The director on his latest film, ‘Gulabo Sitabo’, capturing Lucknow’s timelessness, and why a direct-to-digital release was the only choice
Just as cities and locations play a crucial role in his films, so does Shoojit Sircar’s team. After their successful collaborations from Vicky Donor to Piku and October, writer Juhi Chaturvedi and Sircar team up for the latest film, Gulabo Sitabo (which will start streaming from 12 June on Amazon Prime Video). He also reunites with cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhyay, music director Shantanu Moitra, editor Chandrashekhar Prajapati and lead actors Ayushmann Khurrana, the sperm donor of Vicky Donor, and Amitabh Bachchan, the constipated father in Piku. This is the first time Sircar has shot a feature film in Lucknow and it’s also the first time he is trying his hand at satire. Edited excerpts from an interview:
‘Gulabo Sitabo’ appears to be about several things—a tenant and a landlord at loggerheads, an odd couple, but it also has comments on heritage and legacy.
It is all those things. But, more than the plot, it’s the world that always attracts me most. In my other films too, I tried to create worlds. Besides Mirza (Bachchan) and Baankey (Khurrana), the film is populated with many other characters who have small stories of their own. When I shoot a film, I take my camera and put it among the characters and let it show you their world, their problems, their happiness and the little things that matter to them. Gulabo Sitabo is a simple satire on life. It’s a genre I have tried for the first time.
How did you get into the milieu and texture of Lucknow?
The location is always a character in my films, like Delhi, Chittaranjan Park, Kolkata and now Lucknow. I had shot something small there once but this was the first time I was truly exploring the city. Lucknow has similarities to West Bengal because the nawabs of Lucknow shifted to Kolkata during colonial times. Many nawabi dishes from Lucknow have become a part of Kolkata cuisine.
I have tried to capture the essence of old Lucknow. We wanted to create a texture where we don’t see anything modern as such, so it becomes timeless. The brief to all the department heads was that the film should be a conversation we are having with some people. For instance, we have experimented and used only a single lens throughout, so everything is broad. You will see foreground and background characters, the texture and details completely clearly. To get the texture and feel right, to ensure it looks authentic, requires research and observation.
Did you have Bachchan and Khurrana in mind when you started writing the script?
We did have Mr Bachchan in mind and he was aware of it even as we were writing. But Ayushmann came on board later. During the writing phase, we were debating the age of the character and only after we locked the script did it occur to me to suggest Ayushmann to Juhi and Ronnie (Lahiri, the producer). They both jumped at the idea. I thought there is a novelty and freshness to the pairing. In a satire, you need foolishness. They both have that.
You were reuniting with Khurrana after directing him in his debut film, ‘Vicky Donor’ (2012). What changes did you observe in him?
It was a long gap but we were always in touch. This film is not in that run-of-the-mill UP groove that we have been seeing. The groove had to be perfectly crafted. Ayushmann has grown as an actor and understands a lot of the intricacies of performance. We did work a little on the character and it was fun to have him back on our set.
The most important aspect was ensuring that he was comfortable in front of Mr Bachchan, who is larger than life as a person. He’s not like that on set or as the character but it takes an ounce of effort to make the person acting in front of him comfortable. In this film, not only do they interact a lot, but there are also a lot of clashes between the characters. Those had to be genuine, so we had to push for that a little bit.
Does the title refer to the traditional puppet theatre of Uttar Pradesh?
Yes, Gulabo-Sitabo is an old puppet art that has existed for hundreds of years but is fading away slowly. Gulabo and Sitabo are the two characters in the puppet show. Juhi and I thought that since we are doing a film based in Lucknow, why not take this idea of fading art as a metaphor and pay an ode to it.
Why did you opt for a straight-to-digital release?
This is the first time for me. Its effectiveness will only become clear after the film releases and I have seen its impact. If it were not for lockdown, the film would have been in theatres by now. It was scheduled for a January release and then had an April slot. Uncertainties had started creeping in. The film had been ready for around four months and, as my producer Ronnie says, we are not a multiple-film production house. We make one film, costs are recovered and then we move on to the next film.
I also had the experience of “Shoebite", which did not release, and it was almost seven years before I did something else. So I knew that I needed to move on.
Do you think this is going to be the go-to distribution model?
Cinema is my love and we all have pure love for cinema. That’s why we are making films. But now we are adapting to new platforms. Cinema will not go anywhere. We want to watch movies in theatres. Cinema and digital will coexist. I will only understand this entire experience after 12 June, after I have seen my film online and then later, once I have seen it projected on the big screen. The truth is if it were not for Amazon Prime Video, I wouldn’t have such a big release, with the film going to 200 countries. Their proposal was attractive.
Has the lockdown impacted your other projects, such as ‘Sardar Udham Singh’?
We had announced a new release date for 2021 before the lockdown. We had made that decision because of the bottleneck in the release line-up. Now anyway everything is going to get pushed and jammed and it will only get worse. We don’t know when cinemas will open, how they will function and when audiences will have the confidence to return to theatres. We are waiting for the Producers Guild of India and Cine and TV Artistes’ Association to let us know. For now, we are working on post-production of Sardar Udham Singh from home set-ups. It’s slow, but we are moving on.
Udita Jhunjhunwala is a Mumbai-based writer, film critic and festival programmer.