In a way I am glad that Gulabo Sitabo released on Amazon Prime, if people had paid five hundred rupees for the cinema experience, and then seen it, I am sure it would have gotten far more social media vitriol than it has been getting. Gulabo Sitabo is not for everyone, things don’t move in the frenetic way that Indian mainstream audiences are used to, the humor is subtle, and the story is made subordinate to characters, and the characters subordinate to the world, and what it says about the human condition it leaves unsaid, none of which particularly engender it to easy digestion over popcorn, or in this covid world, whatever it is you have at home.
So what is Gulabo Sitabo about? Gulabo Sitabo, a puppeteer’s tale of two wives warring for the attention of their husband is a perfect metaphor for the two men; played by Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurana, both suitors for control of a dilapidated once-great mansion, one who wants to own it and stay forever, and the other who wants to keep paying the existing rent of thirty rupees forever. As it is when two people fight for the attention of someone else, it is a relationship of toxicity. Here the love is not for a person, but for a place, not so much the place itself, because the “mahal” in itself is a filthy, musty, wet, cobweb and human excreta-strewn nightmare with a foundation as unloveable as a house can be, but love for the inertia of their existences.
The character played by Ayushmann Khurana, Baankey Rastogi, runs a little flour grinding factory, drives a two-wheeler, has a microwave, and should be able to afford a place far better than the one he stays in, except he doesn’t, because he pays thirty rupees for it, and even though he complains about the terrible condition of the house, he fights to stay in it, to the point that the fight becomes an obsession: as he schemes and colludes and lies, all so he can continue to stay in that state of terrible stasis. While his sisters show signs of mobility, working towards their education, Baankey Rastogi has no desire for any self-improvement, no will to ascend, his obsession with staying as he is makes him first lose his girl-friend and then finally the house itself, and yet even after that, he is unable to move on, till the very last shot, wandering about like a ghost in a house that has evicted him, caught like a fly in the cobweb of comforting mediocrity.
Exactly like Baankey Rastogi is the other lover of the house, Chunnan Mirza Nawab. This might be Amitabh Bachchan’s greatest performance, because for the first time in his life, the very first time, he plays a total “loser”, not hero, not a villain, but someone fundamentally unlikeable, a dilapidated man with not a trace of heroism, as UnBachchan as a Bachchan character can be, who steals trinkets from his own house when he thinks no one is looking, tries to con his own wife into selling the house, bilious and complaining and scheming, and worst of all, not particularly bright. Bachchan gets everything right about the character, the gait, the way he looks at people, the mumbling and while the prosthetic nose does sometimes look too obviously prosthetic, it effectively hides the man behind the character, and the legacy he carries with him in every frame.
Mirza dreams of money, and not a lot of money by the standards of the day because he too like Baankey, is caught in the trap of his obsession, the idea of money more than its value, and every time the way Bachchan crumples when someone brings up a sum of money, almost orgasming with passion, is not just hilarious, but reflective of who he is and what the house means to him. Mirza married a much older woman, the Begum, the owner of what this house once had been, a grand mansion, landed old-world Lucknowi royalty, purely for the house, and while over the years, it would have been obvious to most, that he would never inherit the house for a substantial amount of time to enjoy the fruits of ownership, stuck as he in an obsession for the building, he is too blind with love to see that. The begum is above ninety, and he is above seventy, and yet he schemes and plots and potters about, scarcely seeing the futility of his efforts, because his love for the place, like most loves, is blind, blind to his own age, blind to the reality of his situation. Like Baankey, Mirza too has stopped growing.
Also stuck in the stasis is the Begum. Years ago, she had eloped with the man of her dreams, and then realized, as she expresses in the letter at the end, that she valued her palace, her standing more than she valued the love of a human being. Which led her to marry Mirza, knowing fully well, that Mirza was as much in love with the palace as she was, that he would, like her, never leave. She had borne the loveless nature of their marriage as her compromise, the cost of staying the person she was, till finally, when Mirza tries to con her into signing away the palace, she has an epiphany, beautifully expressed in the last letter she writes to explain her “elopement” with the man she had once loved. the epiphany being that she has to break free of her own toxic relationship with the place and with Mirza, and she does that, and leaves. It comes very late for her, this realization, but it does happen. But the two men cannot still see that fact, maybe because they are not that wise, and maybe because their love is deeper.
There is a beautiful shot, late into the movie, of Mirza walking away from what once used to be his home, stealing a balloon, a trinket of a love for that which no longer was, a broken man with a memento of a broken house, the frame capturing in the way only great film can, an unforgettable picture of human folly.
Highly, highly recommended