"I am playing less to the gallery, I am not repeating the mistakes I made in my earlier films," says Gulabo Sitabo director Shoojit Sircar
Vicky Donor shook up the Indian audience with its out-of-the-ordinary storyline. Madras Cafe made citizens question the exigency of war. Piku warmed the hearts of viewers, especially of young people who share an idiosyncratic relationship with their parents. October redefined love in the age of online dating. These are just a handful of films made by the versatile director Shoojit Sircar, and this Friday, the filmmaker returns with Gulabo Sitabo premiering on Amazon Prime Video.
Starring Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana in lead roles, the film’s trailer has already whet the appetite of the Indian audience. It follows Mirza Sheikh (Amitabh), who is the landlord of an old, dilapidated bungalow in Lucknow, and Baankey Sodhi (Ayushmann), his tenant. It’s evident from the trailer and the songs released that Gulabo Sitabo will not just entertain, but will tug at the heart of the audience. However, like a true-blue auteur, Shoojit is reluctant to say anything before the film releases. Instead, he talks about what went into the making of Gulabo Sitabo, and his days under the lockdown.
Why an OTT platform release for the film?
This is the first time that a film which is a non-OTT production is premiering on a digital platform. Shoojit says it was the uncertainty about the reopening of cinema halls that pushed him to take this decision. “I didn’t want to hold onto the film for a long time. I don’t know when people will be ready to go to the theatres. I had to move on, I needed the best possible solution for my film. I work on one film at a time and I move onto the next, so I had to make a decision. Amazon Prime came up with a good plan for its release. The movie will premiere in 200 countries and this is a huge relief for me. I am aware that cinema owners were upset with me, and it’s quite natural that they were upset. I tried to explain to them, it’s just a matter of adaptability. Everything will get back to what it was like earlier.”
In the alleys of Lucknow
On a call from Kolkata, the director tells us, “Juhi (Chaturvedi, the writer) had a one-line idea about the characters. We started talking about it and it gradually expanded to a larger concept, and we decided to make a satire. Gulabo Sitabo is a satire on real life. It’s a story about simple people, who are financially unstable. The narrative looks at how they are managing to lead a life in the city of Lucknow.”
Cities play a crucial role in Shoojit’s films, and this time the director has ventured into the alleys of old Lucknow. From here, he narrates the story of Mirza and Bankey, who are at loggerheads over the rent that needs to be paid by the latter. It took several trips to Lucknow before the filmmaker finally decided to shoot the film in the old city. For someone who attempts to stay true to the essence of the location, Shoojit is confident he has captured not just the sights and sounds, but also the fragrance of Lucknow. “The audience will not only see the city, but they can also smell Lucknow through the visuals of this film. The place is captured in such a way that you will feel like you are there amidst its people. That’s why I say, you will smell the city in Gulabo Sitabo. We have shot in actual buildings of the old city, in the Chowk and Hazratganj areas,” enthuses the filmmaker.
The film is centred around Mirza’s haveli (bungalow). The octogenarian is obsessed with his crumbling Fatima Mahal, and this is a microcosm in the old city of Lucknow. Mirza’s sheep, his neighbours, the local officers, and Bankey, everyone has their own story within the larger narrative, and this is what makes the film’s narrative vibrant and entertaining. The auteur’s muse The casting of the lead actors adds another dimension to Gulabo Sitabo. While Amitabh Bachchan is a superstar, the younger Ayushmann has established himself as the hero of new-age films. Working with both of them has been a kind of revelation for Shoojit. “Their repartee was quite interesting to watch. Initially, it was difficult for Ayushmann to perform in front of the veteran actor. He would hesitate because Mr Bachchan’s aura is like that, but the latter is one of the finest co-actors anyone can get, he lets you do what you want to. Our initial shoot days were difficult but once they got into the flow, they delivered what we had envisioned,” he says.
Shoojit is quick to add that shooting with Big B in the bustling old city was quite a challenge and it required meticulous planning. “We shot in really crowded areas where people’s shoulders would rub against each other while walking. Shooting with Mr Bachchan there was an absolute nightmare. The only advantage was that nobody could recognise him because of his look. By the time people would figure out that a shoot was happening, we would have completed taking shots,” offers Shoojit.
This is the third time that the director is working with Amitabh Bachchan. The senior actor played one of the leads in Shoojit’s directorial Piku. He also had a key role in Pink, a film Shoojit wrote and produced. Their relationship is that of an artist and his muse, there’s likemindedness and an untold amicability that’s established. “He is a director’s actor, absolutely. Over the years, there’s some kind of bonding that has developed between us. He has seen more than I have seen in this world and in the industry. He has his own sense to gauge actors and directors. So far he has trusted me, and I trust him, so there’s a trust factor that has developed between us. I think this has prompted him to take on new challenges in my films with roles that have pushed him out of the comfort zone. In Gulabo Sitabo, I didn’t want anyone to recognise him as Mr Bachchan, I wanted him to be identified only as Mirza. After a point in the film, you will not see him as the superstar, you will only see him as the character. This is the respect Mr Bachchan gives to his director and his vision, by surrendering to the character completely,” offers the filmmaker.
Off-camera, on field
Apart from filmmaking, Shoojit has a passion for football. The filmmaker’s Instagram profile bio reads, “First footballer then a filmmaker. I make films when I am playing football:).. and of course an illiterate (sic).” Even when Shoojit is filming, there have been instances when he has packed up abruptly and taken a break to play his favourite sport. “I am basically an athlete. I have nothing to do with cinema or art. I am a footballer (at heart). Football is my life,” quips Shoojit.The 53-year-old reveals he plays the sport every day but hasn’t been able to play during the lockdown. This hasn’t dampened his spirit. He is part of football clubs in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, and plays with the clubs whenever he is in that particular city. “In Mumbai, I play with Abhishek (Bachchan) and Ranbir (Kapoor),” he says, adding, “I have left many shoots for football matches. During the shoot of Piku, I packed up and left for a few days just to play matches. Mr Bachchan kept asking (my crew), what happened and they told him I left for some urgent work. Later when he got to know I had left the shoot for a match, he was perplexed. He later got to know that Abhishek also played the match with me (laughs)... Football is my absolute love. I think it’s a creative game.”
Speaking about Ayushmann, Shoojit acknowledges he is like family. The former debuted in Bollywood with Vicky Donor but it’s taken a while for the director-actor duo to reunite again. “When we were writing this script and were thinking about whom to cast I suggested Ayushmann, and everyone jumped on it. It has taken a long time for us to collaborate again but we’ve kept in touch even after Vicky Donor and would often discuss work,” reveals the director who completes 15 years in Bollywood.
Shoojit debuted with Yahan in 2005, a love story that was set in the volatile region of Kashmir. “Afte Yahan, I took a break of seven-eight years when one of my films didn’t release and I was depressed. Then I restarted with Vicky Donor. Today, I am playing less to the gallery, I am not repeating the mistakes I made in Piku, Vicky Donor, Madras Cafe and Yahan. I am focussing on narratives that are personal to me. This is how I have evolved as a filmmaker,” he acknowledges.
Tale of two cities
Whether it was Vicky Donor, Piku and now Gulabo Sitabo, the cities in Shoojit’s films are as important as the lead characters. The director who lives in Kolkata and works in Mumbai has always placed cities on par with his characters. “It’s very important (to identify and acknowledge) where we live. Certain traits from these places are rooted in us, it may be difficult to put it in words but you can see it. At times it gets difficult to express these nuances visually, through cinema, but I try to get these reflected through my characters,” offers the director. Though he has shot extensively across India and recently shot his next film Sardar Udham Singh in Europe, Shoojit reveals he always loves to shoot in Kolkata and Delhi. “Kolkata is special to me because of its old structures. I have captured the essence of the city in Piku. In fact, there are a lot of ‘Piku tourism packages’ now. But honestly, I have shot most of my films in Delhi. Delhi has been the most important character in my films. In October it was one of my characters — I have shown the simple and beautiful Delhi in that. In Pink, we have captured the darker part of the capital city. In Vicky Donor we have showcased Daryaganj and old Delhi. This time I loved shooting in Lucknow. I don’t know how people will react to the film, but I am sure they will love watching Lucknow,” signs off the filmmaker who will soon start work on the post-production of his next film Sardar Udham Singh.
Shoojit’s lockdown diaries
Home-bound: Even as the filmmaker got busy with the virtual promotions of the film, house chores like mopping and grocery shopping, kept him occupied during the lockdown. Shoojit’s posts on his Instagram account stand as testimony. “During this lockdown, we were absolutely on our own (without any house help) and my lower back has started hurting. I realise now why my mother used to complain about work at home. No matter how much work we do, it’s never enough. By the time I finish, I am so exhausted, I just prefer to sit or lie down. It has been a huge learning for me that there’s a lot of work to do at homes (every day),” offers Shoojit.
Green thumb: The filmmaker lives with his wife Jhuma and his two daughters, the 18-year-old Koyna and 14-year-old Ananya. Shoojit has also been helping his family with terrace gardening and a little bit of terrace gardening. He says, “My wife is into gardening, I just help her with it, she’s the main person behind it. We grow brinjals, chillies, mint, and other vegetables on our terrace.”
Must-read: Shoojit has also been busy reading books such as Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal and a book titled Mother of Mayavati. “I am reading this book written by Amrita M Salm. It’s about an English woman, a disciple of Swami Vivekananda, who set up schools and worked with people during a pandemic. It’s published by the Ramakrishna Mission,” says the filmmaker, who lists Rabindranath Tagore, George Bernard Shaw, Ernest Hemingway and Jhumpa Lahiri as his favourite writers.
On his watch list: The director says he loves watching documentaries because they are so real. “I watched Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, this is a very good documentary on the Vietnam war — I highly recommend it. Then there are a lot of independent documentaries that get screened on Al Jazeera. I feel documentaries are very important to watch because it’s actual reporting. Documentaries capture the real truth of what’s happening in our society,” he says.