‘Gulmohar’: Family Drama with Sharmila Tagore and Manoj Bajpayee

by Alaka Sahani

What turns a house into a home? Ironically, Gulmohar tries to find an answer to this just when the Batra family is moving out of their plush Delhi bungalow, which is going to be knocked down to make way for a high-rise. When we meet the Batras the night before they have to evict their family home, the interpersonal relationships are frayed. They are caught unaware as distance between them has crept up. They are dealing with ego-tussles as well as the struggle to find their own space and identity. These issues eventually come to the surface, forcing the family in transition to confront them.

Such a setting is not new. What gives the story of a dysfunctional family, with their secrets, a refreshing touch is the presence of stalwarts like Sharmila Tagore and Manoj Bajpayee, who are cast together in a film for the first time. Who better than Tagore to essay the role of Kusum, who makes her own choices, doesn’t kowtow to social expectations, wants to get rid of family responsibilities, and likes to savour a glass of brandy at family gatherings. The veteran actor brings her grace and experience to portray Kusum, marking her return on screen after a decade.

It is not surprising that Bajpayee as Aroon drives the engrossing family drama with his riveting performance of a man in his 50s. He is a devoted son and harrowed father. It is not Aroon’s anxiety but his inability to come to terms with his past that keeps him on the edge. Some of Bajpayee’s best scenes are with Tagore as they go through old albums looking at their family photos together. Or, when he mumbles that she should go slow with brandy even though he never questions any of her decisions. Bajpayee’s performance is ably aided by Simran, who makes the character of Indira, his on-screen wife, relatable. As Indira, she is holding everything together even when they seem to be falling apart. It’s good to have Simran back in a Hindi film, playing a meaty role.

The Disney+ Hotstar film’s dominating themes are loss and memories, something most families deal with constantly. This lends to the reflective vibe of Gulmohar, written by Arpita Mukherjee and Chittella. The messy family relationships match with that of what’s going on in the house as movers and packers arrive. The drama unfolds even as the packing starts. Most of the action takes place in the villa, giving a glimpse of the interiors of a typical Delhi bungalow and those who inhabit it.

Instead of remaining steadfastly focussed on the story of Batra family, the narrative offers an overview of the ecosystem that sustains it. As it takes a look into the lives of the staff employed at the villa as well as the extended family of Batras, it underlines the class divide and social prejudices that exist around us. It even gives a glimpse of how ideological polarisation has seeped into Indian families. The story reflects the contemporary realities we can’t escape even in the comfort of our homes.

Yet, the sub-plots, revolving around some of the supporting characters, slow down the narrative, especially in the second half. One such instance is the romance between the cook Reshma and watchman Jitender. This track evokes a sense of déjà vu, reminding us of Alice and Dubey in Monsoon Wedding (2001). Perhaps this track is Chittella’s tribute to director Mira Nair, his mentor.

In fact, the idea of Gulmohar came from the party held at Nair’s Delhi family home before it was pulled down.
Gulmohar is about fractured relationships, complex emotions and healing. The narrative dedicatedly follows that emotional trajectory, notwithstanding the plot holes. The movie, however, lacks the exuberance and intensity of Monsoon Wedding, which makes the latter hard-hitting and heartwarming at the same time. But then, as Tagore says in the movie, it’s what it is “meant to be”.

Actors: Sharmila Tagore, Manoj Bajpayee, Simran, Amol Palekar, Suraj Sharma, Kaveri Seth, Utsavi Jha, Talat Aziz
Director: Rahul V Chittella
Rating: 3 stars