Fifteen minutes into Shoojit Sircar’s recently-released Gulabo Sitabo had me wondering if I was indeed watching a contemporary film—what was this crumbling old house, this unbelievably cheap rent, where were the mobile phones? A bit later I was speculating if it was an adaptation of a satirical novel—such was its mercilessly unsentimental gaze on all its characters and the situations they find themselves in. Further on, I was remarking to myself about the ways in which the film flouted the conventions of many a popular film today. A film in which: a) Hindu, Muslim, and Christian characters co-exist without once referring to their religion, b) Muslim characters are depicted neither as good Muslims nor bad Muslims, c) unmarried women are shown as sexually active and free-spirited without claiming to be flag-bearers of feminism and d) the geographical setting is not a prop to speak of ‘small-town dreams’. In short, it promised to be an unusual film.
Admittedly, the film’s unconventional trajectory can make it seem bewildering, even contrived, if read only at the literal level, but as an allegory, it has much more to offer.
Ostensibly, it is a satire on a dispute over an old haveli, beginning with its residents, and getting increasingly complicated once external actors are drawn into the tussle. The two main characters here are Mirza, the landlord who is not quite the landlord, and Bankey, one of the tenants. Mirza is a bent, crabby, greedy old man who will sell off anything in the vicinity, and has eyes only for the haveli that actually belongs to his wife. Bankey is a frustrated young man, a school dropout who grinds his life away at the atta chakki that was passed down to him by his father. He shares a 10x10 room with his mother and sisters, and furtively woos a woman he cannot afford to marry. The film builds on the delightful daily skirmishes between these two characters, where each of them is shown as yielding no inch to the other. The brash masculinity of the slightly daft young man with lisp clashes with the scheming wiles of the sly old man with a stoop, and both are cut down to size by the women in their lives. The old folk puppetry tale of Gulabo and Sitabo, rivals competing over a man, is here transposed onto the competing affections of two men over a house. But very soon we realise the fraught nature of their attachment to the house, which will be their undoing.
Mirza’s professed ‘love’ for the haveli he married into, is barely-masked greed. He commences by disposing trifles like bulbs and bicycle bells, proceeds to chandeliers, and then attempts to sell off the house itself. He wants the haveli all to himself, and not as a legacy to leave to future generations (because of which he refused to have any children). Bankey has a love-hate relationship with the haveli, does not want to call it his own and yet, cannot afford to move out. He is more a squatter than a tenant, speaks of kicking the dilapidated building down and proceeds to do just that to a portion of it, accidentally. As the tenants’ representative, Bankey frequently clashes with Mirza over rent and responsibilities. Who pays for the upkeep? Who pays damages? How much rent is reasonable? Can the landlord evict the tenants? Do the tenants have any right to the property? By raising these questions, the film slowly builds its plot around concerns of heritage and history that are worth exploring in further detail.
Instead of solving their issues amongst themselves, landlord and tenants take the matter to an external authority, the police, and thereon attract the attentions of Gyanesh Shukla, an officer of the Archaeological Survey of India, and Christopher Clarke, a lawyer. These two men intrude into the shared space of the common home and provoke each party about their rights and claims, giving rise to further conflict and setting off an irreversibly complicated chain of events. More importantly, Shukla and Clarke place the house under the surveillance of bigger forces, because they are actually middlemen representing two equally powerful players—a politician and a builder. One wants to buy the mansion and tear it down for the construction of a multi-storeyed building, the other wants to deploy the ruse of a heritage site to occupy it. But both want it vacated by the current residents. Mirza and Bankey with their petty, grasping calculations are ultimately pawns in a game much larger than themselves.
It is significant to note that Shukla represents the ASI, and that archaeology can be a tool that aids in enriching the knowledge of history, but here, it is not so. This dissociation of history and archaeology is established when the ASI is shown digging at a site based on the divine inspiration of a sadhu, amidst considerable media attention—this search for the past is little more than a red herring born of greed, superstition, and sensationalism at work. This is archaeology that knows only how to bend history to its will, is concerned with history as ‘ruin’ whose aura can be monetised, and whose ‘heritage value’ is only important as long as it can fuel tourism, and as long as a house can be made into a museum. On the other hand, by portraying Clarke as a figure of law with an obsession with legalese and the labyrinth that is the legal system, the film offers its critique of the rhetoric of law. His presentation of his knowledge of English as his credibility is the film’s caricature of the postcolonial fixation with English as the language of privilege and intellect. For Clarke and his master the builder, the house has value only as a property with fixed ownership, which therefore can be transferred and sold.
Bankey’s and Mirza’s own relationships to history are superficial and self-serving. Both are fascinated by the prospect of buried treasure. Mirza is additionally interested in tracing the begum’s (his wife’s) family tree, not to learn of the lived histories, but only for the sake of bureaucratic records of deaths; he sees not people, but possible claimants to property. When the begum tries to flesh out the people in a family photograph to him, he interrupts her—he has no use for oral histories. This is a disingenuous search for history that is reflective of self-interest and not preservation of memory. But ironically, it is in this very process, that the begum’s memories of her youthful desires get triggered, clearing the cobwebs of her muddled mind, leading to the film’s surprising climax. Mirza goes to lengths to track down her relatives to obtain NOCs from them to clear his way to the transfer of property in his name. He is least bothered, or even aware, of their aversion to him, and does not try to mend old bonds or forge new ones, but severs them altogether.
Importantly, Mirza is not the real owner of the haveli, but only its caretaker. The real owner, his wife Fatima Begum, is kept out of all negotiations, and not once does she assert her ownership of the house, till the very end, when her husband’s intentions are all too clear to her. Mirza’s bond with his wife is only for the sake of the house and the allowance she grants him, and he is perpetually waiting for her to die. The begum’s impending death is taken for granted and as only a matter of time, and Mirza even goes to the length of getting her shroud ready and her grave literally dug in anticipation— but she defies his expectations. She turns out to be more youthful than given credit for, and flouting the rules of the game, it is the queen here who delivers the checkmate in the end.
Once all pretence is laid aside and everyone is fighting over the builder’s cash ‘compensation’, news arrives of the begum’s departure—not in the shape of her eagerly-awaited death, but her shocking elopement. She has struck a new bargain with her old lover, one that significantly does involve the transaction of property as well. She sells off the mansion and its belongings at the token sum of one rupee and returns only to celebrate her birthday there in a much changed avatar. Even Bankey’s sweetheart leaves him in the end for the world of the shiny new car, the mall, and organic atta. Everyone moves out of the house which lies unoccupied except for a guard, who shoos away Mirza and Bankey. Mirza is left with only a balloon in hand, having sold off for a paltry sum even the chair that the begum had left for him as a keepsake.
As a deeper allegory, the house can also be read as the nation itself, for if the nation is a macrocosm of the family, then the house is a microcosm of its territory. The residents of Fatima Mahal represent the diverse citizens of this nation. They occupy a crumbling, badly -in-need-of-repair mansion that is somehow holding itself together. What else is the squabbling over the bathroom if not a struggle over meagre resources and constricted space? What else is Mirza’s posturing as landlord, his relentless schemes to fleece his tenants, and his impatience to become sole owner of the haveli, if not a reflection of majoritarian attitudes towards ownership of resources? Mirza often refers to the tenants as parasites and termites—dehumanising words that have also been used to describe minorities in this nation. Bankey and Mirza represent two generations who refuse to make peace with each other—a son without a father who has no respect for the elderly and a father without a son with no affection for the young are, the film implies, as good as a past without a vision of the future and a future without a sense of past. And what of Fatima Begum, the unloved wife after whom the haveli is named ‘Fatima Mahal’ (in a delightful inversion of the legend of Taj Mahal)? She who is dominating, seventeen years older than her husband, she who chose her mansion over her youthful love for another man, she whose mind is stuck in an earlier era, the era of Nehru? She, who realises that her greedy husband (roughly the age of independent India) is only waiting for her to die to lay claim to her property, who shocks everyone by eloping with her old lover and selling off her property? She is the spirit of India herself, somehow holding the rackety old mansion together, who in the disappointment of her ripe old age, breaks off her nikah contract with her husband, leaves, and throws the gates of the mansion open to another culture—that of unmoored, flashy, consumerist modernity.
Seen in this light, the film alludes to quite another property dispute that the whole country has been mired in, since the time of independence—who does the nation belong to? And Mirza’s scrambling for the property deed, echoes the similar demands made on citizenship of late—that of furnishing proof of citizenship. When Clarke tells Mirza that such old property has ‘no single, clear ownership’, he does not speak of the house alone. The story of modern Indian history is also the story of disputed property. Of the intrusion of the state and big capital into previously preserved territory. Of excavations made to support dubious claims of favoured histories. Of people rendered homeless, natural and cultural heritage destroyed. The film raises many related important questions— Is heritage that which can be reduced merely to architecture and archaeology? Is heritage that which can be bound with a fence and a board? Is heritage to be claimed, or preserved? Is it that which can be called ‘priceless’ and then sold off to the highest bidder? Or is heritage that which is a living presence, felt and experienced through linguistic fullness (‘pake the toh tapak gaye’ remains my favourite dialogue from the film), the interest that neighbours take in each other’s affairs, the resolve to stay together despite differences?
The setting of Lucknow is specifically that of the old city, with its particular rhythm and pace of living, its particular commingling of neighbours, its easy coexistence with the relics and memories of the past, whose aura of ‘ongoing history’ is very palpable. But the film uses the lens of the local to share its larger vision with us—one which traces the sorry trade-off of an older set of values for a newer one. Thus, it is less of an ode to a place, and more of an elegy to a fast-disappearing sense of being and living, where insults are colourful, crookedness is endearing, and everything throbs with humour and life. In that sense, it is anti-modern. This explains the near absence of most traces of contemporary ‘technology’ (perhaps with the only exceptions of the bike and the microwave). This also must be why the film seems to exist in a time warp of sorts. In the film’s universe, this is the pact that India is making today, and the gates of the past will soon be shut in our faces, like in those of Bankey and Mirza, if we continue to speak the language of rights alone, and not duties.Admittedly, its vision of the past is not pristine either, and has strong hints of preference for an elitist, feudal social regime, nor does the film invest depth in its assessment of the modern, but some of this can be attributed to the constraints of the genre.
Gulabo Sitabo can be seen as a sequel of sorts to Tapan Sinha’s 1980 Bangla film Baanchharamer Baagaan (Baanchharam’s Garden), the story of a frail old man very fond of the grove that he nurtures, and the inter-generation greed of a zamindar family that wishes to possess the garden and thus wants him dead. There, the garden becomes a trope that brings out the greed and selfishness of all concerned, and the old man’s resilient health refuses to surrender to mortality, but the film ends on a hopeful note suggesting the triumph of those who toil with the earth, over the remnants of a feudal order. Gulabo Sitabo chooses a different ending and ends with a warning: that if we do not quit our squabbling and dancing to the tunes of one or the other puppeteer, we will soon lose our precious collective heritage—our home itself—however uneasily held together it may be, to the forces of state, big capital, and empty novelties that come in the name of ‘progress’. All of us are only caretakers and tenants of this nation, laying claim to its property and resources without being willing to undertake the hard work required to keep up its maintenance. For all the digging that goes on in the film to ascertain date and precise ‘roots’, we realise that every such exercise is as selfish as is futile, for our heritage is not that which can only be dug up from the earth—‘desh ki mitti’ (the soil of the motherland) is not a literal entity. Our shared heritage is the living, breathing spirit of collective existence that animates all our lives and that we are all in urgent danger of losing.
Note of acknowledgement: I thank Bornali Bhandari for having directed my attention towards Baanchhaaraamer Baagaan as a possible source of inspiration for this film.
(Rituparna Sengupta is pursuing PhD on Hindu mythology in contemporary Indian popular culture texts, at IIT Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)