Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Ayushmann Khurrana, Vijay Raaz, Farrukh Jaffar, Brijendra Kala, Srishti Shrivastava, Nalneesh Neel and Tina Bhatia
Director: Shoojit Sircar
Story, Screenplay & Dialogue: Juhi Chaturvedi
Produced by: Ronnie Lahiri and Sheel Kumar
Released by: Amazon Prime Video
Rating: 4 Moons
There’s something about James Halliwell-Phillipps’s 1842 nursery rhyme about a Crooked Man in Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo that premieres on Amazon Prime Video today. You remember the verse, There was a crooked man, and he went a crooked mile/He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile/He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse/And they all lived together in a little crooked house?
The crooked man here is Mirza Sheikh (Amitabh Bachchan), the landlord of a rambling haveli in Lucknow grandly titled Fatima Mahal, who has a definite greed for money and several unscrupulous tricks up his dirty sleeves to acquire it at the cost of his poor, unsuspecting and long-suffering tenants.
Among whom are Baankey Sodhi (Ayushmann Khurrana), an impoverished mill-owner with a failed romance living in squalid conditions in the dilapidated haveli with his mother and three sisters, the eldest played by that vivacious YouTube star and actress Srishti Shrivastava.
Old and rattling, Mirza shambles roams around Lucknow in kurta and pajamas that hang on his bent frame, a skull cap on the head, gamcha hiding his face, soda bottle glasses magnifying the craftiness in his fading eyes, his dirty beard blowing in the breeze. He’s mostly at the pawn shop hocking things he stole from his tenants and priceless artefacts from the heritage mansion itself.
Gulabo Sitabo, loosely based on the hoary folktale of UP puppet characters by the same names, is a slow and delightfully entertaining film. It does not have a climax but ends with an unexpected twist that will leave you smiling in amused disbelief and shaking your head in sympathy. The engaging battle of wits and witticisms between Mirza and Baankey, fought with such comical but fierce cut-and-thrust like Tom and Jerry, has nothing to do with the end.
Bringing this battle for vacancy and tenancy that’s reached the Archaeological Survey of India’s office and Civil Court to a head is the landlord’s Begum and original owner of Fatima Mahal, an aristocratic grande dame imperiously played by radio, TV and film artiste Farrukh Jaffar. She is to the manor born. She wed Mirza, who is 17 years her junior, because her original lover Abdul Rahman wanted her to elope to London, whereas Begum loves Fatima Mahal and wanted to settle there and Mirza was happy being a ghar jamai.
The Begum keeps Mirza on his old and tired feet, fraudulently trying to transfer the property onto his name, hoping to outlive her and chuck the tenants out and then make his long cherished dream pile by selling Fatima Mahal. There’s also Vijay Raaz, playing a crooked archaeological surveyor with an eye on the haveli. And Brijendra Kala as, well, a crooked lawyer.
Cinematography by Avik Mukhopadhyay catches Lucknow in all its old world charm. Tumbledown Fatima Mahal, with its cobbled courtyard and broken fountain, the period furniture, four poster beds with mosquito curtains, common toilets, the great outdoors of narrow, twisting streets with open gutters, garment stores with Lucknowi kurtas hanging outside, horse carriages and cycle rickshaws, grand mosques where the azaan is being called while temple bells are ringing, the historic Christ Church where a marriage is in progress, Mushaira-e-Mehfil and chaat stalls, sepia toned photographs in a century-old family album.
Shoojit Sircar has exploited the guile in every character. Amitabh Bachchan, who could live as Mirza in Lucknow and nobody would be wiser, is flawless. He wears the prosthetics effortlessly. Ayushmann Khurrana is endearingly ordinary and the perfect foil for the crafty landlord. Farrukh Jaffar exudes the noble culture of the Mughal era gone by. Vijay Raaz and Brijendra Kala are cunningly excellent. And Srishti Shrivastava brings a vapid sexual undertone to her role.
There’s music in the film, eight songs that play in the background and do not take away from what’s happening on screen, the Gulabo Sitabo theme by Shantanu Moitra twice, once just on a clarinet, and the sights and sounds of old Lucknow itself, from its bright and bustling day to nighttime when darkness falls over the city and the lights in the mosques and narrow alleys come on. That’s when Mirza steals Baankey’s bulbs because he’s not paying the rent, plunging Fatima Mahal in blackness and bringing colour to Juhi Chaturvedi’s engaging story.
PeepingMoon gives 'Gulabo Sitabo' 4 Moons