Gulabo Sitabo, is the first movie of the post-Covid era, hereby designated year 1 P.C. of the newly coined calendar, (I can't even get myself to say the damned Gregorian number 2020 any more) to be released directly on a streaming platform, Amazon Prime, completely bypassing a theatrical release. Much has been written and discussed about that decision by the makers of this movie, pitting them against theater owners and exhibitors, as well as film makers who have chosen to defer their ready movies till such time as they can show them in a theater. Yes, it is a new paradigm for now to release directly on OTT platforms, but I don't think the communal cinematic experience of watching in a darkened theater, on the big screen, with a bunch of people laughing and crying together, will ever go away. Or at least I don't want that era to end.
That same level of nostalgia for a bygone era of Lucknowi purani havelis and tehzeeb suffuses Gulabo Sitabo, Shoojit Sircar's latest directorial collaboration with writer Juhi Chaturvedi. The pair have given us the groundbreaking Vicky Donor (2012), which set Ayushmann Khurrana on his journey, the Indian adventurism into Sri Lanka in the 80s thriller Madras Cafe (2013), the scatologically-obsessed Bengali father-daughter duo in Piku (2015), and the melancholia-infused love story that is not a love story, October (2018). The titular Gulabo and Sitabo refer to a couple of women characters in traditional glove puppet theater from Uttar Pradesh, Gulabo being the spouse and Sitabo being the mistress of the same man, who are constantly bickering. Here they are represented by the avaricious, and mildly sleazy, 78 year old landlord of a dilapidated haveli, Mirza Sheikh (Amitabh Bachchan), and one of his many, ridiculously low rent paying, but equally emotionally high maintenance tenants, Baankey Rastogi (Ayushmann Khurrana). Their constant pathetic attempts at one-upmanship in a never ending cat and mouse game is the main narrative engine. The stakes keep getting ratcheted up slowly with the Archaeology department ostensibly wanting to designate the house as a heritage monument represented by Gyanesh Shukla (Vijay Raaz), pitted against the hilariously improbably named lawyer Christopher Clark (Brijendra Kala) colluding with a builder trying to squeeze out his next construction project. Surveying all this mayhem with equanimity and bemusement is Mirza's wife, older than him by 17 years, Begum (Farrukh Jaffar).
The pacing is deliberate in keeping with the nature of the city it represents and the relics both architectural and human that inhabit it, but it is like a bowstring being pulled slowly back till it can be pulled no more and then gets released with a climactic snap. Farrukh Jafar, who is 87, plays 95 year old Begum with a joie de vivre that is infectious. She was equally sweetly amazing as the Dadi to Nawazuddin Siddiqui's Rafi in Photograph (2019). Vijay Raaz and Brijendra Kala are very good as usual with Kala as the English flaunting lawyer bringing his customary funny diffidence to the role. Srishti Shrivastava, from TVF's web series Girliyapa, who had a memorable catfight scene with Alia Bhatt in Gully Boy (2019) as Baankey's worldly wise, sexually liberated sister Guddo makes a good impression as well. Ayushmann surprisingly, but maybe because the script has saddled him with a loser persona, is probably the weakest link in the chain. But it could also be because he is pitted against the OG of Hindi cinema of the last 5 decades. Very few actors can come up against Amitabh Bachchan and walk away with their reputations as thespians intact. Virtually unrecognizable underneath the thick glasses, facial hair, aquiline nose, Quasimodo-like hunch and a shuffled walk that cracks you up from the first scene, Amitabh who is 77 himself in real life but looks, walks and talks with the swagger of a man half his age, has subsumed the character of Mirza. The mischievous twinkle in his eyes and barely concealed glee at what seems like impending good news from his standpoint, followed by the complete physical collapse on learning the opposite, is fascinating to watch. It reminded me of his dazed open-mouthed expression at seeing the sensual Smita Patil for the first time in Namak Halaal (1982). Here is a national acting treasure still hitting it out of the park when almost all of his contemporaries are content to be taking a leisurely stroll in a naana-naani park. As a viewer it requires faith, and more importantly patience, a virtue hard to come by in today's nanosecond attention span world, and especially while watching at home with a million other viewing options a remote click away, but Gulabo Sitabo is the perfect vehicle for an actor of his caliber and vintage, to whom one can only say in the most Lucknowi andaaz possible, pehley aap.
June 12, 2020