Amazon Prime’s Gulabo Sitabo is a one of a kind film

Every single week, I wait for Friday an how! The entire experience to wait for a day, walk into a theatre and watch a film is a beautiful one. For me, it has always been beautiful, and I’m sure regular cinema goers are cherishing those experiences more now, after the privilege of experiencing it has been snatched away from them. And, of course, I would’ve loved to watch Gulabo Sitabo on the big screen, but alas, this morning, I sat in my living room and watched this Shoojit Sircar and Juhi Chaturvedi’s film on Amazon Prime Video. Nonetheless, that doesn’t take away from the fact that Gulabo Sitabo is the kind of film that comes once in a while, and is beautiful to say the least.

As the trailer suggests, Gulabo Sitabo is about the differences between a landlord (Mirza, played by Amitabh Bachchan) and his tenants, who see a leader in Baankey (Ayushmann Khurrana). He’s not a said leader, but becomes one. These are people who own very little. Their aims aren’t to become the Prime Minister of the country, but find solace in the fact that “flat ho ya MIG, rahenge toh sab saath hi.” It’s a family story, about being with your loved ones, about growing old together. And while one sees Gulabo Sitabo as a Tom and Jerry chase between Mirza and Baankey, the film is truly about the horrors of decay – of life, culture, mansions among many other things.

Very intelligently, the film is set in modern day Lucknow, a city that is torn between a rich past and a forever growing future. The city of Nawabs is adapting to change, but hesitantly, but how long will it be able to hold on to the history that it has been a part of? The protagonist on Chaturvedi’s story is an embodiment of the city he lives in. Mirza, played by Amitabh Bachchan, loves nothing more than his mahal. Time and again, when someone calls it a house, he insists that it’s a mahal. In a scene, when others assume that he wants to sell the mahal, he makes it clear, that he doesn’t want to sell it, but just have it in his name. You see him as an obsessive, greedy landlord, and while he does have traits of the same, he’s not that, at least not consciously. Whatever he does, the things he says, are only for the love he has for this mahal, which through most of the film, is in the name of his wife, Begum.

The other protagonist is Ayushmann Khurrana’s Baankey. He is always at loggerheads with Mirza. He stays in one of the rooms at the mahal by paying only Rs 30 as rent, while the other tenants pay Rs 70. He has his mother and three sisters to take care of, or so he thinks. Because truth be told, his sisters are smart enough to take care of themselves. I’ll be honest, what I did not understand was Baankey’s contribution to the bigger narrative? Why did we need one tenant to lead the others? Why could it not have been a group initiative on their part? These are answers only Sircar and Chaturvedi can answer, but my questions, in no way mean that Ayushmann Khurrana didn’t deliver. He’s an actor we’ve learnt to love, and he keeps soaring high but we’ll talk about that later.

Because first I need to talk about two of my favourite characters in the film – Fatima Mahal and Begum. The Mahal is at centre of the narrative. Sircar and DoP Avik Mukhopadhyay capture the realness of this mahal and perfectly so. It’s a dilapidated building, it can fall over anyone’s head and as Vijay Raaz’s Gyanesh Shukla points out, if the mahal falls over something, “body tak nahi milegi,” and it’s true. the audience knows it’s true. There’s decay in every corner of Fatima Mahal. As there is in the life of Begum, who has grown up in the mahal and spent her entire life within its walls. This is who she is and what becomes of her. Played by the wonderful Farrukh Jafar, Begum is my favourite character in the film. And as Chaturvedi’s brilliance would have it, even Begum’s character is written to the T, there is no scope of a flaw in the writing.

Talking about the performances, both Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana are wonderful in their parts, Bachchan more than Khurrana, not that the latter has given a bad performance. It’s good, but just not as good as Bachchan’s. As the decaying Mirza, Bachchan gives one of his best recent performances. His hunched back, his subdued voice – these are the traits one can never associate Bachchan with, but here he is all of this, and perfect while in it. You don’t recognise him below the very well done prosthetics and what you also don’t see in Mirza, is Bachchan himself. In most of his other characters, you do see a little bit of him, but not in Mirza. There’s a wonderful abandonment of the self.

Khurrana walks arm-in-arm with Bachchan. He’s a reliable, North Indian, small town boy. He has his lisp in place, he acts the frustrated part well, he captures the nuances of Baankey, and delivers a good performance. But his Baankey is not half as challenging as Mirza or as challenging as Khurrana’s other North Indian boys (in Article 15, Bareilly Ki Barfi, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan). So you see Khurrana as a good actor, but his potential hasn’t been reached so much.

Bijendra Kala and Vijay Raaz play humorous characters. The former is a lawyer, and the latter, as he calls himself, is “archeology”. Not an archeologist, but archeology itself. In one scene, he even calls himself the government. The writing of these two characters is good, so much that never do they become caricatures. It’s not intentional humour, but rather natural humour that comes out of these characters. Kala’s Christopher Clarke insists he is a good lawyer because at home, he only talks in English. This is the kinda writing I signed up for.

One of the highlights of Gulabo Sitabo is Srishti Shrivastava. She plays Baankey’s sister, Guddo and in the few scenes and many lines that she has, proves that she is a force of an actor, and there’s no stopping her. I’ve always admired her talent, whether it’s drama, her stint with Girlyapa or the few films she’s been a part of. But her portrayal of Guddo is above them all.

Juhi Chaturvedi’s biggest talent lies in the characters she writes. Bhaskar Da in Piku, Professor Vidya in October, and now Mirza in Gulabo Sitabo. She is my favourite screen writer and to see her evolve, to see her writing grow, is one of the things I cherish the most, because honestly, you always want to walk into a film knowing that there will be one character you connected with, and Chaturvedi gives you multiple.

Gulabo Sitabo is a film not many may understand. You walk into a film by this writer-director duo, expecting another Piku or Vicky Donor, but what you get is a film like October – subtle, silent, mesmerising. Gulabo Sitabo takes its time to begin. There’s too much setting, but I’m not complaining. I loved the film, even with its bumps. It’s the kind of film that takes time to like, a lot like October, or even Anurag Basu’s Jagga Jasoos. Gulabo Sitabo also is the “new Hindi film”. And take it from me (who do I think I am though?), from here begins a new world of Hindi Cinema and Shoojit Sircar and Juhi Chaturvedi should get all credits for it.

But with the film releasing on an OTT platform (Amazon Prime Video), I wonder how many people will actually have the patience to see the magic unfold.

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