A house named Gulmohar in Delhi, where the Batras have lived for generations, is going to be redeveloped. The family assembles for one last party. The Batra matriarch casually makes an announcement that shakes the gathering.
That’s only the beginning. As the clan crams its numerous possessions into packing cartons, other family secrets tumble out. Over the span of a few days, Kusum (Sharmila Tagore), her son Arun (Manoj Bajpayee), Arun’s wife Indu (Simran) and their son Aditya (Suraj Sharma) grapple with the consequences of what has been said and what remains to be revealed.
Gulmohar director Rahul V Chittella has come to his feature debut after years of working with Mira Nair. Now a partner in Nair’s company Mirabai Films where he began as an intern, 37-year-old Chittella has been a part of Nair’s films since The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012) as well as the Monsoon Wedding Musical, based on her 2002 film of the same name.
Co-written with Arpita Mukherjee, Gulmohar will be premiered on Disney+ Hotstar on March 3. The Nair family’s home in Vasant Vihar was one of the inspirations for Gulmohar, Chittella told Scroll.
“Mira and Arpita and I have collaborated on various projects,” Chittella explained. “Arpita has written the musical, which I am producing. Mira used to live in Vasant Vihar, which is the house where we cast and produced her movies. I made a short film called Azaad a few years ago, which I edited in that house. I used to stay in that house. So I became very emotional when she decided to sell the house to a builder.”
Chittella and Mukherjee had previously decided to collaborate on an ensemble film about a family. “We were trying to figure out what the backdrop would be,” Chittella said. “As the paintings and photographs were getting packed, I messaged Arpita.” This could be the theme, Chittella felt – the packing and unpacking of secrets and repressed feelings, the things that hold as back as we head out in new directions.
The film’s opening scene was similarly inspired by an actual party held at the Nair residence before it was torn down. Viewers might find other connections between Gulmohar and Nair’s Monsoon Wedding – the affluent Delhi family at the centre of both films, the fallout of painful truths, the parallel track revolving around the house maid and her love life.
Chittella acknowledged that audiences might make comparisons between both films. “If they see us as our own and we have our own identity, that’s what I am hoping for,” he added.
The film has a few unusual casting choices that work heavily in its favour. Chittella managed to persuade Sharmila Tagore to get back on the sets for her first role since 2010’s Break Ke Baad. Tagore’s Kusum has complicated feelings towards her family members, in particular, her son Arun.
“Because of my experience as a producer, you never take no for an answer,” Chittella said about assembling his dream cast. “I was told that Sharmila Tagore has stopped working, she lives a private life in Delhi.” He got word across to Tagore through the writer Nasreen Munni Kabir.
Tagore and Chittella eventually met in 2019. The 78-year-old actor stuck by the project until it finally went into production in 2022.
As Arun, Manoj Bajpayee has the film’s fulfilling arc. The role of an upper-crust businessman who experiences a crisis of identity is a departure for Bajpayee.
Bajpayee’s performance as a Rajput prince in Shyam Benegal’s Zubeidaa (2001) – “a role he played to perfection”, Chittella observed – was among the reasons he was cast as Arun. For the role of Arun’s wife, Chittella wanted somebody who hadn’t been paired with Bajpayee before. That led him to Simran, the Hindi-speaking actor who became a star in Tamil cinema in the 1990s and 2000s.
The casting of Tagore – and the warmth of her personality – might not prepare viewers for the turns that her character takes. Chittella denied being soft on the acting legend. “Because it is Sharmila Tagore, it’s not like I felt I should write less or write more,” he said.
“We wanted this to be a human drama about three generations, it gives us the opportunity to explore different points of view,” Chittella added. “it’s about what are you giving the next generation. It doesn’t need to be materialistic, it is about the thoughts as well. The core themes are of change and time, and how we have to embrace them.”