The first big Indian release of 2020 to divert towards streaming is an offbeam, strangely mismanaged parable about property management that renders its stars all but unrecognisable. The established Amitabh Bachchan is buried beneath old-age latex and thick-lensed glasses; emergent pin-up Ayushmann Khurrana is weighed down by a (presumably prosthetic) middle-aged spread. However director Shoojit Sircar’s gaze keeps drifting beyond them, to a location you couldn’t make-under: a mildewing Lucknow mansion house, lorded over by Bachchan’s shuffling miser Mirza, ever looking for ways to kick Khurrana’s collected waifs-and-strays to the kerb. The curious, altogether tentative drama that ensues may be as close as any film-maker has come to signing off on a Hindi redo of TV’s Rising Damp.
Alas, it’s also one of those cases where forced idiosyncrasy tries the patience from an early stage. With 2015’s sharp, breezy Piku and 2018’s delicate but involving October, Sircar had nudged Indian commercial cinema in a rewarding, naturalistic direction; but this just feels like a strain. A laboured first half scopes out the characters’ dingy surrounds without threatening to go anywhere, and feet are apparently being dragged because Sircar and generally reliable screenwriter Juhi Chaturvedi aren’t themselves sure which direction to move in. Brakes are soon applied to the mounting narrative of landlord-tenant class war – “Parasite!”, yells Mirza, reminding us of a more decisive film on a similar subject – in favour of a softer landing as both antagonists fall prey to creeping gentrification.
While the supporting cast successfully suggest a bustling, mutually sustaining community, the stars come to seem like liabilities, which wasn’t the case with Sircar’s previous films. Bachchan works hard at his swaddled meanie character, but make-up and props are doing most of the work, work that ultimately serves to distance actor from audience. A tired-seeming Khurrana, meanwhile, presents as blandly anonymous, reducing a final push for pathos to a limp shrug. Everyone appears at the mercy of shaky narrative foundations; even a cursory survey would suggest that whatever happened on this story’s journey to the screen, vital elements just didn’t take. You watch puzzled as – like the ageing pile at the story’s centre – the film flakes, moulders and crumbles before you.
• Gulabo Sitabo is available on Amazon Prime Video from 12 June.
Source: The Guardian