Shoojit Sircar on Gulabo Sitabo going digital: 'It was not an easy decision but this is the way forward'

Shoojit Sircar discusses reuniting with Ayushmann Khurrana and Amitabh Bachchan, whether he is compromising with an OTT release, and the status of Sardar Udham Singh.

Seema Sinha June 09, 2020 14:39:40 IST
Shoojit Sircar on Gulabo Sitabo going digital: 'It was not an easy decision but this is the way forward'

After their successful collaborations on Vicky Donor (2012) and Piku (2015), Shoojit Sircar reunites with Ayushmann Khurrana and Amitabh Bachchan (not to forget Shoebite, lying in the cans since 2010) respectively for their latest quirky, slice-of-life drama Gulabo Sitabo.

Earlier scheduled for a theatrical release on 17 April, the film is the first major Bollywood film to opt for a direct-to-streaming service release because of the ongoing lockdown. It will premiere on Amazon Prime Video India this Friday on 12 June.

Inspired by a pair of folk puppets, and set in Lucknow, the film, which is Sircar’s first attempt at satire, follows a bickering duo, an elderly landlord Mirza (Bachchan) and his young tenant Bankey (Khurrana). The film is also Sircar’s fourth film to have been written by Juhi Chaturvedi.

Shoojit Sircar on Gulabo Sitabo going digital It was not an easy decision but this is the way forward

Ayushmann Khurrana and Amitabh Bachchan in a still from Gulabo Sitabo

In a chat with Firstpost, the director opens up on the challenges of directing Bachchan and Khurrana together, the tough decision of releasing the film on an OTT platform, his next project, Vicky Kaushal-starrer Sardar Udham Singh, and Shoebite, the unreleased film with Bachchan, based on a story by M Night Shyamalan. Excerpts from the chat below:

Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana are a fresh pairing. We see their characters at loggerheads with many clashes happening between them in the trailer. Considering that Bachchan has a larger-than-life persona, was it challenging directing those scenes?

The interactions between Mr Bachchan and Ayushmann... he is seen shouting at the megastar... yes, in the initial stage, it was difficult, it was not that easy. I would have discussions with Ayushmann about how much to go, and how much to restrain. There are also some cuss words that Ayushmann's character uses in the film, so should I say or should I not say, how much to say... these discussions went on for some time. Of course, for Ayushmann, standing in front of this larger-than-life person, with that aura, was difficult, but the good thing is that Mr Bachchan is so accommodating. Initially, you feel that he is a superstar but he is a director’s actor. He is a brilliant co-actor for everyone to give their space to perform.

On the other hand, I was very clear to Ayushmann that we are not going to play to the gallery. That was most important for my film, and he had to play a very normal character. I had to keep telling him that and cut it out, and had to retake only because I was not ready to play to the gallery. He knows my style of working. He understands that in a Shoojit da film, I will have to be real, and be the character because that is what the script demands.

Since I have worked with both of them earlier, somewhere down the line, there is trust, bonding, and comfort between us, and that has grown slowly and matured. Of course, it is a creative process, and we keep challenging each other all the time. We challenge Mr Bachchan, and he challenges us. That is very important for that good, healthy working relationship.

You and Ayushmann are back after a nine-year gap. In this period, the actor has worked way up to stardom with many consecutive hits. What changes did you observe in him?

I didn’t see much change in Ayushmann. With me at least, he was quite normal and genuine. As I said, my only brief to him was not to play to the gallery. That was our main requirement and idea of the film. We wanted the actors to play it as real, as normal. We just wanted him to be Bankey Rastogi, and nobody else. For Mr Bachchan as well, we didn’t want him to be Bachchan. We wanted him to be Mirza. I think it’s coming through the trailer that they are characters, and they are not playing themselves.

Can you tell us the genesis of the idea for Gulabo Sitabo?

The idea came to me from my writer Juhi Chaturvedi. It is about the relationship of these characters, about this family. The basic idea was to look into the characters of these people, who are economically in hand-to-mouth situations, struggling with their lives. How do they deal with everyday life, and where do the characters go, what is the human behaviour we see in them that you and I can relate to? That was the basic germination. Later on, we came to know about Gulabo-Sitabo, the puppeteers, and we used the characters as a metaphor for the film. And like how I put a camera in the middle of Piku, and observed that world, I have done the same here. This performing art is an old dying art form. There are a lot of puppeteers who are unable to sustain because it is a dying art. So we thought why not give an ode to this puppet art, and probably it can come back into our lives with people, children listening to their stories. So that is how the title also came up.

You said that you are attempting satire for the first time, so how was making this film different for you?

In satire, we look at things in a little different perspective. There is always that soothing humour when you look at things, look at human behaviour, human psychology, human psyche. There are those little little nuances. I think there is always some satire when I am commenting on something. There is always that faint smile (laughs) in whatever I comment on. Even if it is something worse, that smile makes things easier to tell.

What was the reference for that distinctive look of Mr Bachchan?

If you walk in the old parts of Lucknow, say Hazratganj or in Daryaganj, Jama Masjid area in Delhi, you will find a lot of characters who look exactly like Mr Bachchan, that is, the way he is seen in the film. The internet was also a huge reference for us. Then my cinematographer suggested that we look at the works of a Russian pencil artist, and we took some references from her pencil sketches. That's why we decided to shoot this film in a single wide lens so that we can capture the old authentic Lucknow, and to present the city in such a way it was never seen before. We have captured the minute details of the haveli, the shop, the streets. There’s a lot of earthiness. Location has always been very crucial in my films, and in this film, location is actually part of the narrative and the characters.

Shoojit Sircar on Gulabo Sitabo going digital It was not an easy decision but this is the way forward

Amitabh Bachchan in a still from Gulabo Sitabo

You have two bankable actors, and Gulabo Sitabo is supposed to be one of the most anticipated films of the year. Did you not wonder that you were missing out on box office collections by opting for an OTT release?

Yes, it did bother me, and it did take some time for me to take the decision to go digital. I debated with myself what should be done. When I missed my theatrical release date on 17 April then a lot of things ran across my mind.

It was not an easy decision to make. But then I thought that possibly this is the way forward. Digital is not going away. It is here to stay. During this lockdown phase, we have gotten little comfortable with the digital medium.

Also, I didn’t want to hold on to the film because I make one film at a time, and only then move to the next. Moving on from one film to the next film is very important. I have my crew, technicians waiting to collaborate. And it was looking a little uncertain at this moment. Then there are so many films in the pipeline waiting for release creating a bottleneck. Remember the kind of audiences that I have. I don’t know when this fear of going to the cinema freely, sitting, and enjoying the film will come back. Of course, it will come back but I was thinking about all these uncertainties, and that is why I took the decision of digital release. But once I took the decision, I never looked back. I stand by it, and I am so happy that Amazon is releasing it, considering the reach they have.

Yours is the very first big ticket film opting for a direct-to-digital release. How lucrative is it releasing on OTT? 

In terms of profits and how lucrative it’s to release on an OTT platform, I am not the right person to talk. My producers will know. I take the responsibility as a director. My job is to make sure that I recover the money that the producer invests on me so that I make the next film, and he can invest in me again. So that job I have done, and beyond that, I can’t take the responsibility because I don’t know (laughs). I never thought my films would do good in terms of huge box office collection because my films are very normal, and not massy. But slowly, I found a huge audience, and that is what I depend on. Secondly, I make films for myself. I don’t make films to please someone or cater to someone.

What is the status of your next Sardar Udham Singh. How has the lockdown impacted the film? Do you think it will meet the release date in January 2021?

I have finished the shoot but the post-production was halted. But now, the government has given us permissions, and we will figure out how to start work on it. At this moment, the release is scheduled for January 2021 but I don’t know how things will roll out in terms of the release plan.

Shoojit Sircar on Gulabo Sitabo going digital It was not an easy decision but this is the way forward

Vick Kaushal's first look in Sardar Udham Singh from sets of Shoojit Sircar's film

Your long-awaited film with Bachchan, Shoebite, is in the news again. How do you feel about it?

I am so thankful to Ayushmann, Anurag Kashyap, and Mr Bachchan. They all came forward, and spoke about it. Yes, it is with Disney now, and I hope they release it. I am also waiting under a fence like you. It has been so many years now (laughs).

What do you have to say about the resentment among the multiplex chain owners of INOX and PVR over the digital release of Gulabo Sitabo?

Their resentment is right, and that is why I never retaliated to what they felt. I just told them, 'Yes, you have every right to protest. You have every right to feel uncomfortable because this film is releasing digitally. But there is nothing personal. You will find your way to run your business, and I will find a way to release my films.' The Producers' Guild also sent a statement to theatre owners saying how will the producers move on. Unless they move on, and films get made, the films will not get projected in the theatre. But I will always say that both cinema halls and OTT are going to co-exist. Their resentment is absolutely right but this is not the end of the world. We have to move on.

All images from Twitter.

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