Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana spar and shine in Shoojit Sircar’s Lucknow-based satirical entertainer scripted by Juhi Chaturvedi 

Shoojit Sircar’s new film Gulabo Sitabo skipped the Friday release in theatres as it premiered exclusively on Amazon Prime on June 12. Prime, a popular over-the-top (OTT) platform, has been aggressively signing screening rights of Indian films during the Covid-19 pandemic. Gulabo Sitabo is the first mainstream Bollywood film with a big-ticket starlist such as Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana to pick the OTT route for release. This could very well be the beginning of a trend and prompt more movies to go the OTT way in the coming days.

Gulabo Sitabo happens in Lucknow — the city of Nawabs. The raw life in the capital city of Uttar Pradesh and an unusual plot centred around a haveli (mansion) – Fatima Mahal — make the film a fantastic watch. The film’s title is borrowed from the name of a popular puppetry show in Uttar Pradesh featuring two puppets, ‘Gulabo and Sitabo’ — the former a man’s mistress and the latter his wife. If the proverbial puppets were always at loggerheads seeking their man’s attention, here are two men, Mirza Nawab (Bachchan) and Baankey Rastogi (Khurrana), romancing the mansion over which they are always seen squabbling. Baankey is a tenant residing at the haveli managed by Mirza, who dreams of owning Fatima Mahal. The haveli is owned by his wife Fatima Begum (Farrukh Jaffar), who is 17 years older than Mirza. The weird married life of Fatima and Mirza has an important role in the story that presents a bunch of interesting characters.

Haveli humour

Mirza’s myriad tactics to own the haveli by driving the tenants out and its fallouts, especially how officialdom plays spoilsport, form the crux of the story, which is generously flavoured with suitably satisfying local humour. Shoojit Sircar has taken a detour from the settings of his previous movies such as Madras CafePiku, or October, all of which told stories that were largely urban and had characters that were middle class or above. This time he has turned his lens on the day-to-day affairs of poor and working-class people from a rural setting who spend measly sums like Rs 30-70 as monthly rent for a room in the haveli. They are brash and as worn out as the old building they live in.

Bachchan as the greedy 78-year-old Mirza and Khurrana as Baankey are two well-written characters who try their best to survive in their abode. Mirza tries to grab it wickedly, while Baankey, who stays there with his widow-mother and sisters, is not willing to move out, claiming that they have been living there for several years. The bickering between the landlord and tenants and the ensuing legal battle where many more interesting characters enter effortlessly unfolds as a quirky drama.

The script is penned by ace screenwriter Juhi Chaturvedi, who had earlier collaborated with Sircar in OctoberPikuMadras Cafe and Vicky Donor. As the movie transitions from a drama to a satire and ‘greed’ becomes the focal point, potshots are taken at the Archaeology Survey of India’s outlandish attempt in 2013 to find gold in the ruins of a fort in Unnao following a local seer’s ‘dream’. It’s the same greed that is the driving force of the men in the movie too.

Lucknow, a character

Abhik Mukhopadhyay’s camera has beautifully captured the essence of Lucknow in every frame —  the ancient havelis, the rickshaws, the battered edges of the city, its rundown characters… The heated conversations in the local dialect —  a mix of Hindi, Urdu and Awadhi — brings more beauty and refinement to its cultural layers. The language of the movie by itself becomes a unique satisfying experience and all the more important as the soul of the movie itself develops between the bickering of its characters.

It is extremely gratifying to watch how the characters are well-crafted to demand the best performances from Bachchan and Khurrana in the first movie they have joined hands. One is a greedy septuagenarian and the other, a young man who has excuses for everything. Mirza has a prosthetic nose, huge spectacles, a thick beard, and is hunchbacked — quite an unusual character played by Big B, who had earlier successfully collaborated with Sircar in Piku. Baankey is timid and is constantly vocal about his insecurities, be it about the new rented house or his inability to convince his lover. This is Khuranna’s second association with Sircar and Chaturvedi after his debut in Vicky Donor. The young actor has been lauded for his choice of characters in his recent films and has performed on par with Bachchan, an uneasy feat.

Srishti Srivastava as Guddo, one of the three sisters of Baankey, comes across as a bold character who is vibrant and has her own independent choices. Her choices as a young woman even in romantic relationships is remarkably rendered. Vijay Raaz as Gyanesh Mishra, an official of the archaeology department and Brijendra Kaala as Christopher Clarke, an officer dealing with property issues, have made impressive performances. Chaturvedi has crafted the two characters brilliantly such that their scenes turn into a laugh riot. However, the scenes between Mirza and Fatima are lesser, compared to his encounters with other characters. The 2 hours 4-minute movie has a flashback that leaves the audience in a bit of disbelief and a climax that stores an interesting turn of events.

Shantanu Moitra’s music gel well with scenes and the songs give out a rustic rural feel. The film is produced by Ronnie Lahiri and Sheel Kumar under the banner of Kino Works and Rising Sun Films. In sum, Gulabo Sitabo is a remarkable Bollywood movie; it is hilarious, provoking and refreshing, with outstanding performances.

Arjun Ramachandran, film critic and blogger

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