Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Gulabo Sitabo—The Price of Life

Shoojit Sircar's Gulabo Sitabo opens with a street show about two puppets Gulabo and Sitabo. The puppets were originally created in the 1950s when they found fame for playing the roles of a man's wife and his mistress. The puppeteer in the film, Mohammed Naushad, calls one of them as smart and the other as clever and adds that the two are at loggerheads with each other. Gulabo Sitabo is also the story of two puppets, Mirza (Amitabh Bachchan) and Baankey (Ayushmann Khurrana), who share the relationship of a landlord and a tenant, fighting with each other over rent. Set in Lucknow, the film starts with humor, meanders into drama, and ends with a surprising profoundness. Gulabo Sitabo is the fourth collaboration between the writer-director duo of Juhi Chaturvedi and Shoojit Sircar.
If the writer-director duo's previous film October was a study of grief, then Gulabo Sitabo can be called as a study of greed. Early in the film, the puppeteer calls Mirza a laalchi after he takes some coins from his show. Mirza had the habit of stealing and selling every little item that he could lay his hands on; be it a bulb, a pickle jar, or a chandelier. Mirza's prime interest in life was getting money. Everyone around him warns Mirza about his stinginess but he believes no one ever died of greed. He bargains even while buying a shroud that the shopkeeper reminds him that he should let go of greed at least in death. Mirza associates a monetary value with everything unaware of their emotional value. He sells his favorite chair for a measly two hundred fifty rupees, which is later priced at over a lakh. It is a reflection that Mirza did not see the true value of those things. In life, most things come with a price tag but some are truly priceless. His wife Fatima Begum (Farrukh Jaffar) was not going to let him sell the Fatima Mahal because for her it is priceless. She has too many memories associated with the haveli; she even chose to not marry her first love of life because she did want to move to London. Mirza, however, is blinded by his avarice. The popular MasterCard campaign captured the emotion perfectly—"There are some things money can't buy." The film's tagline Ek Priceless Jodi also underscores this aspect of pricelessness.
Later in the film, Mirza and Christopher Clark (Brijendra Kala) go on a trip to collect the signatures of Begum's relatives to remove their claim from the haveli. After meeting the family, Christopher wonders the reason for them not liking Mirza. Mirza replies that he did not feel like that which again shows how he cannot see anything else except the haveli. In the end, Baankey asks Mirza about what Begum saw in him when she agreed to get married to him. He replies, "Hamari jawaani." Baankey is surprised at the answer as it is hard for him to imagine that Mirza could have been young once. But as Begum revealed, she chose him as he was willing to be a ghar jamaai. The overarching theme here is that Mirza is not able to see things beyond his perception. Begum keeps talking about Nehru Ji but it felt like Mirza is the one who is stuck in the time warp. He is stuck in a marriage hoping that his wife dies at the earliest. He is enamored by the idea of owning the Fatima Mahal that he leaves out on other pleasures of life. He chose not to have any kids of his own as he wanted to be the sole inheritor of the haveli. What use will be of the haveli at this stage of life when he is nearing eighty-years of age. As one of the songs in the films advises him, "Kya leke aayo jagme, kya leke jaayega. Haan sab yahi chhod jayega." He cannot see life is passing by him. There is a beautiful scene towards the end when Mirza walks back from Begum's birthday party with a balloon in his hand. For all the running around he did for the haveli, he is left with nothing except a ball of air. He lost both his Fatimas, the Mahal as well as the Begum.
Mirza from Gulabo Sitabo shares some traits with Bhaskor Banerjee (Amitabh Bachchan) from Piku. Both men were sort of unlikeable. Their wives had a difficult time living with them. Turned off by him, Fatima Begum runs aways from Mirza even at the age of ninety-five. In the case of Bhaskor, Chhobi Maashi (Moushumi Chatterjee) wonders how Bhaskor's late wife (who was also her sister) tolerated him and if she died early because of the challenges of living with him. Like Mirza, the hypochondriac Bhaskor never enjoyed life fully. He was living under the scare of catching a disease. He was always constipated symbolizing that, like shit, there was something that was stuck about him. He used to hide salt in the house making everyone eat bland food. All his life, he ate kaddus and karelas but then goes for a joyride on his cycle, and eats all kinds of delicacies. He finally learns to let go and has the best shit of life. He, then, dies peacefully in sleep. Mirza, however, does not mend his ways and is left all alone and is left driving a tonga for sustenance. And, just like Mirza has his favorite chair, Bhaskor had his chair for shitting.
Mirza's counterpart in Gulabo Sitabo is Baankey, a potbellied-uneducated man, living with his three sisters and his mother. He was constantly exchanging creative barbs with Mirza, hatching schemes to avoid paying rent. At one stage in the film, Tom and Jerry is playing on the television pointing to the cat-and-mouse game between Mirza and Baankey. The first time Mirza and Baankey appear on the scene together, they are even dressed in the colors of Tom and Jerry. Mirza is in a grey-blue kurta while Baankey is in a brown one. Both keep fighting and scheming but it is Begum who has the last laugh. By the end of it all, Baankey ends up with the same fate as Mirza's. Like Begum, his girlfriend Fauzia (Poornima Sharma) leaves him and gets married to someone else. Like Begum, Fauzia returns to Baankey's shop with her new husband. She asks for organic flour to mock him and proceeds to the mall. In the times of organic flour and high-end malls, Baankey is still running a tiny shop that has an old flour machine. Like Mirza, he, too, is stuck.
Not just Mirza, the other characters in the film also displayed their greed. Baankey had to pay the decades-old rent of thirty rupees but he goes to extreme lengths to avoid paying this pittance of an amount. He would ask his sisters to do fake drama of having no money in front of Mirza. There is also Gyanesh Shukla (Vijay Raaz) who has his ulterior motive of giving the haveli to a politician. Christopher Clark also wants to sell the haveli to his builder friend. Mirza's friend Pandey (Shri Prakash Bajpai) was also looking for his commission from the builder and tries to hide when he hears Mirza has come to sell the haveli. At one point in the film, a media circus ensues after a baba dreamt of gold buried in the city. Everyone wants a share of the buried gold because they are all golddiggers. The film shows all the men as greedy. 
On the other hand, the women in Gulabo Sitabo, namely Fatima, Guddo, and Fauzia, are clever and seem to be more in control over their lives than the men. Fatima Begum was always one step ahead of Mirza and understood his antics all along. She sells the haveli to her ex-lover taking the wind out of the sails of everyone. There is also the charming Guddo, played by a spectacular Srishti Srivastava, who is perfectly described by Christopher Clark as "She is too good." She is much smarter than her brother Baankey. She is the one who devises the strategy to deal with Mirza. She can win arguments with anyone. She is unapologetic about her sexual escapades. She is not shy to admit that she had three boyfriends. She also uses sex to get what she wants; like the time she goes to meet Gyanesh in a hotel to ask for a job in exchange for sexual favors. Baankey also knew about it but he cannot take any moralistic stand because he, too, is having secret liaisons with his girlfriend Fauzia at his shop. It is not explicitly shown but is discernible that Baankey and Fauzia have a sexual relationship. This aspect of sexual freedom of women was seen in Piku as well. On being probed by Chhobi Maashi if she is sexually active, Piku (Deepika Padukone) replies, "It is a need." Piku also had a partner Syed (Jisshu Sengupta) with whom she was not in any sort of romantic relationship. They were strictly friends-with-benefits. The time when Bhaskor falls ill after a party, Syed had spent the night with Piku in the same house. Coming back to Fauzia, like Guddo, she is also not afraid to speak out her mind. She demands to be dropped home because Baankey picked her up from her house. In any other film, a scene like this would have involved other dynamics (such as religion and neighbors talking about it) but Gulabo Sitabo does not make any big deal out of it.
Women, especially the older-in-age characters, in the universe of Shoojit Sircar and Juhi Chaturvedi have always been charming. There is the progressive Biji (Kamlesh Gill) in Vicky Donor who makes no fuss when she learns that her grandson's fiancée is a divorcee. She also likes to enjoy a drink every night with her daughter-in-law. There is the sassy Chhobi Maashi in Piku who freely talks about sex with her niece and was herself married three times. There is the gracious Vidya Iyer (Gitanjali Rao) in October who goes about living life with strength every day while dealing with profound grief. There is the amazing Fatima Begum in Gulabo Sitabo who manages to trick everyone and gets married to the love of her life notwithstanding the stage of life she was in.
Every frame of Gulabo Sitabo, shot exquisitely by Avik Mukhopadhyay, breathes the city of Lucknow. Most films based in Uttar Pradesh usually try to impart the language of the region to its characters but miss out on the true ethos of the city. Gulabo Sitabo truly feels rooted in Lucknow. There is talk about the city's history. For instance, at one point, Baankey compares to Mirza to the mother of Aasif-ud-Daula, the erstwhile Nawab of Awadh. There is talk about the city's geography. Nixon Market, Hazratganj, and Nur Manzil are frequently spoken by its characters. There is talk about the city's culture. There are no abusive words used in the entire film (except once when Baankey uses the word 'Chutiya') even though people in the film bicker all the time. The barbs are creative, like calling someone deemak or choose hue aam jaisi sukhi gutli ka chehra. People use words, such as ulool julool. The tehzeeb of Lucknow can be felt in the film.
Gulabo Sitabo feels jarring at places, perhaps, due to the excessive prosthetics used on Amitabh Bachchan, which makes the dialogue hard to decipher at places. The film is languidly paced which tests patience. What keeps the film going is great performances from its cast. Amitabh Bachchan is simply marvelous as Mirza. In spite of all the things that Mirza does, one can't help but feel sympathetic for him. The greed of the character of Mirza reminded me of Sudhendu Roy's Saudagar (1973) in which Amitabh Bachchan had again played a greedy scheming man. The film is the story of Moti (Amitabh Bachchan), a jaggery trader, who falls in love with Phoolbano (Padma Khanna). Moti asks Phoolbano's father for her hand in marriage who agrees to the match but demands five hundred rupees as meher. Unable to pay the amount, Moti schemes and marries Majubi (Nutan), a widowed lady, who prepares jaggery for him. Moti's plan was that he would be able to collect the meher that Phoolbano's father asked by saving the money he paid to Majubi after he gets married to her. His plan succeeds after which he divorces Majubi and marries Phoolbano. But life teaches him a lesson for his deception when he loses all his customers due to the poor quality of jaggery he sells which makes him realize the true value of Majubi. Saudagar is a beautiful story of greed, lies, and deception. Amitabh Bachchan humanizes Moti that despite his flaws, there is sympathy for him by the end, just as there is some for Mirza in Gulabo Sitabo
In the very first scene of Gulabo Sitabo, Mirza takes off a light bulb and sells it. It took me to the introduction scene of Debraj Sahay, again played by Amitabh Bachchan, in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Black where he also holds a light bulb. In a lovely interview with the Film Companion, writer Juhi Chaturvedi elaborated on the bulb scene from Gulabo Sitabo. She says, "The film starts with him removing a bulb. Bulb is roshni, knowledge, gyaan. Then he removes the chandelier, another source of light and knowledge. I wanted to tell many more stories and incidents on the kind of man he is. I wanted to show how he was slowly moving towards complete darkness." In contrast, the scene from Black is about moving from darkness to the light of knowledge. Debraj holds a bulb and says, "Come into the light," symbolizing that he will bring light in the life of Michelle (Rani Mukerji). The bulb is about to get extinguished and is 'dying' they say, another symbolic reference to Debraj's own waning life. These scenes again show the extent of thought that writers put while crafting a single scene in their films.
In Piku, Bhaskor vehemently argued against the selling of his ancestral house Champakunj in Kolkata because his mother's name was associated with it. Afterward, Rana (Irrfan) and Piku go on a tour of the city. Piku sees a building that came up at a place that was once a theater. Rana tells her that she is also doing the same by selling her own ancestral house. She says that she is being practical. He, then, replies, "I am not saying tum galat ho. Maybe this is the way forward. Isi ko log development bolte hain. Par apni roots unko agar ukhad do, toh kya bachega." Similar shades are present in Gulabo Sitabo. Begum also does not want to sell Fatima Mahal because it is too special for her as it was made by her grandfather. Builders and politicians want to take over her haveli and construct new houses. Gulabo Sitabo is about the emotional attachment of people over certain possessions. But it is also about people struggling in a world that is changing rapidly. It is fascinating to note then that a mainstream film (with big names) that depicts and cares a lot about the old-world charm releases directly on a streaming platform instead of a traditional theater. Maybe because seeing the plight Mirza and Baankey, it learned that those who do not embrace change end up with nothing except a ball of air.
1) Puppeteer—Mohammed Naushad
2) Subtitles are also done by Juhi Chaturvedi.
Other Reading:
1) On PikuLink
2) On OctoberLink
3) On Puppets and Ventriloquists in Hindi Cinema—Link

The Cutting Scissors:
There was no record of it on the Central Board of Film Certification website, maybe because the film released directly on Amazon Prime.

Dialogue of the Day:
Baankey: "Abki bahut dinon baad tapke, Pandey Ji."
Pandey Ji: "Haan, pake the toh tapak gaye."
—Gulabo Sitabo


  1. Your acute observations amaze us every time.

    1. Thanks a lot, Gauri, for your immense kindness always :)

  2. As somebody from Lucknow,I loved how authentic the dialogue and the location was.
    I however on the whole didn't love the film.It left me a bit unsatisfied and wanting for more,maybe because I had guessed the "twists" way too early to be actually surprised by them.

  3. Really enjoyed this! As someone from central UP with family in Lucknow, I loved how you noticed the language bit, and how it feels so organic. 'Chutiya' is perhaps the only crass word very commonly used because it is never taken as a cuss word. It is just 'stupid' (bewakoof). My old grandparents use it very casually too :) The dialogues of Gulabo Sitabo are wonderfully very gentle even when they're all bickering. Lovely observation as always :)

    1. Thank you, Aakriti. Yes, yes, I completely agree with the 'Chutiya' bit. It is also part of normal parlance.


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