Gulmohar Review: With Sharmila Tagore And Manoj Bajpayee, A Treat All The Way

Gulmohar Review: With Sharmila Tagore And Manoj Bajpayee, A Treat All The Way

Manoj Bajpyee and Sharmila Tagore in Gulmohar. (courtesy: bajpayee.manoj)

Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Sharmila Tagore, Suraj Sharma, Utsavi Jha, Amol Palekar, Santhy Balachandran and Kaveri Seth

Director: Rahul V Chittella

Rating: Four stars (out of 5)

If happy memories were to acquire a tangible, physical shape, they would probably resemble bright, little multicoloured gems stored away in the subconscious to be savoured in tranquillity. Conversely, unpleasant memories would be akin to sharp shards of glass that prick, wound and leave deep scars. Rahul V. Chittella’s debut feature, Gulmohar, is peopled by characters whose remembrances, triggered by a flashpoint, are more in the nature of the latter.

An engaging, genteel family drama that flips open crypts of the mind and the heart and probes the discomfiting secrets and fears that lie buried down there, Gulmohar, streaming on Disney+Hotstar, celebrates the healing potential of kinship even as it confronts the trauma of disruption brought on by quirks of destiny or as repercussions of individual decisions.

The film centres on an affluent Delhi family that struggles to stick together as their choppy past casts a shadow on their uneasy present. A brood dealing with insecurities and misgivings that erupt amid a life-altering event may sound like old hat, but Chittella and Arpita Mukherjee’s screenplay, marked by disarming simplicity and impressive depth, puts an agreeably refreshing spin on it.

That apart, Gulmohar is buoyed by a slew of superlative performances – not surprising at all given that the cast is led by Sharmila Tagore, Manoj Bajpayee, Simran and Amol Palekar. The seasoned quartet lends weight to the intimate, insightful narrative. They convey a wide spectrum of emotions with unwavering, clinical precision.

The director also draws the best out of the younger actors, notably Kaveri Seth, Utsavi Jha and Santhy Balachandran, who brilliantly etches out a self-effacing housemaid who has a moving story of her own that is inextricably intertwined with that of the family she serves. Also in the film is Suraj Sharma, who delivers a flawless turn.

The impact of the ensemble cast is appreciably enhanced by Jatin Goswami, Chandan Roy (as two migrants to the city who work in the Batra household) and Anurag Arora as a key member of the extended family. Chittella, Mira Nair’s producing partner on The Reluctant Fundamentalist and A Suitable Boy, clearly has a way with actors.

Gulmohar narrates a decades-spanning tale that is astutely compressed into four days in the life of the Batras as they prepare to move out of what has been their abode for 34 years. One final party is on in the house when the film opens.

Life is, however, anything but a party for the departing denizens of Gulmohar Villa. The equations of the family matriarch, Kusum Batra (Sharmila Tagore), with her son Arun (Manoj Bajpayee) and daughter-in-law Indu (Simran) are palpably frosty. Matters appear to be no better between Arun and his son Aditya (Suraj Sharma).

The property has been sold to a real-estate company to be developed into a residential complex, a plight that befalls many such homes across Delhi these days. Before the packers and movers can get to work, Kusum organises a bash to commemorate the family’s last night at the address.

Director of photography Eeshit Narain shoots the film’s opening sequences in a manner that approximates the turmoil of departure and the uncertainties of the future. The frenetic cutting by editor Tanupriya Sharma heightens the restive moments as the camera darts from one face to another, from one part of the small gathering to another.

Talat Aziz, playing a friend of the family, croons a soothing number that serves as a counterpoint to the discordant notes that hang heavy in the air. The party winds up with Kusum making two matter-of-fact announcements that take her son aback. But the lady stands her ground.

As the film progresses, the cinematography settles into a steadier rhythm as the back stories of the characters begin to emerge and either mesh with each other or spark confrontations. As the household belongings are packed and loaded on a truck, long-dormant truths and lies begin to bubble forth. Thwarted aspirations and suppressed feelings come out in the open and the warts begin to show.

Holding the family together is a challenge for all three generations of the Batras. Arun and Indu have firmed up plans to shift into their own apartment. Their son and his wife Divya (Kaveri Seth), too, are ready to fly the coop. The young couple has decided to branch out to escape living under the shadow of the parents.

Each of the relationships – mother-son, father-son, husband-wife – is tested as Kusum, Arun and Aditya seek to go their separate ways now that the glue that held them together for three decades and more is no longer going to be a part of their lives. Arun’s daughter Amrita (Utsavi Jha), a budding songwriter, also finds herself at the crossroads as the ground beneath her feet literally shifts.

Kusum’s sullen brother-in-law Sudhakar Batra (Amol Palekar), who is only mentioned but not seen in person at the party at the start of the film, holds grudges and fuels discord. He loses no opportunity to fire barbs at Kusum, who he holds responsible for what is going wrong.

Gulmohar, acknowledging that there are other lives around the Batras that matter and deserve attention, carves out a significant subplot to two men and a woman – Jeetu (Jatin Goswami), Paramhans (Chandan Roy) and Reshma (Shanty Balachandran) – who work for the family and whose fate hinges on the what is left in the wake of the disappearance of a home.

Gulmohar, expressly dedicated to the homes that people build and the families that they forge, could be described as a sweet little film about what happens to individuals when a concrete space that collectively defines them ceases to be.

Admittedly, there are some plot elements here that rely overly upon happenstance, but that does not take anything away from the combination of warmth and clear-eyed discernments that underpin Chittella’s unpretentious but hugely effective storytelling style.

There is a great deal of beauty in the muted melodrama. There is just as much technical finesse in the film. It is perceptive and poignant in equal measure. With Sharmila Tagore, returning to the screen after a hiatus of more than a decade, and Manoj Bajpayee in immaculate form, Gulmohar is a treat all the way.

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