Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo is set in the old parts of Lucknow, but tourists and consumers of films about the city’s famed gentility and aristocratic traditions will be hard-pressed to recognise it.

Only the faintest trace of grace survives in this movie version of Lucknow. Here, the loftily named mansion Fatema Mahal is actually a decrepit collection of shaky walls and missing railings. Residents are perennially short of money, wear clothes a few threads away from rags and communicate through barbs and taunts.

Back in the day, Fatema Mahal might have been a grand building. In the present, it’s a beehive of resentment. Crotchety landlord Mirza (Amitabh Bachchan) wants to clear out his tenants, each of whom pays him less monthly rent than the cost of two tickets to enter the Bara Imambara. The most truculent resident is Bankey (Ayushmann Khurrana), who doesn’t care that Mirza is an octogenarian seemingly on the verge of kicking the bucket.

Mirza might look like a sad old man in need of a hug, but his greed for control of Fatema Mahal drives him to behave in dubious ways. However, the property is in the name of Mirza’s wife Fatto (Farrukh Jafar) and she looks healthy enough to outlive him. Gyanesh (Vijay Raaz), an employee of the government’s archaeology department, declares that Fatema Mahal is a heritage structure and should be converted into a museum. The lawyer Christopher (Brijendra Kala) promises to help Mirza if he gets his papers in order – which might involve some skulduggery. Meanwhile, Bankey and his family, especially his sister Guddo (Srishti Srivastava), assert their rights as tenants.

Ayushmann Khurrana in Gulabo Sitabo (2020). Courtesy Rising Sun Films/Kino Works/Amazon Prime Video.

Although set in the present, Gulabo Sitabo, which is being streamed on Amazon Prime Video, aims for a timeless quality. Cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhyay dunks the film in warm tones. The dominant shade resembles the yellow paint peeling off Fatema Mahal’s walls. The house is a magnificently dressed-up location, with every corner screaming out neglect and throwing hints of more affluent times.

Juhi Chaturvedi’s screenplay is pitched as a gentle and picaresque comedy, but there are strains of despair in this saga of Mirza vs The Rest of the World. Chaturvedi’s most successful scripts for Shoojit Sircar, Vicky Donor and Piku, were doused with cheeriness and soaked in optimism. With Gulabo Sitabo, Chaturvedi tilts towards mordancy. The jokes are cruel, the character sketches pitiless. Sentimentality is as absent as modern amenities at Fatema Mahal. The humour often appears forced. The poignancy, when it eventually arrives, is business-like.

There are fleeting similarities with Piku, in which Amitabh Bachchan played a severely constipated father who learnt that in order to come close to those you love, you must learn to let go. In Gulabo Sitabo, the quest for attachment to worldly possessions takes an ironic turn when it becomes clear that the more Mirza clings on, the more he loses out.

But the 124-minute film’s message remains elusive until the very end. Gulabo Sitabo stumbles considerably in its middle portions and stretches itself too thin before finally clicking into place for a memorable denouement. The setting is evocative and magnificently explored, but the characters are too uni-dimensional to convey the movie’s ambitious philosophical themes.

With the exception of Mirza’s wife and the shady lawyer, everybody else spends their time skulking about and scowling endlessly. Ayushmann Khurrana’s Bankey, in particular, is frozen in inexplicable fury, and barely evolves into anything more than Mirza’s biggest headache.

Although Mirza is despicable, with a soul as bent as his aged back, this peevish misanthrope demands, and earns, respect for sheer perseverance. Amitabh Bachchan masterfully plays Mirza from behind layers of disguise. The familiar features are distorted by a prosthetic nose (the make-up is by Pia Cornelius). The tall frame is now hunched. The baritone is layered with sighs. Mirza crawls about Lucknow in a crab-like fashion, but Bachchan ensures that the character is all too human in his Quixotic quest.

Amitabh Bachchan in Gulabo Sitabo (2020). Courtesy Rising Sun Films/Kino Works/Amazon Prime Video.

If Bachchan is nothing like what we remember him to be, his Mirza too is far removed from another fictional Mirza. The dignified Salim Mirza in MS Sathyu’s Garm Hava, played by Balraj Sahni, struggles hard to cope with post-Partition Agra. That movie deals with the loss of prestige and property for the Muslims who chose to stay back in India after the Partition. Their sense of belonging is tied to their dwellings, which is beautifully evoked in the scene in which Salim Mirza’s mother is taken to the house she grew up in moments before her death so that she may relive her childhood.

Gulabo Sitabo’s Mirza too is buffeted by forces beyond his understanding, let alone control. However, the stakes are far lower here. The world that Mirza and Baankey is struggling to protect is hardly worth preserving. The tough-love narrative keeps its characters and larger themes at arm’s length and, in the process, doesn’t allow for Mirza’s campaign to grow into anything bigger than an old man’s folly.

Gulabo Sitabo (2020).

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