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Gulmohar review: A touching but derivative family drama

Strong performances notwithstanding, Rahul V Chittella's film feels too much like a reimagined ‘Monsoon Wedding’

Sharmila Tagore in 'Gulmohar'
Sharmila Tagore in 'Gulmohar'

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Before striking out on his own as director, Rahul V. Chittella worked for a long time with Mira Nair, including on the stage version of her 2001 film Monsoon Wedding. You could almost guess this from watching Gulmohar, his debut full-length, which is so influenced by Monsoon Wedding as to practically be a remake. Both films are about large Punjabi families in a palatial Delhi house. Both have a patriarch barely holding it together. Both have a similar upstairs-downstairs dynamic, suppressed longings, an adopted child, buried secrets, a poisonous family member who must be cast off. Gulmohar even releases tension at the end with a song—thankfully not ‘Aaja Nachle’. 

When it released, Monsoon Wedding felt like the ideal of a kind of ensemble Hindi film that wasn’t being made here. But in the years since, we’ve seen its influence percolate through Hindi cinema’s topsoil, showing up in indies and some big-banner films like Kapoor & Sons. This is to say that a few Monsoon Wedding ideas in a Hindi film in 2023 is no longer noteworthy—it’s the extent of its Monsoon Wedding-ness that marks Gulmohar as a retread. But once you’re past that—it might matter to you at all—there’s enough in Chittella’s film to gladden the heart and ear, if not the eye.

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Arun Batra (Manoj Bajpayee) has a lot on his plate. He and his family—wife Indira (Simran), mother Kusum (Sharmila Tagore), son Aditya (Suraj Sharma) and daughters Amrita (Utsavi Jha) and Divya (Kaveri Seth)—are moving out of their home of 34 years. On their last night, his mother makes a request that they stay on till Holi, four days later, even though the movers have been called in the next morning. The consternation this causes in the group—which includes extended family and Talat Aziz as a ghazal-singing friend—is funny and revealing, given that the real bombshell is yet to arrive: Kusum wants to go live by herself in Pondicherry.

“In this house, we’re all isolated in houses of our own,” Arun says sadly to Indira. It’s a fair complaint. Aditya, whose startup is still looking for investors after two years, wants to move out of the family stead with his wife, much to the irritation of his father. Amrita is struggling with suppressed romantic feelings. Kusum has her own complicated history—some of it in the combative form of her brother-in-law, Sudhakar (Amol Palekar). Arun is trying to build up courage to confront his birth father, who doesn’t know he exists. Domestic worker Jeetendra (Jatin Goswami) has fallen hopelessly for Reshma (Santhy), but is too shy to tell her that—a straight lift of the Dubey-Alice relationship in Monsoon Wedding.

My first impression of Gulmohar was that it looked like a teleplay. This feeling only grew over the course of the film, which has a bland golden look and TV serial-like staging. This could be a theatre production—there’s little that’s visually compelling or camera-driven to complement the written and performed drama. Despite all the time we spend in the Batra house, it never develops a personality of its own. 

If Gulmohar is ultimately quite touching, it's largely down to a bunch of committed performances. In his recent work, Bajpayee has accessed a gentleness that would seem impossible if you only knew him from his fiery early roles. He holds the film together, and is visibly moved to be in the same space as Tagore. As gruff, self-flagellating Aditya, the underrated Suraj Sharma is fine too. And there’s terrific work on the sidelines by Goswami—sombre and striking, as he was in Delhi Crime—Santhy, Anuraag Arora and Chandan Roy, whose one job, as in Panchayat, is to lob sunny provocations.

Chittella and co-writer Arpita Mukherjee pepper the film with commentary on casteism, extremism, sexuality, social mobility. These scenes felt perfunctory and unchallenging (the two antagonists are, conveniently, the ones with warped worldviews). I preferred the moments that seemed specific enough to be real life: Aditya’s aunt helping herself to a shot of vodka instead of juice; Kusum, out for a morning walk, coming across her jogging son and parrying his barbs; Indira and Arun swallowing their nightly pills in perfect sync. And I liked that the film places its characters in and around baolis, old monuments and public parks—a lovely everyday Delhi instead of the unforgiving one we so often see in films and series. 

Gulmohar is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.

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