The glorious ensemble cast, which includes the likes of Sharmila Tagore, Manoj Bajpayee, Simran, and Amol Palekar, does a stellar job and is ably backed by a well-written script that ensures that neither the message overpowers the emotions nor even in its most lachrymose moments, it becomes a melodramatic mush
Director: Rahul V. Chittella
Writers: Rahul V. Chittella and Arpita Mukherjee
Cast: Sharmila Tagore. Manoj Bajpayee, Simran, Amol Palekar, Suraj Sharma and others
The entire Batra family, except one member, has gathered at Gulmohar villa. It is supposed to be their last night at the house they have called home for 34 years. Amid the music and alcohol-laced light-hearted banter and bittersweet melancholia, the grand old lady of the house, Kusum Batra (Sharmila Tagore) suddenly breaks the news that she will not be shifting with the family at their new penthouse but has bought herself a house in Pondicherry where she plans to spend the rest of her life. This shocks everyone, especially Arun, her son—the duo shares a deep bond. He is upset and feels blindsided. Kusum also insists that the family extend their stay at their family house for four more days and leave after celebrating holi together at Gulmohar. Though this causes inconvenience as it messes up their original plan, the family reluctantly agrees. But nobody expects these four days to change the course of their lives.
This is not a kitchen-sink drama of a dysfunctional family. There is no saas-bahu melodrama, there are no sinister plots being hatched. Instead, we have a family that is close-knit, the building blocks of their home are love, loyalty, empathy, and respect for one another. Even everyday bickering is punctuated with light-hearted banter. Yes, there are cracks that crop up here and there but they also know how to plaster those with kindness. It is a story where even when a house is lost, the home is carried within the hearts of the members of the family. Even when the house starts to spill its secrets, in what seems to be its final act of revenge on its inhabitants for abandoning it, it is not enough to tear this family apart.
The film is a beautiful and nuanced exploration of the idea of home and family through the interpersonal bond shared among its members including three distinctly different father-son equations. In doing so, it also raises an important question: Can love be thicker than blood? Gulmohar also branches out to many different stories talking about family legacy, inclusivity, rapid urbanization, caste discrimination, class privilege, societal prejudices, accepting and embracing one’s sexual orientation, the struggle to create one’s own identity, negotiating individual freedom and responsibility within a family unit, the importance of evolving with time, and being open to change, among other things; there is lived-in feminism that runs through the movie but it is not of the current woke social media variety. But, these important discourses flow seamlessly and the movie never becomes stilted. Pregnant with worldly wisdom, it creates poetry out of the prosaic.
Apparently, director Rahul Chittella found inspiration for Gulmohar, his debut feature, from his emotional experience of watching his frequent collaborator (he was the creative and producing partner for The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Queen of Katwe, and A Suitable Boy among others) and filmmaker Mira Nair’s two-storeyed house in Vasant Vihar, an upscale neighborhood in Delhi, being sold to a builder. But she plays a muse for Chittella in more ways than one. Gulmohar has a distinct Mira Nair ethos and aesthetics, and there are instances that are bound to remind you of Nair’s 2001 film, Monsoon Wedding (Chittella and Arpita Mukherjee are both part of the team that created the Monsoon Wedding Musical.)
You can’t possibly go wrong with a cast that boasts three National Award-winning actors, Sharmila Tagore (the movie marks the return of the 78-year-old actor to film acting after a 12-year hiatus, she was last seen in the 2010 release Break Ke Baad), Manoj Bajpayee and Amol Palekar. But, even the actors in bit roles leave a lasting impact.
While Tagore imbues Kusum with her personal brand of charm, grace, and in-built rebellion, Manoj Bajpayee gives a heartbreakingly beautiful performance as Arun — the suave businessman who is still haunted by his origin story and is quietly fighting his own demons in the dark (no Batman was harmed during the making of this bizarre analogy!). In Gulmohar, we have yet another masterclass in acting reinforcing the Manoj Bajpayee supremacy. Although he makes beyond-brilliant use of poignant dialogues, never letting them come across as pretentious, it is in the quieter moments of less flourish that the actor really proves his credentials as one of the greatest actors of Hindi cinema. There is a scene where Arun looks at the framed picture of his father and asks his wife if he has finally started to look like his dad, who happens to be his adoptive parent.. it will just break your heart. His is a fine specimen in acting, where less is more. The scene where the quiet and shy Arun has his outburst not only jolts the family but brilliantly reflects the seething volcano that he was hiding within his calm demeanor. Then there are the scenes where he just sits in his car and stares at a roadside chai-kachori wala—he creates magic out of what might have otherwise come across as most trivial.
A perfect foil to the fragile Arun is his wife, the fiery and steadfastly supportive Indu, and Simran, although an unusual casting choice, plays her with equal brilliance. Amol Palekar, shatters his on-screen persona of the mild-mannered, affable gentleman, as he plays the spiteful Sudhakar Batra, Kusum’s brother-in-law—it is so difficult to hate Amol Palekar, but as Sudhakar, he ensures he is adequately abhorred. Life of Pi actor, Suraj Sharma, is on point as Arun’s almost-estranged son Aditya Batra. Kaveri Seth as his wife Divya gets her moments to shine. Utsavi Jha is effective Aditya’s sister Amrita Batra—a woman in a heterosexual relationship who has fallen in love with another woman and is grappling to accept her own identity.
Jatin Goswami as the family’s loyal security guard Jeetendra Kumar and Santhy Balachandran as the house help Reshma Saeed are equally nuanced. Their love story is bound to remind one of the beautiful romance between ‘P.K.’ Dubey and Alice in Monsoon Wedding. Together they create moments of quiet and warmth, and individually they command the screen with main character energy. Chandan Roy, who had debuted with Amazon Prime’s Panchayat, has some of the most profound as well as funny lines in the film as Jatin’s colleague and friend Paramhans—a character build on the line of a quintessential Shakespearean Fool, and gives a crackling performance. Gandharv Dewan as supervisor of the packers and movers, who reluctantly doubles up as the kabooter between Reshma’s Suman and Jatin’s Prem (the Maine Pyar Kiya reference he himself draws as Reshma sends him on a mission to deliver her emotions wrapped in a letter to Jatin) makes optimum use of his comparatively less screen time.
It is rare that you have an entire cast this good. It also says a lot about the brilliance of the writing, which gives each of these characters their individual moments to shine and stories to tell. The best part of Gulmohar is its beautifully written script and the dialogues that find the fine balance between the poignant and the preachy.
In his first outing as a feature filmmaker, Rahul V Chittella not only shows his command over the craft but also his emotions. In fact, he never lets the movie become a tableau of his talent. He stays true to the story and lets the soul breathe. One of his characters says in the movie where the heart is in the right place don’t tax your brain and complicate things, and Chittella definitely seems to practice what he preaches.
It is the story of a home turning into a house as it loses its humans. It is a story of those humans finding the true meaning of home in the process.
The Batras have sold their family home and have four days leading up to Holi to soak up all the nostalgia the abode is steeped in. As they sift through the past, they stumble upon a yellowed brittle piece of dark truth stuck between bricks of wholesome memories—one little tug and the entire facade collapses raising questions about its building blocks.
The glorious ensemble cast, which includes the likes of Sharmila Tagore, Manoj Bajpayee, Simran, and Amol Palekar, does a stellar job and is ably backed by a well-written script that ensures that neither the message overpowers the emotions nor even in its most lachrymose moments, it becomes a melodramatic mush.
Although it doesn’t quite reach the poignancy and brilliance of Monsoon Wedding, a movie it is bound to remind you of, Gulmohar manages to tug at the heartstrings and feels like a warm hug on a gloomy winter morning.
This is definitely one of the best Hindi movies we have seen in recent years and you can watch it on Disney+ Hotstar.