The Hindi word for heed is ‘tavajjo’. It’s what Mirza (Amitabh Bachchan) claims not to pay Baankey (Ayushmann Khurrana), his tenant of many years. He’s lying, of course. In the opening shot of 'Gulabo Sitabo', we see him steal a bulb from outside Baankey’s door. The habit recurs throughout the film: Mirza’s thievery a daily annoyance for the residents of Fatima Mahal, a derelict mansion in Lucknow. Even so, the slight against Baankey feels markedly personal, an impulse born not just out of greed, but a fierce rivalry.
Shoojit Sircar’s film features this bickering, self-seeking duo. Written by Juhi Chaturvedi, the comedy revolves around several parties attempting to usurp the aforementioned house. Mirza’s wife (Farrukh Jaffer) is the actual owner of the property; he’d married her out of self-interest (despite a conspicuous difference in age) and has since been waiting for her to pass. Baankey is similarly scheming, willfully defaulting rent to provide for his family of five.
In interviews, Shoojit had called the film his first satire. This becomes clear once the drama spills out of its domestic frame. After Baankey kicks down a bathroom wall, the fight is carried over to the police station. There, he blurts something out about the building’s age, within earshot of a wily archaeological officer (Vijay Raaz). This officer later stakes out the house, runs some preliminary tests, and concludes its heritage value. Here on, the dispute splits into two factions: Baankey and the other tenants siding with the government official and Mirza enlisting the help of a lawyer (Bijendra Kala).
The run-ins between Ayushmann and Big B could have become the mainstay here. Both actors go at it with glee, huffing and hissing, and calling each other funny animal names. Instead, Gulabo Sitabo gives pride of place to its impressive supporting cast. Srishti Shrivastava is brilliant as Baankey’s sharp-witted sister. Vijay Raaz channels a uniformed cool, while Bijendra Kala is stoutly reliable as a barefaced shark. Above all, there’s Farrukh Jaffar's quietly affecting turn, steering the film to its tart, unexpected conclusion.
The title is a nod to glove puppetry traditions in Uttar Pradesh (we also get a glimpse of a colourful streetside performance). Juhi’s screenplay, too, has a fable-like quality. The heavy emotions of October and Piku are absent in this tale of a stingy coot and his house. There’s an effort to empathise with the squatting tenants — people with slippery legal rights and facing sudden eviction — and the satirical tone isn’t always in force. It’s a playful, gentle probing yarn, a golden goose story within a larger social backdrop.
Amitabh Bachchan is winningly reined in as Mirza. Slouched and cartooned-nosed, he conveys his character’s impunity in huffed grunts. He builds his performance around measured physical movement rather than boisterous dialogue. Mirza is a creature of greed, a despicable grump incapable of kindness or warmth. He’s easily toppled by the promise of fortune, yet he gets up all the same. It’s a wicked addition to the Bachchan canon, and the actor commands little sympathy on Mirza’s behalf.
Coming off a streak of solo hits, it’s great to see Ayushmann show up for a two-hander. The actor has a way of owning whatever space he’s in: working fastidiously in a wheat mill or pacing up and down a cramped room. There’s a droll little scene with Baankey and Mirza arguing across a storefront (it ends with the latter walking off with a bag of wheat). Ayushmann doesn’t get as many punchlines as his other comedies; even then, he brings the same harried charm so distinct to all his roles.
Minutely observed and told, Gulabo Sitabo is Shoojit’s heartiest film. It brims with flavour, colour and sound — and treasures hidden in plain sight. Like all great fables, it asks a simple question: what did you bring into the world, and what will you take?
Cast: Ayushmann Khurrana, Amitabh Bachchan, Farrukh Jaffer, Vijay Raaz, Brijendra Kala
Director: Shoojit Sircar
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video