Gulmohar, a Disney+ Hotstar release, opens to a warm family gathering. It comprises people from three generations, chatting, bantering and smiling. You don’t expect such a relaxed portion to elicit immediate intrigue or establish central conflict. How much can elite joviality reveal anyway? But in less than a few minutes, you notice something else: that filmmaker Rahul Chittella knows more about these people than they know about themselves. The father and son, Arun (Manoj Bajpayee) and Adi (Suraj Sharma), exchange uncomfortable glances. The grandmother, Kusum (Sharmila Tagore), looks uneasy, as if hiding a secret. The cook Reshma (Santhy) and the watchman Jeetu (Jatin Goswami) lock eyes for a few seconds which, to both us and them, feel a lot more.
Amid all this, we find out that the Batras are celebrating their last day in their house, where they’ve lived for the last 34 years. The most striking part about this opening is its economy. Why waste five scenes to convey something when one peep is enough? The second feature pivots on how much this opening reveals – and how smoothly. The camera glides among the family members like a fond relative: eavesdropping, participating, observing. This segment lasts for around 14 minutes, delighting and intriguing more than many Bollywood films combined, but what if I tell you this: Gulmohar has just begun to bloom.
This is a drama with memory and purpose. It is conscious of its strengths – restrained, motivated, and precise filmmaking – and aims to replicate it scene by scene. Like many sharp movies, it doesn’t tell just one story but stories within stories – and stories within those stories. And it does so maintaining a life-like rhythm: no pretence, no pretension, just clarity, simplicity, and (unexpected) poignancy and commentary.
In an early scene, for example, as the packers stream into the Batras’ home, one of them says, “Even the aristocrats are selling their house these days.” A builder has recently bought a series of bungalows in the area, planning to construct high-rises. The movie, then, also becomes a story of minor displacements – of people unable to recognise their own cities. The movie drops subtle hints. Kusum says she’s moving to Pondicherry. “Puducherry,” her granddaughter corrects her. Arun has bought a penthouse in Gurgaon – or, as someone reminds him, “Gurugram”.
If the Batras are struggling to unite their house – Arun says, “A family is one that stays together”, while Adi wants to move out with his wife – then so is their country. Which finds an apt resonance in the film’s ‘villain’ – Arun’s uncle, Sudhakar (Amol Palekar) – who is different from Kusum’s family in every way possible: a staunch right-winger who, revering the caste, religious, and biological hierarchy, wants to ‘win’ at every cost (even at the cost of splitting the family). The political has become both personal and familial.
In another scene, when Arun is sitting in his car, a street urchin knocks on the window. Looking at a dhaba across the road, he tells his wife (Simran) on the phone, “We live in the same house, but it feels like no one knows each other.” That succinct line floored me, tying a family and a country with admirable simplicity. (I found out much later that the movie was hinting at a different duality – an old man in that dhaba is crucial to the plot, whose identity I can’t reveal – but, regardless, the writing is so clear and light that it teases several interpretations.)
What’s also remarkable about Gulmohar is that, for a 131-minute film, it promises a lot. Just take a look at the number of plot threads, several evident in the first scene itself: Arun-Adi’s fractured bond; the Jeetu-Reshma does-she-love-me-does-she-love-me-not track; Adi’s struggling start-up straining his marriage; Arun’s daughter (Utsavi Jha) trying to accept her sexual orientation; Kusum wanting to live on her own terms; Arun, an adopted child, facing a (literal) identity crisis, and so on. Many films would have gotten overwhelmed under such a huge canvas, but Chittella brings to this chaos exceptional calm and arrow-like focus.
The drama follows its protagonists with impressive rigour – developing characters, sharpening conflicts – showing how the pieces inform the puzzle. Even though these stories are diverse – spanning a wide range of age and class spectrum – the tight writing and sharp editing make them coalesce into a whole. In the age of remarkable Bollywood mediocrity, making you wonder whether screenplays even exist, Gulmohar unfolds like a novel with compelling multiple points of view.
Writers Arpita Mukherjee and Chittella often need just one scene to hit the right beat. Take an early moment between Reshma and Jeetu. The house is in complete disarray as the packers are removing and storing things. Reshma and Jeetu are part of this melee, too, holding the opposite ends of a trunk, taking it out of the house. They say nothing, just steal glances and (almost) smile – like lotuses blooming in the mud. Such minimalist examples abound, where several stories exist in a scene mimicking the bustle of a joint Indian family hiding secrets in a secret.
For an ensemble piece, Gulmohar features an arresting mix of veteran, seasoned, and newer actors. These pairs – and their overall combinations – produce constant intrigue, as we’ve seen so little of them together. Among the heavyweights, however, an unexpected name impresses the most: Goswami. Jeetu wears his nervousness like an oversized coat around Reshma – resulting from both romantic diffidence and class-ridden insecurity (she’s finished school; he can’t even read) – that he makes you want to sit beside him and calm him down. Again, just like the writing, once is enough. There’s one scene where Jeetu just … gulps in her presence; I wanted to exhale.
And Bajpayee is, well, Bajpayee, continuing to enjoy the glorious afternoon of his career. He juggles several roles here – a husband, a father, a son – with incredible ease and conviction. The actor even brings understated humour to tense scenes, when he’s cribbing about Adi or ribbing his wife. Chittella also makes him act with his body. Whenever Arun is slightly nervous, his hands shake (and barring one moment, the movie makes no big deal about it).
Tagore and Palekar are, quite surprisingly, the weakest of the lot. They look stiff and sound stilted. At age 78, they haven’t appeared on screen in a long time (though Palekar did have a small role in the recent web series Farzi), and that jadedness shows. It’s still, at best, a quibble – for this film sets high standards. The screenwriting misfires, similarly, are so few that you can list them all: Amu’s sexual orientation subplot looks forced, so does Adi’s wife’s 3 Idiots-type pep talk, and so does Kusum wanting to move to Puducherry.
But Gulmohar’s grasp on the Indian family dynamics makes the film stand out. These aren’t uncaring people as much as unable to express that they care. Several scenes end with a family member standing outside the door of the other – just standing, doing nothing, then walking away. Many scenes reminded me of my own familial struggles, underpinned by a simple question: Why don’t we just talk – and why are older Indian men so reluctant, almost scared, of expressing love? So when these characters talk they say one thing but mean something else, rolling in taunts, sarcasm and insults. And even though the movie ends on a happy note, convincingly sewing fractured relationships, it doesn’t strut in a smug air of ‘love solves it all’ or other facile generalisations. Because Gulmohar knows that, most times, despite your discontent, anger, and dejection, your family will still ‘welcome’ you – even if they don’t see the real you – a fact both comforting and terrifying.
This article was first published on The Wire.