Object lesson for the selfish and the old, alert. A gift from Amazon Prime given The Great Lockdown of 2020, this film should really be caught in the cinema on a massively unstressed day when you are attentive but ever so slightly close to sleep. It’s a gentle cuddle of a film. Albeit one with your face buried in a squishy pillow of duck feathers. The ones that pop through the pillowcase and gouge a hole in your face. For this is the long, slow (yet not sluggish) tale of a mansion, the old, mean, not-so-bright man who wants to inherit the place and the gaming tenants who get away with living there for pennies. They need the money, but that microwave came from somewhere: Gulabo Sitabo.
The title comes from puppetry. Two wooden women bitch, niggle and fight in improvised stories told by puppeteers to the beat of a drum. Or they used to – the art is dying. Much like Punch and Judy in the UK, they are battling forever in petty disputes and a wink at their audience. Which old Jack here didn’t know before the film, but an early sequence of a street performance is pretty clear. Ah, sub-text, I thought.
And then the pettiness begins. I hesitated to write this given Amitabh Bachchan and his family have been fending off COVID-19, but all seems to be ok, so good, and here we go. As Mirza, the parsimonious and grasping husband of Fatima, the seemingly ill and two decades older wife and owner of a failing but loved mansion, Bachchan is terrific. The man and the media presence are nowhere to be seen behind telling make-up and ferocious bottle-lenses. He is battling tenants, making their life hell through non-existent repairs, theft of light-bulbs and locking of needed doors. Mirza is an arse. At some level, you want to sympathise with him. But as he scurries around stealing things from the mansion and selling them to street vendors…sympathy fades. Bachchan gives him a watchful, preying quality and and an idiot’s vindictiveness that is immensely watchable. Lovely job.
To the tenants: several families live in parts of the property. One in particular is sort-of led by Ayushmann Khurrana as Baankey. Impoverished, he runs a street wheat mill and argues with his Mum and crowd of sisters. And Baankey isn’t the smart sibling. He clashes with everyone, but most loudly with Mirza. Historic low rent – and the presumption that more should be paid – is an odd battleground. Both men are in the wrong, with Baankey’s rages at being asked for more an oddly unsympathetic comedy. He roars back that the place isn’t kept to a standard needed for the family, kicking the communal toilet wall in a moment of unexpected crash of bricks. He hides from his crime, but Mirza locks the loo to all. Hell hath no fury like a petty tosser with the keys. Or a tenant spited.
This stuff is lovely. Gentle character comedy – with a dash of hubristic edge – is something Bachchan and Khurrana lose themselves in. Old Jack here recognised these exaggerated forms of both men. You see a few Mirzas around here: failures who didn’t get all they wanted from their wives; faux children who can’t contain their own greed. And greed overtakes more than the leads. The film brings in an architect who wants to grab the mansion for the State (well, his own ends); and Brijendra Kala as the solicitor Mirza runs to for the underlying nastiness of the plot. For Mirza wants to trick his failing wife out of her property, hunting down inheritors ahead of himself, and falling back on tricking her into signing documents in lovely scenes with the old woman’s sleeping fingers and an ink pad. For fingerprints will do if you don’t balls-up the fraud…
Much of the second half of the film bounces between these selfish parties, circling the mansion for the opportunity it seems to be. Old Jack here spent a lot of time chuckling at the lovely performances, wishing the thing would hurry up just a tad, and loving the final few twists and turns that justly punish every one of the graspers. Lesson to the old and young: be kind, your selfishness is a madness that will destroy you.
In the end, it’s clever women who win the day. I particularly liked the performances of Srishti Shrivastava as Baankey’s modern and fending-off-the-tragic sister Guddo – realistic, smart, knowing of her sibling’s hubris, there’s a courage and lack of self-pity in her that outclasses the men-boys. And Farrukh Jaffar‘s Fatima charms and gives the biggest belly laugh of the film. Old Jack saw most of the plot coming, but that moment whacked me with startled joy.
Gulabo Sitabo needs you to watch two powerless equals wrestle each other in a slow battle of small, slow wits. For old Jack, it ambled by with smartness and lovely, characterful performances. On a cool day, when the sky is black and the daisies are grey, give this warm, spiky pillow of a film a go. The final moment, and all it tells you about human nature and fools, is well-worth going the long way ’round.