Saturday, January 28, 2023

Gulabo Sitabo: Mirza, Baankey and Fatima Mahal’s Tonga Ride Through Lucknow Life


When I say the hero of the film is a dilapidated house with one-kick-and-it’s-done walls, with tenants swarmed in one part of the house, a landlord who falters with his bent back forward when he walks through the rooms to steal bulbs so he can sell them off for meagre amounts, to a woman who is awaited to die – it wouldn’t suit Bollywood’s idea of a protagonist. This film doesn’t have its glamour, it doesn’t have its superfast speed, and hell, no one jumps to the scene in the end to save the heroine. However, such is a Shoojit Sircar – Juhi Chaturvedi piece.

After October and Piku, we already knew what Shoojit-Juhi duo is capable of – Gulabo Sitabo shows it again. The film starts with a landlord stealing bulbs from his own house because he needs pocket money – a tenant Baankey, his three sisters and a mother, all packed in a room they pay Rs 30 for and Fatima Mahal – a classic Lucknowi Haveli with its age still being guessed. The Haveli that once opened to dreamy domes and sky-touching terraces is now all a mess. The owner Fatima – Begum of Mirza suffers from memory loss, gets her hair made with colourful beads, doesn’t like Mirza much but often lets him have money from her old wooden box by her bedside.

The whole problem starts with a bathroom wall – especially when one of the tenants was inside. Baankey, frustrated with activities of Mirza for locking the hundreds of bathrooms in the Haveli and making multiple families of tenants share a single one, kicks at the bathroom wall and it falls apart. Further, that fallen bathroom wall, with a person inside with ‘colourful’ magazines, starts a series of events. Not giving off any more spoilers.

Anyway, the climax of the film is where, for a minute, Shoojit Sircar loses his touch. The larger than life Haveli becomes everyone’s heart for obvious reasons – because they stayed there. Hence, when they are finally made to leave, the tenants, the landlords feel the same pangs.

The film is outrageously a visual pleasure for the cinematography. The large domed walkways of Lucknow chowk through which the sunlight seeps in, add to the flavour. As a result, when Mirza wants his Begum to die so he can finally have the ownership of his dilapidated Haveli, you believe him. You selfishly, weirdly, shamelessly believe him. Baankey, with his standard six education, struggling in his wheat mill to support the education of his three sisters, and then having to let go of the love of his life to organic wheat and a shopping mall is heart-touching in all senses.

Coming back to address the elephant in the room. Amitabh Bachchan, first as a grumpy landlord of a Haveli and then as a tonga rider who stays in a two-bedroom flat, will win your heart with his eyes – widened by the glasses. Thus, when he goes to stand in front of the Haveli he has been thrown off from, you understand him.

Ayushmann and his accent of a different ‘s’, his innocent ways of falling for what people say and clashes with Mirza are a treat. And finally, his regulated acting, his ways of going head-on against Mirza, his running away with his bike and snowballing the arguments to involve government officials in the game are add-ons to the film. There is a prevalent underlying patriarchy that runs throughout the film – Ayushmann often disagreeing with his sisters and not finding them capable enough to speak to the officials who come to take their Haveli away from them; this is a mere reflection and also an antonym to the matriarchy that runs in Mirza’s life with Begum as the sole decision-maker of the Haveli. That’s where Juhi Chaturvedi’s forte lies in tightrope-balancing untold issues of families clubbed with expressive subtle humour.

Nonetheless, it’s Fatima Mahal that steals the show. The pigeons flutter inside, the walls creak, the grills are fallen, the plasters come off, and the people? They hold on to the house, tightly, because it’s their home, and for Mirza, it’s his only love. Therefore, when in the end of the film, Baankey asks Mirza why he married Begum, he answers the obvious – ‘Fatima Mahal’.

Baankey and Mirza’s relationship is a classic Juhi Chaturvedi writeup. The landlord-tenant who can’t stop to create problems for one another, also sit together and speak of Mirza’s health. They also come together to stand and stare at Fatima Mahal. Somewhere it reminds you of Deepika Padukone-Amitabh Bachchan of Piku.

Shoojit Sircar does what he does best – he reflects your life on screen and you go on with the flow. He has no protagonist or antagonist, just every character with their grey patches like we do. Because nothing inspires art more than life, ain’t it?

Tapatrisha Das
Tapatrisha Das
Tapatrisha Das is a copy-editor with Indian Ruminations. She had her short stints as an entertainment sub-editor with NDTV and as a rural photographer with People’s Archive of Rural India.


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