There is magic in the way Amitabh Bachchan falls. As a wizened old coot in Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo, Bachchan’s Mirza Sheikh topples over whenever overcome by bad news. This is a Wodehouse-ean touch (think of all those reluctant fiancés who clutched tables as they reeled, till Jeeves bounded to their rescue) and Mirza, too decrepit and too short-sighted to hold on to anything at all, keeps chancing upon ill tidings and buckling down. So good is the actor that twice I caught myself fearing for both character and performer. This is more than a fall — it is a crumpling. The man collapses like a pile of cards that was once a house.
The mansion he lives in — and covets — is as shaky. A bathroom wall gives way to angst, rusted railings have been in disrepair for decades, and the once-palatial Fatima Mahal now has chandeliers removed clandestinely in the dead of the night. Yet this house is the gold at the end of Mirza’s rainbow, the dream that fuels the curmudgeon and gives him the will to quarrel: most of all with his tenant Baankey, played by Ayushmann Khurrana, a rascal with his eyes on the same prize.
The title Gulabo Sitabo comes from a perpetually warring duo of puppets from Uttar Pradesh, a local Punch and Judy show. The film, a squabble set in Lucknow, provides an intriguing parallel to the folk story featuring Gulabo, the mistress, and Sitabo, the wife, battling over their man. The prize here is the mansion itself, though a case may be made for the Begum — the Fatima of the Mahal — a domineering nonagenarian who lets young girls braid her hair brightly, and buys candyfloss for her husband Mirza. Played by Farrukh Jafar, this lady remains cool even if she doesn’t remember how to sign her name, or who she fell in love with.
As Baankey and Mirza roll up their sleeves and go at each other with insults and invasion, opportunists roll in. Lawyers and archaeologists sniff the carrion and start circling the mansion. The central narrative feels like an update on Saeed Mirza’s 1984 film Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! — where smooth-talking lawyers bleed an earnest, elderly couple dry for a lifetime — but this story features no nice guys. Baankey wants something for his years of squatting, and Mirza fretfully waits for his Begum to die.
Baankey is a lumpen oaf laughed at by his younger, better-schooled sisters — they know their brother won’t comprehend what is explained to him. This is because he doesn’t listen to reason, instead stubbornly insisting he will be the one to find a way. Everything about him, therefore, even the way he consumes knowledge or the way he convinces other tenants to follow his lead, is by way of squatting, by insinuating himself into a hollow position of importance. Khurrana plays the character unsympathetically, like a weasel, and gives Baankey a lisp, which adds a fluidity to his sharp-tongued Lucknowi barbs, making the words sound slipperier than usual. When he says “sehensheelta,” his tongue tripping over his intent, it is a thing of clumsy beauty.
Clumsy beauty characterises these performers embracing unlikable roles with aplomb. Bachchan conjures up a truly mean-spirited ogre, and Khurrana gets on the nerves and stays there. You may pick a side as you watch, but that decision won’t be easy to justify out loud. Bachchan has the advantage of being rendered physically different, nearly unrecognisable, but his mastery lies in the gracelessness he gives the character, moving in jerky fits and starts, a clockwork eccentric wound-up either too much, or not nearly enough. In one scene he sits on bundles of cash, like a stubborn hen. In another, he boasts about stinking up a blanket. This is not a Bachchan you know.
Baankey might superficially appear like any small-town Khurrana character, but there’s an unmistakable shiftiness that sets him apart from the many flawed protagonists the actor has played. This is a character patently unsure of himself yet determined to take charge, an insecure oaf struggling to grab onto what isn’t his. In this complicated role of a stupid scavenger, Khurrana finds a strange, exasperating rhythm. He’s a riot.
These men are, it must be said, making do. The triumphant moments belong to the women: to Poornima Sharma, playing Baankey’s scornful girlfriend quick to shut him down; to Shrishti Shrivastava, as Baankey’s sister Guddu, as ambitious as she is quick-witted; and to Jafar’s Begum, shooing away her husband with panache. Written by Juhi Chaturvedi, Gulabo Sitabo gives its women agency and lets them make the actual decisions, while men yell meaninglessly over each other. Guddu, in particular, is a terrific character, a level-headed girl who believes in faking it till she makes it. Even when she’s chewing out a man (Brijendra Kale, playing a lawyer called Christopher Clark) he can’t help but admire her. “She’s too good,” he smiles.
Guddu calls Clark “chashme-buddoor” — a phrase to ward off the evil-eye — because he’s fiddling with his glasses, his chashme. The film has a blast with language, appropriate for blustery, articulate Lucknow, where sharp tongues are likened to the scissors of a pickpocket, and intricate distinctions are drawn between degrees of language: “Are you asking, or telling?” asks Mirza. “I’m just saying,” replies his friend.
Cinematographer Abhik Mukhopadhyay focusses on cracks and coarseness, showing us an unwieldy, beautiful city by way of a tottering mansion. Gulabo Sitabo is all detail. We see the excellent Vijay Raaz, playing an officious chap from the archaeological department, perched on a tree to observe Fatima Mahal — much like Dev Anand in Paying Guest, spying on debating heroines — but then he has trouble getting down, since he is as arthritic as the houses he examines. He also suffers from pyorrhoea. Khurrana is out of shape. Bachchan keeps collapsing. In Lucknow, even the men are ruins.
Gulabo Sitabo may espouse the importance of loving thy neighbour — particularly a neighbour hard to love — but there’s more. Its Lucknow doesn’t draw religious boundaries, and the bickering, however incessant, has nothing to do with caste or creed. This is a film about the pointlessness of hoarded fortune, the transactional nature of marriage itself, and chickens who refuse to hatch, no matter how old they are, or how often you count them. It is also, sneakily and slyly, a story of love. Gulabo Sitabo shows us that all a romance needs — like a neglected city, or a once-princely mansion — to come back to life is to be reminded what it once used to be. Some things are worth falling for.
Rating: 4 stars
(Gulabo Sitabo is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.)