Shoojit Sircar’s new film Gulabo Sitabo follows a bickering duo comprising an elderly landlord Mirza (Amitabh Bachchan) and his young tenant Banke (Ayushmann Khurrana) in Lucknow. Their bone of contention includes Mirza’s derelict mansion, where Banke lives but does not pay rent. Joining the fray is a government officer (Vijay Raaz) and a lawyer (Brijendra Kala). The film will be out on June 12 on Amazon Prime Video.
Gulabo Sitabo is Sircar’s fourth movie to have been written by Juhi Chaturvedi after Vicky Donor (2012), Piku (2016) and October (2018). The idea for Gulabo Sitabo, Sircar told Scroll.in, came from discussions between him and Chaturvedi about how people who live a “hand-to-mouth existence” like Mirza and Banke, whom they have seen from close quarters, deal with life.
“Like I put a camera in the middle of Piku and I observed that world, we’ve done the same here,” Sircar said. “All I can say about the film at this point is that this is the first time I have tried satire.”
Gulabo Sitabo was initially set in Delhi, but eventually moved to Lucknow, where Chaturvedi was raised. “Old Delhi is not that different from old Lucknow,” Sircar observed. “The old-world charm of places like Chandni Chowk, Delhi Gate, and the Jama Masjid area is similar to, say, Hazratganj and Chowk in Lucknow, where the film is set.”
The title has been inspired by a Uttar Pradesh-based traditional puppet show, whose stories revolve around the old and worn-out Sitabo and the young and energetic Gulabo. They are either sisters-in-law or rival wives, trading barbs and insults laced with local humour.
“We came across the Gulabo-Sitabo form of puppetry while making the movie, and we decided that it could be a good metaphor for the story,” Sircar said.
Gulabo Sitabo reunites Sircar with Amitabh Bachchan, whom he had directed in the unreleased Shoebite and Piku, and Ayushmann Khurrana, whose debut Bollywood film was Sircar’s acclaimed hit Vicky Donor.
“We all know Amitabh Bachchan loves challenging himself, and he looks forward to me to bring him roles that let him do that,” Sircar said. “With this film, holding that make-up on in 45 degrees heat was difficult. But the bigger challenge was that I did not want people to see Amitabh Bachchan in this movie. I wanted that people would see him and only see Mirza.’
A protruding noose, slouch and headgear are among the elements that give Bachchan’s Mirza a distinctive look. Delhi photographer Mayank Austen Soofi recently claimed in a tweet that Mirza’s look is inspired by his portrait of an old man from Delhi. Sircar said his reference for Mirza was provided by cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhyay: a photorealistic pencil-art portrait of an old man by Russian artist Olga Larionova.
Sircar and Khurrana are back together after a nine-year gap, during which the actor has worked his way up to stardom. “Sometimes, when you become successful, you become arrogant and insecure, but with Ayushmann, I felt nothing of the sort,” Sircar said. “My crew is a close-knit family, as I always work with the same people So Ayushmann working here felt like a family member returning. The work happened very organically, but Ayushmann initially took a little time to settle into his role in front of a personality like Amitabh Bachchan, especially with the constant repartee going on.”
Sircar has also reunited with his October cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhyay, who has also shot Sircar’s upcoming Udham Singh biopic, starring Vicky Kaushal.
“With this film, what I wanted to do was explore this unique world,” Sircar said. “So Avik da came up with a brilliant solution. He shot the film with only one lens, the 30mm wide, which lets you see everything in the frame, be it a close-up or a long shot. It captures the minute details of the haveli, the shop, the streets.”
Composer Shantanu Moitra, another frequent collaborator, has provided the background score. In October, Moitra’s theme drew greater appreciation than the songs in the soundtrack. Here too, he composed the theme based on Sircar’s brief before the shoot took place.
Sircar’s most commercially successful releases have been the comedies Vicky Donor and Piku despite being appreciated for his sombre outings such as the Kashmir-set romance Yahaan (2005), the war-espionage film Madras Cafe (2013), and the wistful October.
“All my films have a meditative and spiritual side to them, and that’s present in Gulabo Sitabo as well, because that’s how I am and I can’t function otherwise,” Sircar said. Would he make something as contemplative as October again? “Yes, definitely.”