Na jaane kya man mein aayi upar wale ne Banwayi har ek choohe ki billi ek
So go the lyrics of Gulabo Sitabo, Shoojit Sircar’s new directorial venture which released on Amazon Prime on June 12 2020. The film stars Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana (together for the first time) in a Tom and Jerry style of wrangle. Amitabh Bachchan plays Mirza Chunnan Nawab, a septuagenarian who is desperately trying to get Fatima Mahal vacated from one of his tenacious tenants, Baankey Rastogi (Khurrana). In this time and age, the tenant pays a measly Rs 30 per month as rent, refuses to allow any incremental increases, and also hasn’t paid up for the last couple of months. Worse, he is belligerent and abusive whenever approached. The pair are constantly at loggerheads.
At the centre of this tale is the crumbling hundred-year-old Fatima Mahal in Lucknow. And Avik Mukhopadhyay’s camera captures the peeling plaster, the broken railings and the dusty nooks of the decrepit mansion beautifully. At each moment you are aware of the fragility of the structure, even as people are fighting over it. This is another Lucknow, minus the glimmer and the lustre, where the land of the Nawabs has eroded and aged with time.
If you are here expecting to watch Amitabh Bachchan on the screen, he isn’t there. Instead you face a frail, bent-over old man who has a painful gait and has a bulbous Rastapopoulos style nose (Tintin fans will get that one). Mirza is dressed in dirty clothes, and in pyjamas that don’t even reach upto his ankles. He is cantankerous, crotchety and crabby. There is nothing likeable about him. He is that nasty grandpa who stops kids from playing in the courtyard, makes kids get off cycle rickshaws and walk to school, and even snatches slices of mango from their mouths. He is the crackpot who steals light bulbs and bicycle bells, and sells them off when he needs money. Despite his feeble and sorry financial condition, at no point do you feel sorry for him, as he is adamant, rude and in your face. Baankey Rastogi on the other hand runs an aata chakki in one of the gallis of Lucknow. He has a mother and three sisters to support. Bereft of high school education, he has only his brashness and insolence to see him through a life of penury.
There are other players in the game, all of whom are well-written. Farrukh Jaffer plays the aging Begum “Fatto” who owns Fatima Haveli. In one of the initial shots, she is having mehendi applied to her hair, and she cribs “theek se lagao“. And I stopped at that familiar shrill voice and accent. Where had I seen her before? And then remembered Umrao Jaan. She has a sparkle in her kohl-rimmed eyes, and even when she is slipping in and out of amnesia you cannot ignore her. She is the jaan of the film who everyone wants to see dead. Vijay Raaz says he is “archeology” and plays the slimy government official with bad breath, who climbs trees despite arthritic legs in an effort to record history. Another brilliant performance comes from Brijendra Kala who plays a lawyer called Christopher Clark. His claim to credibility is that he speaks English even at home! Shristi Shrivastava as Guddo comes across as fiesty and fiery as she breaks the standard Hindi film stereotype of the dependent sister of a poor man.
This is a story by Juhi Chaturvedi who has written brilliant stuff earlier like Vicky Donor and Piku. This time she has a story which is again different. The Lucknowi lehja and tameez is intact throughout the screenplay. Even abuses sound lyrical in Urdu. Some of them are ingenious and will leave you chuckling. But this is not her best work and the screenplay is not as taut as Piku. Somewhere it tends to meander into the gallis of Lucknow, slowing down the pace and making you fidgety. Also, sitting at home and watching it on the net gives you the liberty to pause and stroll about a bit before getting back to the film. Thankfully the film is just over two hours and doesn’t drag much.
The name of the film, Gulabo Sitabo, comes from a traditional 17th-century art form from Uttar Pradesh, where papier-mâché glove puppets are used to narrate the rustic tale of two lovers of a man who are incessantly bickering. One is Sitabo, his tired spouse, and the other is Gulabo, his seductive mistress. Mohammad Naushad, a puppeteer and exponent of the craft, starts off the film with this spicy tale.
When Baankey tells Mirza that greed is poison, in his characteristic crusty style he responds saying: “I have never heard of anyone dying of greed”. Even though you cannot empathize with either Mirza or Baankey, the film left me with an aching heart. In life, greed propels us forward. It might not always be paisa which we chase, it could be other ideas of success— power, privilege, or prestige. And in that race to reach the finish line, we define our antagonists and expend all our limited resources and energy fighting them. Often forgetting that in the midst of that needless battle, something more valuable is being ignored, and eventually lost.