Monthly Archives: June 2020

On GULABO SITABO and the battle between crumbling traditions and modernity

Beneath the comic musical-beats of GULABO SITABO, there carries a twang of pain for every beat. There’s a reasoning for everything here; why Amitabh was chosen? Why was he made to be a hunch-back? Why was he lisping on about his famous movie ‘Deewal’?

In perhaps one of his most unadulterated movies ever, coming close on the heels of October—that had a bad actor to begin with—Shoojit takes the finest actor-star the Hindi film industry has ever seen, and pits him against an actor who is known to own small-town-actor roles.

This is a film about people not letting go. The irony that Shoojit and writer Juhi Chaturvedi want to focus on is not just the so-called ‘older’ people, but the younger ones too! And that’s Ayushman’s Bankey Rastogi. He’s happy paying 30 rupees rent per month compared to the other tenants’ rent amounting to 70 rupees in an old dilapidated ‘haveli’ in Lucknow. He approaches Bankey asking him to pay 50 rupees per day for parking his bike, an amount greater than the house-rent! What kind of a logic is this? Amitabh’s Chunmun Mirza Saheb—remember, this name is uttered as a full name only in the last scene; and he is terrific there, as he says: ‘Ya I know my name is Chunmun Mirza Saheb, why are you saying the same thing?’

The film is set-up almost like Sai Paranjape’s KATHA, except that KATHA had more mischievous and some-what less tragically-oriented interferences with day-to-day life interactions amongst the chawl-folks. There’s a hilarious scene when Bankey wakes up in the morning and screams: ‘अरे यहाँ लुमीनिूम की हंडियन पड़ी थी, मिर्ज़ा के चप्पलें पड़ी थी, दो बकरियाँ बांड पड़ी है, साला हमारी ही बल्ब मिला निकालने के लिए! [Of all the aluminum vessels, of Mirza’s chappals, of the goats tied here, only my house’s bulbs were available for stealing!] The Begum [Mirza’s wife, played by a fine Farrukh Jafar; 17 years older than Mirza], comments that what’s the big deal with bulbs? Not as if your property has been stolen! To which Mirza replies: ‘इनकी जायडाड़ोवाले सूरत कहाँ??’ [‘Does his face look like the face of a property-owner?’] And it’s okay and everyone goes back to their ‘so-called’ normal lives. I mention this for a specific reason, since Shoojit/Juhi set-up this ‘play’ if I may call it so, well into the first reel of the film. And then that thread knits the scenes through-out the film, the difference being the battle between a ‘haveli’ and a ‘property’ is played out.

I do not want to write much about the story; since everyone already knows about the folk-lore of GULABO-SITABO; a battle between a younger mistress and an older wife trying to ‘own’ their husband. Suffice it to say, Mirza is the older wife [Sitabo] and Bankey, the younger mistress [Gulabo], and the priceless-husband, the mansion, ‘Fatima-Mahal.’ So, let’s just say, it is Tom and Jerry incorporated [shown in the film as well where Bankey’s younger sisters are enjoying the show.]

The movie, mainly then, is about that struggle everyone and mostly ones in a nation like India are facing: Should we re-visit our heritage, reflected through the crumbling walls (or crumbling traditions) and pillars of something like ‘Fatima Mahal’, or should we just go on with the compartments built on the life-is-a-journey-always-on-the-wheels and one should learn to evolve? Malls and multiplexes were the new ‘in-things’, right? The single-screens that used to give us the pleasure of watching movies without any English-speaking/transliterating ‘je-huzoori’ by the usher or the person selling us fried peanuts or ‘batata-wadas’ or ‘cutting-chai’ is gone. [And if not, the CV-19 will take care of their complete annihilation.] There’s a dialogue between Mirza and his lawyer, the ever-dependable Brijendra Kala’s Christopher [not very different from Christopher Columbus as in Hindi parlance, focusing on property dealings, and the reason perhaps his character being named so – ‘Jaana thaa Japan, pahaunch gaye Cheen!’] Christopher keeps referring to ‘Fatima-Mahal’ in the court-corridor/his-office as a property and advising Mirza to sell it before the ‘Archaeology Society of India’ stamps it a national heritage. Mirza keeps responding to him: ‘Kab se aap property property bol rahe hain, hum bata rahen aapko yeh haveli hain, is mein kiraydaar/log rehete hain.’ Now, that’s one telling statement.

With regard to the performances, Amitabh, again, even with a hunch-back and a prosthetic nose, stands tallest as the cantankerous, curmudgeonly intolerable Mirza. He plays a 78-year old man with nothing to look-forward to, but just a crumbling mansion, a metaphor that speaks to his character. He plays that old-man with hardly any irredeemable features, desiring for his own wife’s death [a love-less marriage nonetheless]; locking toile; stealing bulbs [but hardly a bright bulb himself.] He uses his famous ‘hain’ at the right moments, with such a low-pitched voice and deliberately twisting to ‘haaain’ and ‘haan’, it’s hard to imagine who else could have played this character! What’s noticeable is the way he twists it from his mega-hit movies to suit the purpose demanded here. His right ‘chappal’ is torn, he buys a new one, but still keeps the old, left-one stacked in his arm-pit! His mumblings, his curses and his slight-rise-in-anger in certain scenes is conveyed by him with a measured depth, respecting the character’s age. It’s hilarious and painful to see him fall down and get himself-up when he understands how money is multiplied and tries to understand its value. [Again, as I talked about Shoojit/Juhi’s brilliance, Mirza asks for property rates and calculations from a ‘gol-gappa’ vendor, when the camera-man’s glare is right across a bakery named ‘Modern’s Bakery and Store’.] He still doesn’t get it, mind you; that difference between the ‘value’ of money and how it can meaningfully be useful to one’s life; his life. While this is a haunting performance, one shouldn’t forget that he has already played these kind of performances that capture the human emotions, comprising the 7 sins, quite beautifully, without needing any kind of prosthetics, in SAUDAGAR and PARWANA, and many other films!

Khuraana as Bankey plays the perfect foil to Mirza, and it is a joy to see him threatening a lisping Amitabh when the latter tells him, ‘Hamale aur Hamale haveli ke beech aana na.’     [Don’t step between me and my mansion.] Or his nonchalant, matter-of-fact reply to his live-in-wheat-mill-store girl-friend, Fauzia, that if she were to marry him, she would have to share a ‘jainnt laatrine’ with Mishraji’s family. And then there’s a microwave-oven in his home to heat up ‘biriyani.’ Cannot say much more on the dichotomies/ironies captured here but, there it is.

All the other actors, Vijay Raaz, Bankey’s sisters, Sri Prakash Bajpayee’s Pandeyji, Shrishti Shrivastav, have done a fabulous job here. And of course, how can one forget the double-sided ‘sutradhar’ of this film, Nalneesh Nail’s ‘Shekhu.’

Where I felt disappointed a lot was when Shoojit finally decided to ‘ease-up’ and went over-board with the climactic scenes regarding Shaukat Aapa’s birth-day celebrations, nick-named, ‘Fatty’. That scene was a too-much-in-your-face decrying the contradictions between modernity and traditionalism that Sarkar and Juhi captured so honestly till then. But then, that can be forgiven, with three brilliant scenes; which prove the intent of Shoojit and Juhi: a) The azaan and temple-bells musically play in unison when-ever there’s Mirza walking on the streets of Lucknow;  b) Bankey and Mirza, sitting astride, for once, honestly bare their hearts and talk as to why Mirza married Fatima and what was it that she saw in him, and c) Begum leaving a dilapidated house to Mirza, inspite of all the quibbles, where the only ‘property’ that Mirza carries away painfully is a ‘khandaani’ chair, that he sells for 250 rupees, and it ends up in some auction house in Bombay for it to be consumed about for a vulgar amount, but lowered in value.

And as I mentioned before, this is again that contradiction regarding the human of letting go versus sticking-on; and that’s what eats us up.



Gulabo Sitabo:

क्या  लेक आयो जग में, क्या लेके जायेगा?

क्या लेके आयो जग में, क्या लेके जायेगा, ओ बंधु

क्षण भंगुर काया, तू कहाँ से लाया?

गुरुवन समझाया, पर समझ ना पाया

ये साँस निगोड़ी, चलती रुको थोड़ी

चल-चल रुक जावे, क्या खोया, पाया?

क्या लेक आयो जग में, क्या लेके जायेगा?

क्या लेके आयो जग में, क्या लेके जायेगा, ओ बंधु

क्या लेक आयो जग में, क्या लेके जायेगा?

क्या लेके आयो जग में, क्या लेके जायेगा, ओ बंधु

ओ मन सुन जोगी बात, यहाँ माया करती घाट

आतम भी तर समझात, मूरख ना समझे बात

है ईश्वर तेरे साथ, काहे मन मा घबरात

हो राम सुमिर दिन-रात, कष्ट समय कट जात