A crabby landlord, a defiant tenant, a crumbling mansion. Shoojit Sircar’s new film Gulabo Sitabo, set in the old city of Lucknow, puts the ordinariness of everyday life at the center of its story. The film is a tragi-comedy about two men who essentially want the same thing – the security and permanence of owning their homes – yet they fail to empathize with each other’s situation.

Named after a street puppet show that’s especially popular in Uttar Pradesh, in which two female glove puppets bicker incessantly, the film stars Amitabh Bachchan as the perpetually grouchy Mirza who has little patience with the five families that pay a pittance as rent to live in his large but dilapidated haveli. The bulk of his scorn is reserved for Baankey Rastogi (Ayushmann Khurrana), a cocky fellow whose family has been squatting for nearly 70 years, unwilling to increase the rent or vacate the premises.

There are many laughs to be had at Mirza and Baankey’s clashes, both of whom are cash-strapped and frustrated. Mirza steals Baankey’s lightbulbs and sells them for odd change; Baankey tricks him into digging under the house for gold. The older man, in particular, is driven by greed. He’s not an especially likeable character, and remarkably Bachchan never makes a play for your sympathy. As if to offset his hurtful taunting, his unending pettiness, and his strictly selfish interest in his ageing wife, we get a moment in which Mirza says: “Beintehaa mohabbat karte hain iss haveli se.” On some level, that’s all writer Juhi Chaturvedi gives us to negotiate how we feel about him.

Shoojit and cameraman Avik Mukopadhyay create a lived-in world that feels entirely authentic. This is not a travel-brochure version of Lucknow; and the haveli in question, Fatima Mahal, is so poorly maintained it’s no surprise a brick wall caves in from a single kick. This texture goes a long way in giving us a sense of the people who live here – desperately poor, and in fact desperate. Some, like Mirza’s wife Begum (played by Farrukh Jafar) who inherited the home from her family, have chosen to cut off for the most part. Others like Guddo, the oldest of Baankey’s three sisters (played by an excellent Srishti Shrivastava) make all manner of efforts to find a better life.

The laidback narrative gathers some urgency with the arrival of Vijay Raaz’s character Gyanesh Shukla, an officer in the archeological research centre who becomes obsessed with proving that the 100-year-old haveli is heritage property and ought to be sealed. There is also Brijendra Kala as Christopher Clarke, a lawyer who specializes in property-related matters like evictions and transfer of ownership. Both actors are in terrific form.

The problem with the film is that although the characters have depth and personality, the pace is so meditative, and the plot so sparse that it’s hard to become invested in what’s going on with these folks. Not a lot happens until the end in Gulabo Sitabo, making its two-hour running time a test of your patience. In Shoojit’s last film October, the pace was crucial to the experience of the film, which was about friends and family waiting around helplessly for a young girl to pull out of a coma.

Buried somewhere under the laughs in this film is a feeling of unmistakable sadness about the greed and the desperation that poverty can breed. But it’s weighed down by a frankly inert screenplay that never succeeds in making you truly care for its protagonists. It’s as if there’s a distance between us and them.

Which is a shame because there is a lot to appreciate in Gulabo Sitabo, chief among them Amitabh Bachchan’s winning portrayal of Mirza. Hunched over, dressed in filthy kurtas and too-short pyjamas, sporting a Santa beard and a potato-sized nose, Bachchan vanishes into the part. Mirza is single-minded to the point of being unscrupulous and the actor never holds back. Ayushmann sportingly lets his co-star do the heavy lifting, while nicely bringing out Baankey’s tough-on-the-outside-but-vulnerable-on-the-inside personality.

The film also comes with the subtle but admirable message of communal harmony, and the not-so-subtle but equally important evidence of just how the poor are frequently exploited. ((pause))

Gulabo Sitabo is most enjoyable when Bachchan eats up the scenery lobbing insults as Mirza. He is the best thing in a sadly disappointing film.

I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five.

Rating: 2.5 / 5