Earthyan was invited to a special pre-screening of Gulmohar. Here is our review.
While films are primarily a form of entertainment, they can also function as a snapshot of a particular society at a particular point in time. They are what historians of the future will use to help them understand the context and pathos of a people.
Gulmohar rests comfortably in both roles. It is a deeply enjoyable exploration of an India that is in transition. The country has, seemingly overnight, become the most populous country in the world, and the fastest growing major economy in the world. As much as this is a story of success it is also one that brings a sense of unmoored uncertainty. Should India prioritize history over morality when it comes to the Ukraine war? Does it owe any duty to often antagonistic neighbors struggling with economic crisis?
The ambiguity of transition permeates contemporary Indian society and is masterfully captured by Rahul V. Chittella. Characters are unsure if they should call it Gurgaon or Gurugram. Wives no longer massage their husbands’ backs but must learn to massage their partners’ egos. The cramped modernity of a WeWork hot desk used to manage a software startup contrasts oddly with the muted luxury of a traditional executive cabin overseeing a factory floor.
This snapshot of a country in transition is reflected in the movie’s cast. Sharmila Tagore returns after a 13-year sabbatical to deliver in the finale an epic monologue that seems destined to become another addition to the long list of iconic moments she’s given Indian cinema across a six-decade career. Manoj Bajpayee takes a break from re-inventing Indian television to casually remind audiences that he also happens to be a movie star. Simran so perfectly slips into the character of dutiful Punjabi housewife that one would be hard-pressed to believe that her preceding film role was that of a Tamilian Defense Ministry Scientist with uncertain motives. These and other veterans are joined by the likes of Suraj Sharma who aptly demonstrates why he’s won multiple Hollywood awards, and newcomer Utsavi Jha who has been building a cult following as a singer.
The direction is sharp, with Chittella successfully juggling between multiple plotlines and characters which, in the hands of a lesser director, could easily have collapsed into a tangled mess. The cinematography artfully flits between the many identities of India: we’re taken to historical ruins, Western high rises, and grunge music festivals. In an artistic choice that may go unnoticed by most, but that adds to the overall atmosphere of the film, the ambient noise captures what India sounds like today. Comedy is used both effectively and strategically to help pace the film. The songs and background score are charming.
Where Gulmohar particularly distinguishes itself from other films of a similar genre is its willingness to take a more expansive view of India. We see what transition looks like for the “servants” that are so often overlooked in dramas, and the illiterate who are still estimated to make up about 20% of India’s population.
Ultimately transitions are frightening because they challenge our understanding of our identity and belongingness. In examining these themes through the lens of family, independence, history, religion, sexuality, education, modernity, and commerce Gulmohar provides an entertaining and artful study of a nation at a crossroads.
Gulmohar’s cast includes Sharmila Tagore, Manoj Bajpayee, and Simran. It’ll be available for streaming on Disney+ Hotstar on 3 March 2023.