REVIEW: Located in Lucknow, the 100-year-old mansion Fatima Mahal is in shambles and close to ruination, and home to multiple families who pay a measly rent ranging from 30-70 rupees. But there is just one ‘pest’ who neither leaves nor pays the rent on time—Baankey. Of all the people who are tired of his go-to excuse, “Main gareeb hoon,” Mirza is the angriest of all. This 78-year-old abuse-hurling, prank-pulling man harbours only one dream his whole life, that of becoming the legal owner of the mansion he dearly loves and lives in. And, from time to time, he devices scheming ways of achieving his unfulfilled desire. When all else fails to get the chakki-selling Baankey to leave after he breaks the brick wall of the common toilet, a huffing-puffing Mirza rushes off to the police station to settle the raging dispute.
In comes the officer of Archaeological Survey of India (Lucknow Circle), Mr. Gyanesh Mishra (Vijay Raaz). This conniving bully of a public servant senses that the dilapidated haveli has the potential to become a national heritage property (or maybe not) and convinces Baankey how this plan will work best for him and the other tenants. But Mirza is no fool and is quick to launch his own secret weapon, Christopher Clark (Brijendra Kala). Clark only “speaks English at home” and boasts of a repertoire dedicated to resolving property woes. The mansion is now mayhem personified and everyone’s hankering after one thing or the other. Why is this sprawling, ageing piece of property more important than those who inhabit it? Shoojit Sircar’s ‘Gulabo Sitabo’ is a social commentary, a satire on the psyche of mankind and how when greed serves as a guiding force in your life — it can take you to strange places.
Juhi Chaturvedi (also credited for the dialogues and screenplay) has penned a story that is intelligent, witty, with characters that are whimsical and funnily dark, too. For one, Mirza is driven by insurmountable greed and has absolutely no qualms about it. In fact, Mirza’s stinginess is known across the length and breadth of Lucknow. Baankey is a poor, young lad bogged down by family responsibilities (with a mother and three sisters to fend for, who are a handful) and he, too, does everything he can to put up a fight with Mirza’s annoying ways. Another curveball is the odd pairing of Mirza and Fatima Begum (Farrukh Jaffar), who are 15 years apart: a marriage that has its own quirky backstory.
Director Shoojit Sircar described his latest offering as a satire, the inspiration for the title comes from the two puppets that appear at periodic intervals – Gulabo and Sitabo – who seem to be constantly at loggerheads. The movie uses metaphors for a transparent depiction of the class distinction between haves and have-nots in our society, among other subtexts. Sample this: when Baankey’s former girlfriend Fauzia pays a visit to his shop to buy ‘organic wheat’ and assumes that he must have never even heard the term organic ‘kyunki dekh ke nahin lagta’. Or that one time when Baankey’s sisters – Guddo (Shristi Shrivastava), Neetu and Payal – take a jibe at him for being uneducated and playfully demand he reappears for 10th and 12th board exams. Greed and hunger for material possessions are invariably followed by defeat and loneliness. And Shoojit Sircar sure knows how to weave in these elements with subtlety, while still driving home the point, through his films.
Amitabh Bachchan owns the role of the grouchy, shrewd yet hilarious Mirza with absolute comfort. Gibberish tone? Unflattering nose prosthetic? No problem, the actor’s ‘Mirzaness’ is all over the movie – with his thick beard, even thicker glasses, crouched shoulders and a limp in his walk. He sinks into the character and every facet of it. And staring him in the eyeball is his very-abled nemesis Ayushmann Khurrana as Baankey. It is no secret that Ayushmann has now become the poster child of heartland India, and once again he brings something new to the table. His body language tellingly portrays sadness and bitterness borne out of poverty. Interestingly, it is not what he is saying that evokes pity, but the characters around him who bring him down and make us feel sorry for his circumstances.
Srishti Shrivastava’s Guddo, one of Baankey’s three sisters, is a man-eater (not in the literal sense), who has the instincts of a hard-core survivor and is a stark contrast to her brother’s timid personality. Srishti, who has stood out in her previous outings on web shows, impresses here too. Vijay Raaz and Brijendra Kala are comical, quick-witted and complement the leading characters’ with ease.
Three-time National Award winner Abhik Mukhopadhyay takes charge behind the camera, with almost every other frame reeking of Lucknow’s old-world charm –its decaying but beautiful mansions, tuk-tuks and cycle rickshaws running across the narrow lanes of the city. His camera says to you as it takes you through the city, ‘Muskuraiye ki aap Lucknow mein hain’.
Shantanu Moitra’s original score earns some brownie points for its quirky tunes that come with deep, meaningful and honest lyrics by Dinesh Pant, Puneet Sharma and Vinod Dubey. Our pick: Kya Leke Aayo Jagme and Budhau.
While the movie does well on many fronts and one of the highlights being the premise itself, the build-up consumes a fair share of the film, making it a tad draggy at the start. Fatima Begum, who we later learn also goes by the moniker Fatto, is hilarious as a standalone, but her character is not well chalked out. She is no less whacky than the rest of them, and even while she seems to be in her zone and oblivious to what’s happening around her, this 95-year-old knows more than you would assume. But, the narrative spends little time on scenes between Mirza and Fatima, and it would have been interesting to see more conversations and banter play out between the two of them. In Bollywood, we don’t see too many intelligently made satires but this one navigates that genre with tact and skill, with a climax that’s surprising, dark and humourous.
Shoojit Sircar’s ‘Gulabo Sitabo’ cherry-picks one of the seven deadly sins, greed, as its central theme and tells an appealing tale through two quarrelsome but headstrong characters. The message is short and simple: that it’s okay to desire a lot in life but extreme greed often doesn’t land you in the right place — whether it’s a person’s heart, house or mahal.