This is not how Shoojit Sircar imagined it. His film, Gulabo Sitabo, was supposed to release in theatres on April 17. Now, however, it will directly stream to homes via Amazon Prime Video from June 12. In an ideal world, he would have been promoting his film in Mumbai, but he is presently with his family in Kolkata, a city dealing with the double blow of Covid and the Amphan cyclone. Instead of complaining, though, Sircar is adapting. “I have to move on,” he says. “I didn’t want to hold on to the film. I decided to experiment with the digital medium.”
Sircar’s decision sent shockwaves through the movie theatre industry, which saw it as a bellwether of what filmmakers are likely to do with cinemas now shut. For Sircar, though, the attraction was Amazon giving him “a big release” in 200 countries. His film would have 15 dubbed versions and subtitles in several languages such as Indonesian, Hebrew and Polish. “We are going directly to the audience,” he says. “It’s not going to take away from what the film is all about.”
Gulabo Sitabo is a good fit for the digital platform, too. Written by Juhi Chaturvedi, who has also written other Sircar-directed hits such as Vicky Donor and Piku, the film gives a slice-of-life treatment to the power struggle between ageing landlord Mirza (Amitabh Bachchan), and his tenant Banke (Ayushmann Khurrana). “It’s a simple satire, a character-based film, not heavy on plot,” says Sircar. Set in Lucknow, the film sees the two bicker over a dilapidated haveli which Mirza tries to sell and Banke refuses to leave.
The city, says Sircar, is one of the many characters in the film. “The film is soaked in the old Lucknow flavour, which is reminiscient of old Delhi and even parts of Kolkata,” he adds. Sircar mentions that the film is shot in actual locations, Hazratganj and Chowk areas. A devout fan of Satyajit Ray, Sircar stayed at Hotel Clarion, the same place the auteur had stayed in when shooting Shatranj Ke Khiladi. “It is always great to be inspired by him,” says Sircar.
Like Ray, Sircar also has a close-knit group of people he likes to work with. Ronnie Lahiri and Sheel Kumar have been his producing partners, Shantanu Moitra produced the score to many of his films, while Kamaljeet Negi and Avik Mukhopadhyay have been his preferred lensmen. Chaturvedi, too, has worked on all his films, barring Yahaan, Pink and his 2021 release Sardar Udham Singh. In an earlier interview with india today, the writer had said, “There is a thought process I have which fortunately and beautifully matches with his.”
Sircar likes to work with a bound script. This helps him finish the film in his head before he begins shooting. Chaturvedi, he adds, delivers that draft. Their collaboration goes back to Shoebite, Sircar’s still unreleased first film also featuring Bachchan, for which Chaturvedi did the dialogues. “Our tastes in cinema and understanding of it match,” he says. “Unless you have that, it is difficult to have a connection.” Still, for Sircar, while there is comfort in the partnership, the work process hasn’t become “quicker or easier”. “There is no magic formula to it,” he adds.
Gulabo Sitabo, however, furthers a formula the two have aced: to tell stories that minutely observe life and acutely examine relationships. The simplicity and profundity of the narratives have made them outliers in Hindi cinema. Regardless of the incessant banter in the trailer, Sircar clarifies that the film “is not a laugh riot”. The characters, for a change, are on the margins. “It’s about somehow managing life, what we all to do survive,” he says. “It’s about human nature which exists but is unseen. We don’t know what we are doing, but we are doing it.”
Another person who has become familiar with Sircar’s worldview is Bachchan. “Somehow our relationship is such that we don’t speak much,” he says. “He looks at me and gauges if I am happy or not with the take. He’ll say, ‘Avik, roll again. He’s pissed off, so let’s try again’.” Sircar’s opinion, for instance, was enough for Bachchan to be on board with a digital release. As Sircar looks forward to what he describes as “the dawn of a new era for Indian entertainment”, there is a lot playing on his mind. The loss of Irrfan Khan still lingers. “It’s difficult to forget him,” says Sircar, who couldn’t make it to the actor’s funeral because of the lockdown. The devastation of the cyclone has shaken him. “It is an unimaginable tragedy,” he says. “It will take years to rebuild.” But there are small mercies. He is grateful for the floor mop. He is enjoying the cooking. And he’s revisiting Ray’s classics and watching documentaries. “I want to be in lockdown for some more time,” he says.
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