An early scene in Shoojit Sircar’s latest, on Amazon Prime, opens to a roadside puppeteer in old Lucknow, describing his characters, Gulabo and Sitabo. He calls them “clever” and “cunning”, making them clap their hands. He could have been talking about the film’s leads, Mirza (Amitabh Bachchan) and Baankey (Ayushmann Khurrana), who are puppet-like themselves, too helpless to control their present, yet cunning enough to con the other.
Mirza and Baankey stay together in an old ramshackle haveli.
Mirza, the landlord, is a Scrooge-like figure: pointed nose, miser, sullen. He troubles his tenants in petty ways, stealing their light bulbs, locking toilets, tripping off power.
Baankey, managing a small flour mill, is one of his several tenants. He hasn’t paid rent, Rs 30, for the last three months. Both Mirza and Baankey, homeless in their own ways, loathe each other.
If Baankey doesn’t own this house, then neither does Mirza. It belongs to his wife, Fatima Begum (Farrukh Jaffar), who is older to him by 17 years. Mirza can’t wait for her to die.
Gulabo Sitabo, written by Juhi Chaturvedi, Sircar’s long-standing collaborator, has a dark premise. But the makers don’t play it straight. They see their film as a life-like comedy. Sircar and Chaturvedi have an ingenious knack of distilling their stories into a whimsical catchphrase: sperm donation (Vicky Donor), sluggish bowel movements (Piku), life-changing accident (October). Gulabo Sitabo’s centrepiece, in comparison, doesn’t leap out as much. Which is understandable; a dilapidated mansion can only be so eccentric.
For a film whose leads are locked in a game of constant one-upmanship, Mirza and Baankey, as a pair, aren’t particularly intriguing. Their hostility, centered on petty financial strife, feels uni-dimensional: Mirza acts, Baankey reacts, and vice-versa. Besides, even when they’re alone, we don’t get a considered peek into their lives. With Baankey, we at most get a few scenes, with his girlfriend, Fauzia (Poornima Sharma), who is constantly disappointed in him; with his sisters, who rib him for not finishing school.
But Mirza seems more puzzling. Besides him stealing from his own house and annoying Baankey, there’s little depth to him. Instead we get a character whose physicality looms large: hunched back, dense glasses, laborious walk.
Even Chaturvedi’s sharp wit, which can enliven the dullest of scenes and characters, is conspicuously missing. These elements, as a result, forbid us to form any meaningful relationship with the film. By the end of the first 30 minutes, Gulabo Sitabo manages a feat hitherto unknown to a Chaturvedi-Sircar collaboration: it starts to bore you.
The movie finds its vigour when it introduces two new characters, Gyanesh Shukla (Vijay Raaz), an Archaeological Survey of India officer, and Christopher (Brijendra Kala), a local lawyer. Gyanesh sides with Baankey, Mirza hires Christopher, giving the old hostility a new sting.
Just the mere presence of Raaz and Kala — two actors who can even make a dictionary sound funny — elevates the movie. Gyanesh is a sly, bureaucratic figure, familiar with the language of dubious deals. Raaz plays him like a chameleon on a poker table, someone who keeps his cards so close that you feel that he’s conning the audience, too.
Christopher, who claims to speak English in his home, is a typical small-town hustler, trying hard to be useful in the melee of strivers. These characters open the film’s world, helping us see Mirza and Baankey in a new light: two greedy, pathetic people caught in a land where everyone is greedy and pathetic.
The most intriguing character here, though, is Baankey’s sister, Guddu (Srishti Shrivastava) — sharp, manipulative, sexually frank, ambitious to the point of being restless. She lights up the movie whenever she appears on screen. Gulabo Sitabo becomes a different movie when controlled by supporting actors.
The characters become alive, the stakes more pressing, and the writing energetic and purposeful. Mirza and Baankey, however, continue to stay flat. Bachchan and Khurrana, as expected, are competent, but they don’t move beyond their characters’ narrow loglines. The movie, too, leaves them to their devices. Whenever Mirza displays a discomfiting desire for his wife’s death — a desire that’s constant and severe — the film remains indifferent to it.
But Gulabo Sitabo manages to find its rhythm in the final arc.
Here, humour, confusion, and poignancy all come together to depict an eternal confusion of modern Indian life: how can you not be a cannibal in a world of cannibals?
At one point, the representatives of a government agency and a private builder arrive at the mansion, quarrelling with the residents over a piece of land. It’s a rare moment in the movie that transcends fiction: a struggle familiar to many Indians, a game where no one wins.