Director: Shoojit Sircar
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
The modern world is a strange place. Ancient letters are auctioned for millions, ancient palaces are turned into exotic museums and ancient people are celebrated as charming remnants of bygone eras. A tangible number is attached to the intangibility of tradition: nostalgia is weaponized, history is fetishized and antiquity is commodified.
Gulabo Sitabo, the fourth collaboration between director Shoojit Sircar and screenwriter Juhi Chaturvedi, goes to great lengths to highlight this transactional nature of oldness. The film is based in Lucknow, a city famously torn between the cultural promise of lineage and the monetary promise of progression: Businessmen and builders dot a fading landscape of nawabs, kebabs and havelis. The premise features a dilapidated old mansion, and a battle of wits between a landlord and tenant – arguably the most transactional relationship in human society. This equation, for better or worse, quantifies the price of living. Its necessity proves that, contrary to romantic belief, happiness can be bought.
Then there’s the bureaucratic headache behind the trade of land in this country – a process so primitive that it’d sell for a fortune at cultural heritage sites. The miserly 78-year-old landlord (Amitabh Bachchan, as Mirza) is at bureaucratic odds with his equally miserly set of squatting tenants led by Baankey (Ayushmann Khurrana), a lowly wheat-mill owner with three sisters and a mother. Mirza, however, is the poorest rich man alive – he is married to a 95-year-old Begum (a terrific Farrukh Jafar), who spends her days bedridden but also in complete control of her property and penniless husband. The tenants pay ancient rates of INR 30 to 75 a month in 2019, while crabby Mirza harasses them and waits for his wife to die. Greed drives everyone, including the colourful side-characters – a silver-tongued archeologist (Vijay Raaz), a hustling lawyer (Brijendra Kala), a fiery sister (Srishti Shrivastava) – who soon get involved in the petty dispute. That’s pretty much the whole film. One side schemes, the other plots, rinse, repeat. One side adopts capitalism and builders as their ammunition, the other adopts administrative bullets and archeology. The makers consciously hint at the cat-and-mouse theme: Early on, we see Baankey’s youngest sister watching Tom and Jerry on television. The film even opens with a streetside puppeteer singing the story of Gulabo and Sitabo, two clever women engaged in an endless loop of fighting and trickery.
It’s a risky move – using an entire film as a smokescreen – but one that, in its final moments, pays poignant dividends.
As a viewer, once the setting is established, it’s not easy to watch an attritional war between unlikeable characters. Idiosyncratic filmmaking can only go so far. We’re trained to root for someone, for friendship or for a coming-of-age resolution. We’re conditioned to admire the craft of acting – Amitabh Bachchan is creakily good, a lisping Ayushmann Khurrana is still Ayushmann Khurrana – as long as we sense motivation, change or redemption in the narrative arc. But Gulabo Sitabo tests our patience and preconceived notions of storytelling. It wins our attention with the Muslim-landlord-Hindu-tenants headline, only to become an adventure of reiterative tropes. For nearly two hours, the plot goes round and round in mischievous circles, till we virtually crave for a payoff, a method to all the madness. The back and forth made me wonder: What’s the point? Is there a point at all?
But the beauty of Tom and Jerry is that, in the long run, there’s never a winner. Because it’s not about them. We, as the audience, are so busy getting entertained by the primal battle between a sneaky cat and a slimy mouse that it often escapes us how it’s actually a dog – loyal, loving, lively – that reflects the core of humanity. It’s a dog that, as man’s best friend, has the last laugh (bark). It’s a long wait, but the last ten minutes make it clear that Gulabo Sitabo, too, uses the craft of concealment. Some films make an argument by showing you the futility of the counterargument: they allude to the art of heroism by showing you the vanity of villainy. This tilt-shift of gaze – the inversion of starry foreground and obscure background – puts the viewer in the characters’ torn shoes: Everyone has been so preoccupied by the cacophony of chaos that the silence goes unrecognized.
It’s a risky move – using an entire film as a smokescreen – but one that, in its final moments, pays poignant dividends. The analogy might sound far-fetched, but Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman comes to mind: The point is that there’s no point. It’s not gimmicky either. The twist of Gulabo Sitabo is solely designed to humanize oldness. It’s designed to remind people on both sides of the screen that the world is so obsessed with assigning an inanimate value to age and experience that it forgets how the corresponding person – with attachments, desires and regrets – is priceless. And alive, beyond a body of sagging flesh and brittle bones.
This narrative subterfuge is a consequence of ambitious writing. After all, a ‘comedy about bitter gold-diggers’ sounds transactional: viewers pay to chuckle at oddball behaviour. But rephrase it, examine the storytelling for what it leaves untold, and a ‘loud meditation on lost values’ transcends transaction: you can’t measure the worth of a timeless message. Some traditions, like love and identity and fine art, remain intangible. At a fundamental level, perhaps the real question Gulabo Sitabo poses is this: Are you watching closely? Because if you are, you might conclude that life, unlike great magic tricks, need not thrive on the third and most commercial act: the prestige.
Prestige is power and style and accessibility. But there’s often no time to make things reappear. It’s enough to show us something ordinary – like fools and their gold – only to make it disappear.