Mirza, the landlord of Fatima Mahal, the picturesquely crumbling mansion at the center of the Hindi film “Gulabo Sitabo” (streaming on Amazon Prime), is fighting a long, cranky war with the tenants he regards as vermin in his house. He steals their light bulbs, cuts their power and locks them out of spare bathrooms when the communal latrine becomes unusable. A swift kick of frustration was all it took to make a person-size hole in its wall.
The main focus of Mirza’s hostility is Baankey, who lives with his mother and sisters in a few crowded rooms, and pays the grandfathered-in rent of 30 rupees (less than a dollar). When their battle escalates — who will pay to fix the bathroom wall? — a small-time lawyer becomes involved. Also snooping around: a government archaeologist, who has his own plans for Fatima Mahal.
Set in old Lucknow, with the modern world intruding at first only in a few objects (a motorcycle, a cellphone), “Gulabo Sitabo” is at once a lightly allegorical riff on the forces and counterforces of Indian modernization and a character-based comedy powered by two Bollywood stars.
In one corner, the heavyweight champ: Amitabh Bachchan, Hindi cinema’s angry young man turned grand old man. Hunched over and mumbling, his famous face hidden behind a bushy beard and a hawklike prosthetic nose, Bachchan plays Mirza with a character actor’s delicacy and attention to detail.
In the other corner, the kid: Ayushmann Khurrana, a young actor who has made a specialty of playing Indian Everymen. As Baankey, he has a slightly stunned look that suggests oceans of tamped-down desire and ambition. Bachchan’s Mirza, equally indignant and ineffectual, has his own version of that stunned look.
If these dazed, hapless men get most of the screen time, the women in the movie, operating in the margins, consistently outwit them. When Baankey’s girlfriend points out that he’s not too intelligent, he flings the insult back at her, telling her she’s not smart. “I’m not,” she agrees. “But at least I pretend to be. And by pretending over a period of time I will become.” It is a woman, one who long ago became smart, who decides the fate of Fatima Mahal, in the charming end twist.
Directed by Shoojit Sircar and written by Juhi Chaturvedi (Bachchan worked with the pair before, in “Piku”), “Gulabo Sitabo” is not standard Bollywood fare: no singing, no dancing, no melodrama (and no three-hour run time). It’s part of a new wave of movies with indie spirit, and even its release plan — going direct to streaming instead of waiting out the pandemic to open in cinemas — challenges established dogmas, to some consternation in the Indian film industry.
That certainly diminishes its cinematic splendor: Shot by Avik Mukhopadhyay in a rich palette of rusts and greens, it paints a beautiful but unfussy, picture of lived-in old Lucknow. But it also throws into relief the movie’s strengths. Star power aside, it’s more chamber work than symphony, more character study than Bollywood blowout. Refreshing on all counts.