Few actors can hold their own against Amitabh Bachchan when juxtaposed in the same frame. An Amitabh Bachchan with a protruding nose, a shaggy chihuahua of a beard and a constant crabby expression is still a force to reckon with, but Lucknow manages just fine. In every frame of Amazon Prime's Gulabo Sitabo, the city peeks in with its decrepit archways and gentile mansions that demand attention even if their glory days are behind them.
Watch the trailer of Gulabo Sitabo here
This is a characteristic that the city shares with Amitabh's Mirza in Gulabo Sitabo; what they have lost in terms of age, they intend to make up for with sheer perseverance. It is one corner of the city that the film is all about – the dilapidated haveli, Fatima Mahal, with its peeling paint and crumbling walls. But age, as we have just established, is a number. The building is the true love of many, including Mirza, who brings the kind of assiduity to this romance that only time grants. On the other side is the brash Baankey (Ayushmann Khurrana) whose love is fleeting, and an offer of an LIG flat may lead him astray.
Framing the cat-and-dog bickering over the haveli is Shoojit Sircar with a wide lens, which does justice to Mirza, Baankey and their true beloved. If films could be condensed into loglines, Gulabo Sitabo would be the story of a crooked old man. Mirza of the cussed expression being the old man, of course. The landlord of the building, he is actually more of a caretaker with his wife, the Begum, who is the real owner. Not that it really matters to him; he lords over the tenants, who are an unruly bunch with Baankey as their unelected head.
Mirza's lifelong ambition is to own the building and clear it of Baankey and his family, who have not paid rent for months. Baankey, who claims that his family has been staying here for seven decades, matches him insult for insult, trick for trick.
Writer Juhi Chaturvedi ensures that the vim and vinegar of Lucknawi zabaan trickles down into the moments when Baankey and Mirza trade barbs. The constant bickering, infused with local humour, is also a nod to the film's inspiration, the traditional puppet show of Gulabo Sitabo, in which the young and peppy Gulabo fights with the old but equally full of bluster Sitabo. They are usually portrayed as sisters-in-law or rival wives of the same man.
True to tradition, Mirza and Baankey squabble like an old married couple, their threats as empty as some of the 'haveli's' forgotten corners. When Mirza asks the tenant to pay money for parking his bike on the property, Baankey threatens to get him beaten up by local college boys. Mirza exacts his own revenge and when grilled, only bristles and abuses.
The domestic spat soon spirals as people from outside the residence get involved. Vijay Raaz, an official of the archaeological department, and Brijendra Kala, as Mirza's lawyer, stir the pot. They have their own designs, and our duelling duo – who are far from perfect themselves – become pawns in a bigger game. Gulabo Sitabo – essentially a domestic drama till then – now becomes a satire on greed, both personal and institutional. Mirza's greed finds its parallel in the circus around the Archaeological Survey of India digging for gold in Unnao in 2013 after a seer saw a dream.
As a director, Sircar has stepped out of his comfort zone in Gulabo Sitabo. A raconteur of the middle classes, he has focussed his camera largely on the ordinary people and their mundane existences till now. A worthy heir to greats such as Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Chatterjee, he has always found beauty in the quotidian, the domestic.
Unlike a Piku or even October, the people who inhabit the frame in Gulabo Sitabo live on the fringes of the society; they lie for a few pennies and scrounge and save all their lives. Like the house they inhabit, their lives need a desperate lick of paint. It makes them sly, but they are no match for the wolves out there. Greed, alas, cannot be graded, as the film's whimsical climax shows us, but some will always profit more than the others.
Capturing this imperfect and unequal world in his lens is cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhyay. Sircar's frequent collaborator, his camera romances the haveli as much as Mirza, showing us truths that even the characters are not ready to see. Composer Shantanu Moitra's songs fit in with the narrative, but it is his background music that we will remember, just like October.
Some may have a complaint about the languid pace of the film, but it worked for me. It lets us move into the haveli and meet its quirky characters – some of whom don't even have dialogues but give the film its lived-in feel.
Nobody, however, brings more eccentricity to his performance than Bachchan. Behind the prosthetics, you can still see Mirza's scheming brain working; his eyes sparkle when he thinks of a particularly devious way to trouble his tenant. The gait and the stoop make you feel each of his 78 years. Two scenes where he calculates the – as yet imagined – riches coming his way, he swoons. A word that many people use for
Mirza – 'tuccha' – is hard to translate in English, but perfectly sums up the character. The closest is perhaps 'cheap'. Can a man like that have a larger-than-life love story? Perhaps, but Mirza doesn't get a happy ending, and that is just as well.