Excerpt: The thing with character-driven films is that they often expect the characters to fill up for the story itself. Sometimes it works, most often it does not. In Gulabo Sitabo, it works only in those parts where either Amitabh Bachchan or the Lucknawi essence holds us by the arms. Some years from now, those are the only two things that we might remember about this whimsical film. And therein lies its principal shortcoming.
Review: Director Shoojit Sarkar and story, screenplay, and dialogue writer Juhi Chaturvedi‘s Gulabo Sitabo is a story about ‘Mirza’ (Amitabh Bachchan), a 78-year-old epitome of greed, who is willing to move heaven and earth to get ownership of his obsession — an old dilapidated mansion (‘Fatima Mahal’) of his much-older wife ‘Begum’ (Farrukh Jaffar) in the heart of Lucknow.
In his path, however, stand not just his wife but also a group of tenants, especially ‘Baankey’ (Ayushmann Khuranna)’ a shrewd, sly and squatted tenant, who matches Mirza bit for a bit in their ceaseless bantering.
What follows is a wacky slice of life that escalates quickly from the shenanigans within the Fatima Mahal to the politico-administrative corridors of Lucknow city.
It is an interesting premise that also benefits from whispered handling of the milieu by the technical team comprising cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhyay, editor Chandrashekhar Prajapati and apt background score.
But that’s about that.
Because beyond that, it, at the risk of repeating oneself, is down to the characters — notably Vijay Raaz (ASI Officer), Brijendra Kala (‘Christian Lawyer’ who is better because “he speaks English at home”) and Srishti Shrivastava (Baankey’s sister ‘Guddo’) — to shoulder the journey towards nowhere in particular.
After a point, it indeed feels like you are on a journey towards nowhere in particular. Till a rather unexpected climax suddenly lifts up the storytelling to tell us that ‘greed’ is of many types — without feeling self-righteous enough to pass any judgements.
It is a good note to end on. Just as, the quirky and zippy establishment of the universe of the film was a good start to the story. Most things in between, alas, do not quite do justice to the two ends of the thread.
Ayushmann does an exemplary job with the ‘lisp’, where he manages what most actors fail to achieve simultaneously — impact with restraint.
However, beyond that, he doesn’t really exhibit much that is beyond (or above) his recent golden run of author-backed, socially-relevant roles.
In other words, while there is barely anyone, if anyone, in the industry who I believe could replace Bachchan’s impact in the role of Mirza, I could, perhaps, say that ‘a’ Rajkumar Rao or even Kartik Aryan might have done just about fine in the role of Baankey.
Director Shoojit Sarkar has said that the film is a satire. To live up to the description, he does include comments on the workings of government departments, the ‘place’ of the English language in our society and the living conditions of even those living in the ‘Fatima Mahals’ of the country.
But, though handled with understated care, there is not much new to those subjects — and those things, consequently, do nothing to the heart.
For the curious souls, the title Gulabo Sitabo is said to be derived from a form of traditional glove puppetry of Uttar Pradesh in which a man’s harried wife (Sitabo) and his pampered mistress (Gulabo) bicker endlessly. Clearly, the Amitabh-Ayushmann pair was supposed to be the bickering duo. They sure exchange words in the film. But their exchange is nowhere near the zing of the show that real-life puppeteer (Mohammed Naushad) performs at different points in the film.
Talking of Uttar Pradesh, it needs to be said that the film oozes with unabashed romanticism of Lucknow city — carrying postcards of all the ‘must visit’ places of the city, from Imambara, to Hazratganj.
Verdict: There is nothing in the film that is bad. And yet, watch it primarily for Bachchan to, yet again, illustrate the difference between “the boys and the men”. For everything else, either watch Ayushmann or Shoojit Sarcar’s some other movie or travel to Lucknow to do some real ‘Ganj-ing’.