Writer Juhi Chaturvedi is back with yet another story of contrasting emotions. It’s a study of greed and what its consequences can be. A story of desperation for real people, falling in the low-income group, having better life in their sight. Directed by Shoojit Sircar, Gulabo Sitabo is highly complex, but fairly simple at the same time, thanks to the genius of its characters and the setting.
The backdrop is Lucknow of the past. The film starts off with a puppeteer going about his daily routine, screaming out a story on a broad street, a story about Gulabo and Sitabo. Gulabo and Sitabo are friends, or rather not. He talks about how the battle lines between are drawn, and that there will be anger, and there will be fights. The writer and director pretty much set up what is to come within the first 2-3 minutes into the film.
However, the fights here, because they are so recurring, they are petty and annoying. Landlord Mirza (Amitabh Bachchan) is always clashing with one of the tenants Baankey (Ayushmann Khurrana). Mirza is old, greedy and lacks empathy in all senses. He owns, or thinks he owns Fatima Mahal, a crippling mansion, owned by Begum (Farrukh Jafar). Mirza always wants more money. In his own house, he is rather the caretaker than the owner, and so he does frivolous things to get that extra buck.
Baankey Rastogi is always in a one up match with Mirza, and a petty one at that. Mirza can’t stand that all he has to pay for rent is 30 rupees, which he hasn’t in the past few months, and Baankey is perpetually tired and exhausted trying to make ends meet, being the eldest of three younger sisters and also the sole bread earner within the family. The fights seem innocent and negligible, because of the frequency of them, while there are also hints of care and concern when need be.
The filmmakers don’t judge their characters. There is no issue of morals here, and they showcase them the way they are, frail, desperate, greedy and indeed, HUMAN. Baankey is frustrated due to a dead-end job and lack of education which he is reminded of at all times, which pisses him off. Mirza is greedy to a point that he finds gratification when a friend comes and tells him that he shouldn’t worry, his wife will die soon.
Chaturvedi takes her time to set up the characters, the world, the milieu for what is to come after. The film starts off on a quieter note. The humour is much more subtle, the pettiness, rather vivid. By the end of the first hour, the fights reach to the extent of Mirza seeking legal help, while Baankey is trying to gain subsidy by getting the archaeological department to declare it a “heritage site”.
Juhi’s writing, brought to screen by Sircar’s direction brings about a sense of irony even within the most serious scenes. There is sass, sarcasm and irony that a question is greeted with at all times. In one of the scenes, Amitabh tries to enquire from Jaffar as to who all are old enough to die from her, she replies by saying, “Buddhe toh aap bhi hain. Jaiye… mar jaiye”.
Due to her familiarity with Lucknow, she also creates funny, though genius supporting characters, who though may not be running the show, are very important to carry on the story. For example, Christopher Clarke (Brijendra Kala), a Catholic lawyer, who thinks he is gifted because he converses in English at home. Even the women in the film, from the beautifully savage Farukh Jaffar, to Baankey’s sister Guddo and girlfriend Fauzia, are instilled with power and are not afraid to show it to the men. Baankey is uneducated, and Guddo reminds him whenever there is a need, fearlessly.
There is also an underlying political humour, with the archaeology officer Gyanesh Shukla (Vijay Raaz) saying things like, “hum sarkar hain, hume sab pata hai” and is also confronted when he doesn’t live up to promises he made. Though adding to the comic element to the film, this isn’t far from the reality that we are living where democracy is questioned every day, and the makers don’t shy away from making a point.
Gulabo Sitabo, however, may just find a specific audience rather than appealing to the wider audience and hence somehow a digital release, makes sense. But for those who have come for the magic of Juhi Chaturvedi and Shoojit Sircar coming together for the third time, this film will surely not disappoint.
Gulabo Sitabo is now streaming on Amazon Prime.