language alive. So many people unfamiliar with the lingo may lose out some of the fun. And the official subtitles certainly do no justice here.
Besides the dialogues, the real strength is in the cast and how seamlessly they get into the skin of the characters. Amitabh spearheads that department with one of his most remarkable of characters in Mirza. Under a prosthetic nose and those thick glasses, hunched, he is hardly the tall, deep baritone voiced superstar that we are used to. He literally becomes the character and is undoubtedly the life of the movie. And surprisingly one with no bones of goodness to him.
Ayushmann puts in a good effort but he never really gets much from the script to chew on. So much so that he has to add something like a lisp to keep things interesting which keeps coming and going. Unfortunately, just did not feel the chemistry required between the lead duo. As always, Vijay Raaz and Brijendra Kala are pitch perfect in their respective roles making them a delightful addition to the proceedings.
Special mention to the women in the film and the way they are written even though not in major roles. They are not sitting around and waiting for incompetent men to make decisions for them and are more in charge of their own destinies. Farrukh Jaffar as Fatima Begum is a riot with her wit and humour while Srishti Shrivastava puts in a scene stealing act as Baankey’s sister Guddo, one that breaks the stereotypical idea of a ‘hero’s sister’ role in Bollywood.
Gulabo Sitabo works better as a social satire when it is dealing with the citizens vs the govt battle, with the haveli being a stand-in for the nation. We have tenants who are paying rents for 70 years, but still complain of the raw deal they are getting and being denied of basic rights. The ‘caretaker’ meanwhile is happy selling off assets from the property or even ripping off the tenants for a quick buck. So much so the tenants are taking about revolting against the ruthless demands and conditions put by the caretaker. And in one of the most hilarious bits, when Mirza is asked why he is hated this much, he states he is oblivious of any ill-feelings whatsoever.
Unfortunately, all of these positives that the movie holds are buried in a rather meandering screenplay. The small fleeting moments have some charm to it (and some even work better the second time around), but it never really comes together as a whole. And that is a pity.
With neither the charm of PIKU, the emotions of OCTOBER, nor the fun of VICKY DONOR, this turns out to be easily the weakest from the Sircar-Juhi partnership.
Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Ayushmann Khurrana, Vijay Raaz, Brijendra Kala, Srishti Shrivastava and Farrukh Jaffar
Directed by Shoojit Sircar
Music Shantanu Moitra, Abhishek Arora, Anuj Garg
Now streaming on AMAZON PRIME