Director: Rahul V. Chittella
Writers: Rahul V. Chittella, Arpita Mukherjee
Cast: Sharmila Tagore, Manoj Bajpayee, Suraj Sharma, Simran, Amol Palekar, Utsavi Jha, Kaveri Seth, Jatin Goswami, Santhy
Gulmohar begins with an ending. It’s a noisy celebratory dinner, the sort that signals a happily ever after. Three generations of Batras have gathered to mark the final night of the 34-year-old family home. Their beloved ‘Gulmohar villa’ has been sold. The packers are due the next morning. Their swanky new penthouse is ready. The future is calling. You can sense that a lot has happened already; all the individual stories have been in motion for a while. You can sense the emotional upheavals in the days leading up to this party. That’s how most movies go – they close with such scenes of healing, closure and togetherness.
If you look closer, though, the dinner plays out like an ending that’s missed its deadline. Like the preceding (unseen) film failed to culminate in time. The camaraderie of the night is brimming with subtext. Everyone looks a little incomplete. There’s a middle-aged man (Manoj Bajpayee, as Arun) who is yet to accept this change, and yet to bridge the vacuum with his distant son (Suraj Sharma, as Aditya). There’s Aditya, who wants to escape his disappointed father’s shadow, move out and live on rent with his wife (Kaveri Seth, as Divya) despite his start-up struggles. There’s Adi’s sister (Utsavi Jha, as Amrita), a budding musician with boyfriend problems; she doesn’t feel for him the way he does. There’s Indu (Simran), Arun’s wife, who is stressed with the logistics of the big move. There’s the cook, Reshma (Santhy), and the watchman, Jeetendra, whose feelings for each other are still shrouded by silence. And there’s the 75-year-old matriarch, Kusum (Sharmila Tagore), who, to everyone’s surprise, proposes four more days in the house so that they can bring in Holi together. It throws Arun and Indu into a tizzy; all the arrangements to leave have been made. But Kusum’s next bombshell announcement – that she is moving to Pondicherry to live alone – softens them for the Holi plan. It’s the least they can do now.
Kusum’s request is not random. It may come from a sentimental and simple space: An old woman wants to create a last core memory before everyone goes their own way. But there’s more to it. Maybe she chooses a festival because it’s often a major event – a wedding (Monsoon Wedding, 2001), a funeral (Ram Prasad Ki Tehrvi, 2019; Pagglait, 2021), an illness (Kapoor & Sons, 2016) – that shapes the language of a dysfunctional family drama. Perhaps she has a utopian idea of Holi through the films she watches. Maybe she suspects that it will give them the crucial time they need to deal with ‘unfinished business’ and personal baggage. Or maybe she just thinks that the sight of their slowly-emptying bungalow – pictures being taken down; rooms morphing back into spaces; life being deconstructed into boxes of living – might force them to reckon with their own unresolved emptiness. Something dramatic needs to happen, and the inconvenience of this delay – where all of them must exist between the scattered memories of the past and the concrete inevitability of the future – seems like the perfect trigger. The four days might become the end credits that do the work of an epilogue.
In other words, the premise of Gulmohar transcends its Monsoon Wedding hangover. Director Rahul V. Chittella, who was mentored by Mira Nair for his short in the Shor Se Shuruaat (2016) anthology, deftly infuses an upper-class Delhi household with lived-in chaos. Every other frame thrives on the cinematic grammar of activity. People speak over one another. Glances are met and not met. Minds are preoccupied. Tensions are high and playful at once. Adi argues with Divya behind a half-closed door. The camera and soundscape follow Reshma as she serves water to everyone in a family meeting; each glass allows her to dip in and out of a different snippet of conversation, a world beyond her reach, but painfully within it at once. Kusum secretly exhales in relief after her announcement, betraying the poise with which she delivered it. Indu weaves between the packers and scolds them like someone who is familiar with the quirks of the bungalow; she moves and frets like she knows every corner. Arun suppresses a smile when his mother sounds precisely like his wife’s cheeky imitation of her. A long-time married couple banter about colleges and foster their own private tongue of companionship (“yes or no?”). An awkward dinner-table chat elsewhere ends with the old-school patriarch siding with his right-wing grandson.
What all of this does is evoke a culture in which the proximity to one’s family determines a sense of identity. It sets the stage for Gulmohar, a film that strives to see a home – and the concept of owning one – as a visual metaphor for belonging. Each of the characters is faced with the prospect of realizing that they’ve let the house shelter them from not just the world but also themselves. Its name, Gulmohar, even alludes to the Delhi street tree that provides both colourful shade and an unnerving umbrella of peace in a city of extremes. Now that it’s sold, the Batras have no choice but to brave the transition that segregates the good old days from the rest of their lives. Each of them has four (more) nights to come of age and puncture the plurality of family life. This first hour of the film is smooth and intuitive, because it allows us to like the film for what it conveys. It urges us to read the generational gaps and little details in our own words. We recognize that Arun derides his son Adi because Adi doesn’t behave the way he did in front of his late father. We also recognize that Kusum, a Bengali by birth, is both envied and resented for her whimsical sense of independence.
Yet, to my utter dismay, the second hour of Gulmohar collapses under the pressure of its own conflicts. The cracks appear the moment things get graver. A mid-film revelation throws everyone into loops of lyrical brooding, most of which feel heavy-handed and overwritten. A few narrative cliches emerge – like Kusum’s confrontation with her bitter brother-in-law (Amol Palekar) being stretched into a voiceover to merge all character threads. Like her clunkily executed flashbacks. Or like Amrita’s breakout song becoming the soundtrack for a family montage. The performances, which were solid until the halfway mark, start to resemble performances. Sharmila Tagore’s harmonious tone, for instance, feels at odds with the nuances of Kusum’s turmoil. Arun’s existential despair borders on the fringes of a music-video-styled tantrum. Ditto for the self-serious arcs of Adi and Amrita. It’s almost as though an identity crisis is forbidden from unfolding in a lower pitch. Sadness becomes an aesthetic.
The idea is right. The problem is that the makers start telling instead of showing. In the process, the subtext turns into blatant text. The result: Most characters converse in literature and phrases rather than actions and thoughts. For example, when a man in his car refers to someone on the other side of the road, he speaks about “a single street separating bygone dreams from incomplete truths”. When two upset characters bump into one another during a morning walk, they exchange flowery wisdom about the agency of memory. That notorious line “this home is made of relationships, not bricks” eventually surfaces, too, which is just another version of “the secret ingredient of this dish is love”. These are the kind of things that are written as script-notes for the directors to catch the ‘sur’ of a scene; they aren’t supposed to be said out loud by real people on screen. Every resolution feels too neat and designed, like the story was conceived backwards to arrive at a beginning (which sort of explains the first line of this review). This inability to stay free-flowing prevents the film from being a truly good one. It’s frustrating because, nine times out of ten, with a setup like that and a cast so varied, a movie like Gulmohar makes you desperate to like it. It knows what it wants to say, but the depth of the message disrupts the treatment of the story.
There are some glimpses of the rawness beneath the curated trouble, especially when Indu gets annoyed with a morose Arun in a hotel room. Her outburst reminded me of the sole woman in The Banshees of Inisherin (2022) going off on the island’s men for being so self-absorbed and boring. Minutes later, however, the four-day Batra odyssey continues. Everyone returns to narrating under the guise of talking. And Gulmohar turns into the one that got away – from its well-observed world, from its hopeful viewers, from its flesh-and-blood characters, but most of all, from itself.