What a curious film this is! There's, first, the tone. The story begins with the friction between Mirza Sheikh (Amitabh Bachchan), who manages his wife's crumbling haveli in Lucknow, and a cussed tenant named Baankey Rastogi (Ayushmann Khurrana). The latter lives with his mother and sisters in a small space whose rent has stayed the same since he was a baby. Mirza wants to earn more from all his tenants, and as "revenge", he steals their light bulbs and bicycle bells and sells them for loose change. There's a downbeat, Dickensian air to this greedy man, to whom money means everything. His kurta-pyjama set seems to have been stitched during the Sepoy Mutiny, and he walks with a stoop in a way that suggests he'd rather walk with that stoop than shell out cash for a doctor's services.
What could have become a raucous Priyadarshan-style comedy of desperation, especially after Baankey destroys the wall of the common bathroom, is treated instead like a dark character study where there are no villains, only impoverished people who'd do anything to get through another day. It sounds great. But these characters are too thin and don't offer themselves up for much study, and the (too) carefully curated mood feels off with this material. The pacing is deliberate, the pauses are many: it's arthouse quirkiness, with everything in quotation marks so that we recognise how quirky it all is. Even Shantanu Moitra's score comes in quotes: clarinet bursts from silent era-comedy and ektara-type baul sangeet twangs. Vijay Raaz plays an employee of the archaeological department. He says the haveli may be of historical value. He should know. After all, he calls himself "archaeology". Brijendra Kala plays a lawyer named Christopher Clark. That name! It's really "Christopher Clark".
The women fare a little better, because they're defined by something other than their greed and desperation. Baankey's sister (Srishti Shrivastava) is tired of his cluelessness. She wants to work. At one point, when bargaining for a better living space, Baankey is okay with an LIG flat, but she says an MIG flat might be better. In other matters, too, she isn't exactly waiting for her brother's permission or for him to take action. She doesn't want to get married, but she casually sleeps with a series of men: indeed, what has the first decision got to do with the second? She may not be getting anywhere quickly, but at least, she's trying. The other woman in Baankey's life is his girlfriend Fauzia (Poornima Sharma). She, too, grows tired of being around this loser. She, too, makes a decision about marriage that doesn't involve him.
As for Mirza Sheikh, the very haveli he guards like a ghost is his wife's (Farrukh Jafar). She's the film's best-written character. Her raspy rejoinders, delivered in a drawl that takes an eternity to roll out a line, are amusing. At one point, she tells her husband, "Aur phir apni shakal kaafi dinon tak mat dikhaaiyega." If there's such a thing as a tehzeebi taunt, this be it: she's on to him. A scene involving her bandaged fingertips is a scream, not just because it's a great gag (the punchline is visual rather than verbal) but also due to Mirza's face. Amitabh Bachchan dons owlish glasses that make his eyes pop like saucers, so his reaction shots don't need any amplification. He draws maximum effect from minimal posturing — oftentimes, he's so still he looks like a freeze-frame. This is one of the most interesting roles the actor has played: a man without a single redeeming quality. And he plays it beautifully.
So yes, the women are smarter than the men, but then, that's hardly an accomplishment with these characters, these men, who don't have much shape or form. If Mirza gets a stoop and stinginess as "defining features", Baankey gets a lisp and a pillow paunch. But we don't see what's inside him. His desperation never comes through, and Ayushmann Khurrana walks through the film with a dazed look that suggests he's trying to remember what drew him to the role in the first place. The script, meanwhile, keeps throwing "quirky" things at us: tons of buried gold, an adoption request, pyorrhoea, a microwave oven signifying "modernity", international architecture students, and a twist ending that must have sounded terrific on paper but withers and dies on screen.
What's alive is Avik Mukhopadhyay's cinematography, which captures a sense of all this decay with oil-painterly vividness. It's alive to this dilapidated mansion and its dilapidated people (Mirza keeps slipping as though experiencing his own personal earthquakes) and even to this dilapidated city. Otherwise, the only value of Gulabo Sitabo is its place in the continuum of the collaborations between director Shoojit Sircar and writer Juhi Chaturvedi. They began with two outright winners in Vicky Donor and Piku, which were amazing amalgamations of head and heart. (If you'd told me, earlier, that great popular art could be shaped from semen and shit, I'd have thrown Bhashkor Banerjee's potty-throne at you.)
Then, it appeared that they wanted to prove something to the world, that they were capable of more… heft. We got October, which had a moving idea at its core but grasped so needily for "greatness" that you felt the strain. The film felt like a short story stretched into a novel. Gulabo Sitabo feels like an anecdote stretched into a novel. It meanders. The Mirza-Baankey "rivalry" triggers off events, but the rivalry itself doesn't feel as significant as it should because Mirza is a misanthrope with everyone. By the end, the loose plot does come together vaguely in the head, but it doesn't feel like it's been worth this kind of build-up. In the first two films of this writer-director team, the wildest plot points seemed utterly organic. In the last two films, the most natural-sounding events end up looking sterile and manufactured and… "meaningful" and "important".
Under the seemingly light surface, this is a "heavy" movie, with existential strains. Do din ka yeh mela hai / Khela phir uth jaana hai, goes a lyric. Translation: "Life is short." Kya leke aayo jag mein kya leke jayega, goes another lyric. Translation: "Why bother about money! We came with nothing! We will leave with nothing! So what if an antique chair you sell for a couple of hundreds ends up being valued at over a lakh! Isn't it better to realise the value of what you have while you have it, rather than allow greed to take over and destroy everything?!" But all this sounds like an external chorus, like someone from the outside looking in and offering commentary. It might have been nicer if these philosophies had crept out from the songs and crept into the characters: who they are, what they do.
There's a scene where Mirza's largely haveli-confined wife goes out for a walk and returns with a stick of fuchsia-coloured cotton candy for him. That's the kind of unexpectedly giddy gift Vicky Donor and (especially) Piku felt like. I am all for upping your ambitions, but I do hope this U-turn isn't a result of this writer-director team deciding that their first two films were light, disposable entertainments and now they have to "legitimise" themselves as capital-A artistes. Because a thousand capital-A artistes cannot do what they did in those earlier films, capturing life in all its rainbow flavours. In contrast, the grim monochromes of Gulabo Sitabo feel not just underwhelming, but unnecessary.