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‘Gulabo Sitabo is a homage to the people of Lucknow’

Sudha Tilak | Updated on June 12, 2020 Published on June 12, 2020

Off the wall: Amitabh Bachchan flanked by fellow actor Ayushmann Khurrana (left) and director Shoojit Sircar during the filming of Gulabo Sitabo   -  IMAGE COURTESY: UNIVERSAL COMMUNICATIONS

Film-maker Shoojit Sircar on his first OTT release, lockdown cooking and eating mangoes in an orchard during a shoot

* After two years in the making, Shoojit Sircar’s film, Gulabo Sitabo, has been released on Amazon Prime Video today

* Set in the Lucknow, the film traces the stories of Mirza (Amitabh Bachchan) and Bankey (Ayushmann Khurrana), who are locked in a wrangle over property

* Sircar first fell in love with Lucknow through Satyajit Ray’s depiction of the city in Shatranj ke Khilari

Film-maker Shoojit Sircar’s cinematic journey began in Kashmir with his debut film, Yahaan (2005). Seven years later, he wowed audiences in India and abroad with his depiction of Delhi — and its culture cocktail — in his box-office hit Vicky Donor. Then we found him zipping down a highway to Kolkata, with Piku, her hypochondriac father and love interest Rana, in 2015.

This Friday — June 12, 2020 — Sircar was all about Lucknow, a city he first fell in love with through a Satyajit Ray film. His latest film Gulabo Sitabo was released on Amazon Prime Video, following a nationwide shutdown of cinema halls and multiplexes in order to stem the transmission of Covid-19. Gulabo and Sitabo are a pair of quirky hand puppets used in a traditional form of storytelling in Lucknow. ‘Gulabo Sitabo’ is also a colloquial term for a quarrelsome duo — an apt epithet for the characters of Mirza (Amitabh Bachchan, complete with a prosthetic nose that resembles a puppet’s) and Bankey (Ayushmann Khurrana). The two are locked in a wrangle over a crumbling heap of property in the film.

Sircar says he feels mostly “exhausted” right now, but not from promotional activity or his next film under production. “I haven’t had much time to spare as it has been spent in kitchen work and housework under lockdown. I didn’t know that the jobs at home were unending,” he says. The film-maker has been at home in Salt Lake, a well-heeled suburb in Kolkata, with his family since the lockdown, alternating between cooking Bengali meals — “dal, bhaja, chorchori” — and reading spiritual books that he likes to document on Instagram.

Excerpts from a chat with BLink.

Gulabo Sitabo shows an old curmudgeon who fights to keep a crumbling mansion in these days of urban developers who would tear it down to build a tower of matchbox apartments. Amitabh Bachchan, who soared with the single-screen cinema and later the multiplex, is now the hero of a film that releases on a streaming platform. The film’s metaphor seems to have a meta quotient, doesn’t it?

That is quite true. The film is more satire than slapstick. I intended for it to knock the conscience of the audience beyond the story that unfolds in the film.

Gulabo Sitabo pulled me in various ways. It took two years in the making and, under the lockdown and its unprecedented circumstances, has had this release on the OTT [Over-the-top] platform.

In your films, geography has played a part in the storytelling. Why Lucknow this time?

My writer Juhi Chaturvedi is from Lucknow and has an organic connection with its milieu. Lucknow is a bustling city with warm, friendly people. Gulabo Sitabo is the essence of this city. If you get familiar with Lucknow, you might spot many Mirzas (the character Bachchan plays in the film), roaming around like oddballs, sitting on a bench in a dilapidated small shop, chatty and cantankerous. Lucknow’s architecture is a part of life in the city. We shot at Mahmudabad haveli for the film and many scenes were set against the city’s multi-religious architectural landmarks. Lucknowi language is unique with its easy mix of Hindi, Urdu and Awadhi that flows musically.

The Kathak exponent Birju Maharaj once told me that in the 18th century, Lucknow was to the subcontinent what Paris was to Europe.

I agree. Gulbo Sitabo is a metaphor of a cosmopolitan city of that era that was throbbing with energy and was multicultural. Even today, the beauty pops up at unexpected places if you are a keen observer.

What was your first visit to Lucknow like?

My first visit to Lucknow was perhaps in 1995-96. I was then working with theatre director Ranjit Kapur on the production of Court Martial and we travelled to Lucknow on assignment. I landed there and was hit by the hustle and bustle of the Charbagh station. It was Ramzan and we trotted off to Akbari Gate, which was decorated with lights... Then we headed out for the fabulous food that Lucknow is famous for. It was a memorable maiden trip. I visited it again on a couple of recce trips before the making of Gulabo Sitabo, just to take in the city’s many landmarks and soak its spirit.

Isn’t there a Bengali connection to Lucknow?

My major influence is Satyajit Ray; his film Shatranj ke Khilari was set in Awadh and it gave us memorable characters. Ray’s musical scores and soundtracks were an intrinsic part of his films. And music to me is important, too. I’d say the background score is more important than songs. Shantanu [Moitra], the composer of Gulabo Sitabo, and I have detailed discussions over music even as we sit over storyboards and, in the past, we have collaborated on Bengali music too. Gulabo Sitabo is a homage to the people of Lucknow.

Also, part of Kolkata’s cuisine is influenced by Mughlai and Awadhi dishes. When we were shooting in Lucknow last year, we had some scenes in an orchard. It was the month of June or July, and the crew enjoyed eating Uttar Pradesh’s fragrant mangoes.

Sudha Tilak is a Delhi-based journalist.

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Published on June 12, 2020
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