Lucknow. The very name resonates with ittar ke bheeni bheeni khushboo, the flavour of its kababs and biryanis sold in street shops or cooked by khandani bawarchis in Nawabi kitchens. Beautiful women swishing their colourful ghararas across the street, the mehman nawaazi of the aristocracy, the adakaari of the courtesans, the music of ghazals and quawallis wafting in the air and the city dotted with heritage hawelis and palaces that still remain hot tourist spots.

Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo dispels all this nostalgia around the city with his exploration of a Lucknow we have not heard of, much less seen even if we visited as tourists.

The Mirza Saab (Amitabh Bachchan) who is married to the Begum (Farrukh Jaffar) the owner of Fatima Mahal, is so poor that he buys second hand slippers because he cannot afford new ones. He is also light-fingered enough to lift his tenant Baankey (Ayushman Khurana)’s sheet to cover himself with. When Baankey pulls it off, he mumbles, “I farted into it all night” and goes back to sleep.

His life is focused on inheriting Fatima Mahal when Begum, who is about to be 95, dies. Sadly, for Mirza, she refuses to die. She is a beautiful ninety-plus who gets her maid with the intriguing name Dulhan, mehndi her hair, do her up everyday and tend to her every need.

She dismisses her 17-year-younger husband Mirza with a flick of her hand and has nothing to do with him. Yet, in a touching moment, she asks him, her eyes glittering like a happy child, whether they had eloped or whether they had had a proper nikaah, scandalizing the hunchbacked, bearded husband who looks much older than the woman herself.

He takes her insults and humiliation quietly because he knows one day, he will inherit Fatima Mahal. Does he? Therein lies the twist in the tale! She even says that she will complain to Pandit Nehru which is an indication that she is, at times, caught in a time loop.

Among the twelve, equally poor tenants, Baankey is the second-generation tenant who was born in the haveli, lives with his widowed mother and three sisters and refuses to pay the measly rent of Rs.30 per month while the others shell out Rs.70. All the tenants are scared stiff of being thrown out of the mansion when Begum kicks the bucket and Mirza sells off the haveli. Again, she refuses to die. In fact, when they think she has died, she limps along with Dulhan, gets into a rickshaw, waves goodbye and goes off to get some “fresh air.”

The narrative is focused on the constant tussle between Baankey and Mirza firstly because Baankey has not paid the rent for four months at a stretch and secondly because Baankey, himself a semi-literate who runs the family’s flour mill, is forever after Mirza for stealing the bulb at the entrance, or, pulling off the main switch after he spots an electric oven in his home and so on.

They are at loggerheads which escalates when two con men, one, an “archeology” wanting to seal the haveli by having it sealed as “heritage property” and another, a lawyer specializing in “property deals” step into the conflict between the tenants and the seeming-owner Mirza, also an unlettered man who married the older woman to get hold of the mansion.

An entire film cannot hold itself together purely through the squabbles of these two men. So it stumbles, limps and falters every now and then, at times relieved by the tongue-in-cheek humour in the dialogue. But that alone cannot salvage the film because nothing much happens as we skim across the surface that does not demand much in-depth attention. In fact, the narrative seems to drag at times, specially towards the end.

What truly rescues the film from going southwards is its fleshing out of two very strong women in Guddo (Shristhi Srivastava), Baankey’s very intelligent, young sister and the old Begum. The two women, distanced in terms of age, culture, education, class and financial status, live life on their own terms and care two hoots about what others think or talk of them.

Guddo is so clever that she gives her Dadda Baankey a complex. She takes a roll in the hay with whoever she chooses and when one of them shockingly askes her “Am I the third?” she shoos him off. She gives the lawyer a piece of her legal knowledge right in the middle of the street and is ready to sleep with the “Archeology” (Vijay Raaz) to help her bag a job in his office. But the “archeology” has pyorrhea so he says he cannot even kiss her so before leaving, she suggests he go to the dentist.

The satire, the sarcasm laced with intelligent repartee in talk and in action are all provided by these two women. The men, including the hunchbacked Mirza, pale beside them. Once, when Mirza comes back to the Begum to get her thumb impression on the haveli’s documents, she spreads out the fingers of both hands to show him that they are all bandaged, flashing one of her toothless, sweet smiles.

The two brilliant performances by Farrukh Jaffar and Shrishti Srivastava gives all the males in the film a run for their money and for audience applause. The men are dwarfed in comparison.

Unwittingly perhaps, Sircar invests the film with a strong feminist statement about two women who believe in empowering themselves within extremely different and difficult circumstances.

Poor Ayushman Khurana is reduced almost to a glamorous extra who watches helplessly when his ex-girlfriend takes a rude pot-shot at his confused response to her order for “multigrain atta.” But the actor that he is, he takes all this script-backed sidetracking and performs without any ego hang-up.

Fatima Manzil is a significant character with its brick-lined walls sans plaster, the arches that have seen better days, the toilet that is as fragile as Baankey’s resolutions, zeroing down on the single brick the “archeology” takes to the lab for ‘dating”.

Amitabh Bachchan is brilliant as usual with his sneaking meanness – he goes to buy the cheapest kafan for his wife who is alive and kicking, tells the shop keeper to take some flowers off the bundle and even books the “do gaz zameen” in advance without giving any money, as far away from Fatima Manzil as possible. His is the most author-backed role in the film but the two women steal it from him from under his nose.

His prosthetic nose sticks out like a sore thumb right through the film and one worries over whether that constant hunchback and crooked gait may not have given him a real hunchback after the shoot. Without doubt, Mirza was Amitabh Bachchan’s most physically challenging role till date.

The one good thing about Mirza is that the star performing and the character he performs remain completely distanced from each other. Brijendra Kala as Christopher Clark who speaks English at home and has “lunch” and “dinner” does justice to the cameo he is given and the same goes for Vijay Raaz.

Avik Mukherjee’s cinematography captures the ambience of light and darkness of the massive haveli beautifully, walking through the arched entrance now fallen on dark days, the brick walls, the light showing through the shimmering eyes of Mirza through his thick lensed glasses, the spacious interiors of the Begum’s inner space with its antique furniture and juxtaposes this with the damp ambience of the flour mill Baanke works in.

The art direction is beautiful but what stands out is the music and the lyrics specially of two songs that spell out the philosophy of life spelt out in the Bhagavad Gita.

However, there are a few logical lapses. How can Begum , who can hardly move without help, write such a long letter in such a beautiful hand? How can Mirza remain unaware that she has been missing for three days in a row? What is the 95th birthday party all about? Who has organized it and why?

Unlike his previous films, Gulabo Sitabo does not have a happy ending. It is not a feel-good film but neither is it something to take home to, or want to watch again.

Begum Sahiba has the last laugh as Mirza and Baankey, both watching from the streets outside the gate as Begum Sahiba drives away in her car, are literally left in the lurch and have forgotten their quarrels. This is certainly not your best film Sircar and neither is it Bachchan’s or Ayushman’s.