'Gulabo Sitabo' Review: A gorgeous crumbling mansion and an epic landlord-tenant feud liven up the witty comedy
Shoojit Sircar's film captures a timeless story about the errors of disregarding the 'priceless' things of the world for money
Lucknow, one of the oldest cities of North India, is peppered with the descendants of small-time royalty living in their crumbly old mansions and palaces. Turn a corner and you'll find a gorgeous specimen of architecture on the verge of falling down, held together only by the love the owners have for the building.
'Gulabo Sitabo' situates its drama in one such mansion called Fatima "Mahal" aka Fatima "Palace". It is owned by an old lady simply known as "Begum" (Farrukh Jaffar), the honorific used for aristocratic Muslim women. She seldom leaves her quarters while her husband Mirza (Amitabh Bachchan) lords over her property and the tenants who live there.
A greedy, miserly man, he worries about anything he has to spend on but is quick to try to squeeze out an extra penny from being the landlord, from stealing and selling the bulbs the tenants have installed to save electricity to selling off the antiques from the palace, like glass chandeliers. The mansion is also terribly maintained because he never spends anything on its upkeep, except buy locks to keep people out of sections in the property. He is the worst kind of landlord.
His nemesis is one of his tenants, Bankey (Ayushmann Khuranna) who lives in one of the huge rooms with his three sisters and mother. Bankey, who refuses to shell out even the less than one dollar a month rent, has for all practical purposes, been living rent-free. His family's tenancy is more like squatting as he refuses to vacate or pay rent, taking advantage of Indian laws that favor long-term renters. He is the worst kind of tenant.
As the two clash repeatedly, trading barbs and insults, their greed is comparable as they try to stay one step ahead of each other. The other tenants, who are not as shameless as Bankey, are only slightly better. It must be said that the landlord and tenants are equally impoverished, scrounging and trying to make ends meet. Bankey, in particular, with three sisters is the sole breadwinner for his house, grinding wheat for a living.
The oldest sister, Guddo (Srishti Shrivastava in a breakout performance), is also the smartest in the family, seducing men with a blink of an eye with absolutely no desire to get married. She despairs as her brother seems to do everything wrong and mansplains her ideas back to her.
For those who understand the language, there are some beautiful turns of phrases, peppered through the film, using idioms and references steeped in Indian witticisms and culture. The creative English subtitles effectively capture the nuance of the dialogue rather than going for literal translations. The folk music score that pipes up at crucial junctures in a sort of commentary on the actions of the protagonists is the cherry on top and just as well because the title of the film refers to a popular folk puppet theater skit that uses songs to tell the story of two women, Gulabo and Sitabo, fighting each other over love for the same man. Their love feud is mirrored in Mirza and Bankey's battle over the "beloved" mansion.
The feud between the two grows day by day till things come to a head when Bankey destroys the wall of the common outdoor toilet just by kicking it in frustration. Their fight ends in the police station where the world-weary cop tells them to just to take the matter to property court and leave him out of it.
This is when the petty greed of Mirza and Bankey is overtaken by the greed of far more powerful men - a real estate developer and a crooked politician. While the minions of the real estate developer try to get Mirza to sell the property for a pittance just to get rid of the tenants, Bankey is swayed by a corrupt government official from the Archaeology Department, who is an agent of the politician.
The politician is shown to have made a killing taking over mansions in the city using his relatives in the Archaeology Department who seal buildings as "Heritage sites", clearing them out so that he can occupy them. As both parties arrive, both fighting over claims on the mansion, there comes a surprise twist from the begum that you should watch the film to savor. It is a great bit of story-telling. Ultimately, we see those who profess to love the mansion but only want to profit from it, being left in the dust. A sly epilogue shows how Mirza has never seen the true value of things he has, while Bankey realizes that a fool like him can never hold on to love or money.
The city of Lucknow has been depicted with love by the director, Shoojit Sircar, who frames it lovingly in wide shots, capturing the everyday life and rhythm of small-town India. The trees, sunlight filtering through them and the ruinous Fatima Mahal look particularly stunning through his lens with shots that capture the beauty of an old-world culture, long past. But Sircar also closes in to capture every raise of the eyebrow and grimace of the characters, especially of Amitabh Bachchan as Mirza.
Bachchan seems to be relishing sinking his teeth into relatively lighter fare and he tries to disappear into the prosthetics, make-up, and the exaggerated shuffle of an 80-year-old man. He is best in the scenes when he swoons - this happens each time someone tells him how much he could be making off the mansion if he got "market-rates" on the rent or sold the mansion. Ayushmann Khurrana is also not in awe of Bachchan the whole time as he acts as the 'angry young man' and both are equally matched as Mirza and Bankey.
'Gulabo Sitabo' is available to stream on Amazon Prime.