A dilapidated haveli in Lucknow justifiably is a symbol of the yore, another era and civilisation; an anachronism in today’s frenzied life. But sitting crumbling in the material world of today, teeming with real estate sharks you can only expect hordes of stakeholders eyeing it lustily.
Only Gulabo Sitabo is not as simple a tale of clash between its ageing owners and the greedy outsiders trying to usurp it. Nor is it, as the trailers would have you believe, just about the mirthful banter between its ‘daggers drawn’ lead protagonists Mirza (Amitabh Bachchan) and Banke (Ayushmann Khurrana). Their enmity, one, a 78-year-old heir apparent, and the other, a tenant, is of course natural and symbiotic too, both feeding off each other. So they spar, trespass and step on each other’s toes. If Banke refuses to pay the measly rent of Rs 30, Mirza even steals things as cheap as bulbs, happy to pawn them off for a few rupees. And it’s their individual self-centred rapaciousness that sets off a chain reaction, beyond their control, involving a host of others.
Like all of Shoojit’s films, there is less drama and more insight. Things move at a leisurely pace befitting the good old haveli in which it is set. Characters breathe; inhabit the spaces like they were born to it. It’s not just Amitabh Bachchan with his prosthetics and stoop in place who steals the show. If his walk has the frenzy of a man possessed by survival instinct, Vijay Raaz, the official from the archaeology department, is equally prickly. Spirited Brijendra Kala, the lawyer; characters are flesh and blood, not a wee bit out of tune or out of place. If Ayushmann fits into Banke, his family, especially his three sisters, is a microcosm in itself. The eldest is all spunk who drives her sexual life at her own will and the youngest is brutally candid. The part amnesiac sprightly begum ( Farrukh Jaffar ) is literally the heartbeat of the film and the haveli.
Then haveli Fatima Mahal itself is a character whose nooks and crevices tell many stories. Camera pans in and out of it; lingering yet no more than required. Yes, individually every detail is cinematic.
May be for all those looking for an out-and-out comedy, it may not be a wholesome satisfying experience. Besides, Gulabo Sitabo, the names of puppets, an intended metaphor, is not likely to be so clear to a layman. If you don’t know the back-story of these puppets, it would require a bit of research to dig into its relevance and connection. There is an obvious allegory too about who holds the reins in real life, which we would not like to share, for it could be a sure-shot spoiler. Only, written by a woman, Juhi Chaturvedi, to even imagine that women are puppets here would be a grave folly. Indeed, the climax is most unexpected and you can feel the ground slipping from underneath the feet of not just its lead players, but even yours.
For by then selfish or not, they have begun to grow on you. Greed has not killed anyone or hasn’t it… the question assumes significance. Acquisitiveness in a transient world is another underlying thread evident also in the song ‘Kya Leke Aayo Jagme.’ Close to the climax, another realisation sinks in. Something as priceless as a century-old legacy can only be matched by equally precious love of a lifetime. But the film has no trappings of a typical love story or even regular emotional heft.
Streaming on Amazon Prime, the first big ticket offering on the OTT platform is as different as Shoojit’s films often are. Delightful in parts, a satire of sorts, it’s a commentary that doesn’t shout from the pulpit but operates in layers, in bits and parts. You will enjoy it provided you don’t expect a Vicky Donor or a Piku. But then repetition is an anathema Shoojit strictly avoids. If you too don’t want to fall into the trap of watching the same thing over and over again, walk into the delectable and whimsical world of Mirza, Banke and the all-important Begum.