Gulmohar is built around promises. The movie was directed by Rahul V Chittella, a Mira Nair protege. In the words of the maverick filmmaker herself, Rahul found the idea of the film some five years back when Nair’s own family home in Vasant Vihar was being sold. So no wonder this had to be a project inspired by Mira and her Monsoon Wedding. Manoj Bajpayee has been appearing in interviews and casually promoting the film, saying this is his most loved project since Gali Guleiyan (In the Shadows).
The trailer shows us Sharmila Tagore coming back to the screens after 13 years since Break Ke Baad, though, to be honest, none of us remember her putting up an impactful performance since Antaheen. The cast and tone of the movie promise a lot- you expect from a rousing family drama. Yet, you get a tender and soft film about family dynamics and the complexities that have been suppressed for generations.
The movie begins with a Bringin’ down da House party where the Batras are spending their last night at the Gulmohar Villa with everyone who loves their family. You see multiple characters of different ages in the hall of a south/central Delhi house, and the mood is jovial, filled with music and love. Someone volunteers to sing a song, someone cracks a joke, and someone asks for another pint of brandy.
You can slowly sense some discomfort in the room; some truths and disagreements are concealed beneath the surface. You expect an argument to burst and some chaos to ensue. But nothing of that sort happens. The scene reminded me of the scene in Kapoor and Sons where all the family members are having playful banters in a room, and it ends with them singing “Chand se Mehbooba.” Here it is a soothing Talat Aziz Ghazal.
The first scene pans out like a scene from the last 15mins of a pilot episode. It throws the viewers in the middle of a conflict but doesn’t easily tell them the severity of it. You can sense the awkwardness and silence among family members who have moved past the point of continuing to argue about the disputes. There is a father-son conflict between Manoj and Suraj Sharma’s character, who just wants to move out to a separate flat with his spouse despite his start-up struggling to raise the next round of investment.
It is a desperate attempt for him to grow out of the shadow of his rich father and do something on his own. His sister Amrita is having her own love life problems, and in a delightful scene, she even fights for having Urdu words in the song lyrics- a timely nod to the bland lyrics in contemporary Bollywood. Arun and Indu are struggling with the logistic of the business and shifting house and have very little scope to have a hearty chat. In the middle of all these, the matriarch Kusum played by Sharmila Tagore drops the bomb- she will not be moving to their Gurugram penthouse, but she wants to start her new life in Pondicherry. But she wants to stay four more days in this house and leave after celebrating Holi one last time.
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This is a theme we have recently seen in many movies where the whole family is forced to live under the same roof for a prolonged period and deals with unfinished business and personal baggage. In Dil Dhadakne Do, it was an anniversary trip; in Pagglait and Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi, it was a funeral. Such a setting helps build intriguing family drama as pent-up, sentimental reactions lead to a moving catharsis.
Kusum’s request makes perfect sense in this situation because an elderly lady who wants to preserve the last thread of memory with her family ends up cutting it off—interestingly, not because of any argument, but simply because it is a decision and a step towards her own agency. Instead of being worried about materialistic matters, the family members appear to be concerned for her well-being. This raises interesting questions about how a person responds to the searches for a unique identification, or as we call it, the home.
Gulmohar teases many ideas that are nuanced and complex. It shows how the conversations regarding where our home is can lead to many different answers for different persons. It can’t have the western diasporic idea of one singular home since we live in a country that is so divided in class and caste. Partition and the act of earning our bread made us migrate so many times. It is like a bird that migrates for generations; thus, it is natural that people will perceive home differently according to their upbringing and generational baggage. And the only unifying factor is the acceptance of that. The movie also parallels the life of the servants working in Gulmohar Villa and shows how even their idea of home is being impacted by the home succumbing to the requirements of urbanity.
Reviewing an intimate film like this without ruining your experience by revealing the small twists and turns the movie takes toward its destination is difficult. A movie like this should be left to the viewers to relish because it might leave you with a sense of longing or fulfillment- but to each their own since it will speak more about the person reading into the film. Though the screenplay is very neatly paced with a slow orchestral background score to compliment it, occasionally, it uses some familiar and forced tropes. A lesbian relationship angle or a melodramatic father-son ego fight could have easily been done away with and wouldn’t have taken away anything from the charm of just watching the ensemble of Amol Palekar-Sharmila Tagore- Manoj Bajpayee on screen.
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Gulmohar isn’t a dysfunctional family drama. It is a family drama about the tussle between one’s own agency/identity and Maya/love. In one scene, a character accuses a person of abandoning an offspring and says you should always make an effort to provide someone ‘love’ if you really wish to. The character retorts you can give someone love because you were given love, but I can’t. Gulmohar doesn’t only see love as transactional, it sees love as an act of hand me down- something that should be passed through generations. And that is the only thing that keeps a family together and a home erect. The movie doesn’t demand too much from you but hugs you to sleep with all the warm memories you have of your parents and unfulfilled ambitions. It calms your soul. You should catch Gulmohar because they don’t make such films anymore.