Stories of loss of a culture, an era or even an artifact make for a great retelling if done with finesse and Gulabo Sitabo (GS), inspite of an occasional stutter in its tone, does not disappoint.
For the kingdom of Awadh, once called the Paris of East, its culture had been a heady mix of luxury, decadence and poetry. The proverbial tales of Nawabs of Lucknow, their idiosyncrasies as well as their senilities, are a part of North Indian lore. Their lifestyles might have gone extinct yet the dreams of their descendants have remain rooted.
Gulabo Sitabo tells the tale of one such slice of history, a Haveli called Fatima Mahal, which like its owner, its culture and its time is well past its expiry date. The ramshackle building is obstructing the way of the new power elite, with its owner and their tenants, still clinging on to it.
As poverty lays out its compulsions for the wannabe owner Mirza and his entrenched tenant Baankey, they present the male version spectacle of a mother-in-law, daughter –in-law repartee. Both the actors (Amitabh & Ayushman) are in fine form and light up these confrontation scenes with a wicked sense of one-upmanship. Unbeknownst to both however the powers to be are stirring and about to find a landfall.
The plot is slow and rickety by design, because Sircar the director & Chaturvedi the writer, want us to relish the characters, their old world swag and their entrapments. The thrill lies, not in pace of the motion but in nuance of the narration. For example look at the trade Mirza makes of his youth for an asset ownership or the way Guddo ( Baankeys sister) treats her sexuality as a transactional tool or that scene where Mirza hobbles back from a party with a balloon because coming back empty handed would be a waste.
Being a tale of ostensible loss and an innate collapse, GS’s heart though is loaded with pathos. You feel sad for its characters who are invariably being pulled to their individual tragedies as also for the heritage which is being allowed to slip away, because of corruption of the system which was meant to preserve it.
This circles us back to the overhanging theme of civilizational loss. Satyajit Ray in his opus Shatranj Key Khiladi had documented the top down view of Awadh’s conquest. Shoojit Sircar now completes that story with a bottoms up, time displaced narration.
So whether the spats are cerebral on a chess board, as of the aristocracy or verbal in your face as of common folks, their distractions result in loss of our present. Gulabo Sitabo however goes further than merely demonstrating this temporal loss.
It invites us to consider the day, when past will also get robbed from us, with all its characters dead and all of its lively vibrance reduced to mere ownership of costly antiques. That then would be real death of a civilization.