The women of Gulabo Sitabo: Juhi Chaturvedi equips her female characters with agency, choice and self-worth

Gulabo Sitabo is the kind of film people have either fallen in love with, or simply haven’t cared enough to watch through — it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

Karishma Upadhyay June 18, 2020 08:14:57 IST
The women of Gulabo Sitabo: Juhi Chaturvedi equips her female characters with agency, choice and self-worth

Gulabo Sitabo is the kind of film people have either fallen in love with, or simply haven’t cared enough to watch through — it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

For those who love the film though, the magic lies in an old-world charm that just oozes out of its rich dialogue, the decrepit mansion Fatima Mahal, that forms its setting and its eccentric cast of characters. Story and setting aside, it’s the subtle layering in the writing that makes this film so very refreshing. And somewhere amongst all its nuances is this special something that writer Juhi Chaturvedi has woven in: a very desi version of the empowered woman.

The women of Gulabo Sitabo Juhi Chaturvedi equips her female characters with agency choice and selfworth

Farrukh Jafar as Fatima Begum in Gulabo Sitabo. Image from Twitter

Gulabo Sitabo takes its name from a folk tale told on the streets of Lucknow by street puppeteers, about a man’s constantly quarrelling wife and mistress. The two male characters in the film fight like these two mythical characters, with spite and pettiness — the kind of behaviour usually reserved by writers around the world for their female characters. But this is only the first of many inversions the film makes with age-old gender stereotypes.

In a hackneyed milieu that’s been the bread-and-butter of Indian films for decades, there is the solitary breadwinner of the house, his widowed mother, and three younger sisters. Scores of films have used this trope to build the working-class hero; an unselfish male protagonist with the burden of having to get his sisters married off, all the while putting off his own dreams, his romance, and his happiness. The women in these stories are no more than props, placed in the story to give meaning to the hero’s struggles and tug at the heartstrings of the audience.

In Gulabo Sitabo though, the women are given agency and nothing serves better to point out the flaws of the men in a story than a woman who knows what she’s worth.

While the constant bickering between Baanke (Ayushmann Khurrana) and his landlord Mirza (Amitabh Bachchan) dominates the narrative, you see Baanke’s sisters invested in education, making plans of their own and living their lives with consummate sass. The eldest of the three sisters, Guddo (Srishti Shrivastava) is ambitious, way smarter than her bumbling idiot of a brother, and unabashedly aware of it. She’s not afraid to go after what she wants and worms her way into her brother’s schemes, using her smarts to gain advantages over the hapless men around her. In one scene, you see her guilt-tripping Gyanesh Shukla (Vijay Raaz), a government officer into promising her a better deal than what he was offering her brother. In another, she impresses Mirza’s lawyer, Christopher Clark (Brijendra Kala) with her self-taught legalese, so much so that he gives her a job as his assistant. In itself, Guddo’s character is by no means unique but when juxtaposed against the expectations an audience has from a Baanke-type character, it becomes one of the cleverest bits of feminist writing that I've seen in a long, long time.

Far from coming off as the all-sacrificing brother, Baanke’s character stereotype is thrown further off-course by his love interest. In most films with a situation like this, you’d have seen Baanke fighting the odds, driven by the aim of getting his sisters married before he entertained thoughts about settling down himself. His love interest would be another pillar of martyrdom, as she’d wait endlessly for her hero to bring home his personal victories. Not in this case though. His girlfriend Fauzia is assertive and doesn’t mince her words. With just a couple of scenes in the film, she bangs home the message that she doesn’t have time for an ambitionless man. And she doesn’t just move on, but comes back to throw it in his face. There’s nothing apologetic here, no inherent need to show women as the embodiment of all that’s good and pure as one would be led to believe by our heroines of yore.

What’s also common to the women of Gulabo Sitabo is their agency over their own sexuality.

You see both Guddo and Fauzia in post-coitus scenes completely owning it like it’s the most natural thing in the world. There’s absolutely no judgment or slut-shaming, and if there’s anything being questioned at all, it’s the out-dated ideas that people seem to associate with supposedly conservative environments. For once, we don’t have a chain-smoking, cussing ‘modern girl’ as the archetype of the emasculated woman. And it’s not an age thing at all. The 95-year-old mistress of the house, Fatima Begum (Farrukh Jafar) displays as much cheek as any teenager when she asks her husband Mirza whether he’s the guy she married or the one she had eloped with: just a gentle reminder of who wears the pants in that relationship. And it’s this character that holds the key and eventually provides the unexpected twist in the story. Once again, a strong female character is effectively used to show how little Mirza actually controls in his own life.

As a film, Gulabo Sitabo will be remembered by different people for different facets. Some will remember its highly original insults and repartee while others will talk about this being one of Bachchan’s best performances in the last decade. Most writers though, could pick up a thing or two on how to use a supporting cast to paint (or taint) one’s lead characters.

The women of Gulabo Sitabo have been folded into the recipe so seamlessly that you taste them throughout without realising they’re there, always there. If the screenplay places the two male leads in the centre of the dish as the two hero elements, it’s the women that bring in the spice, the sass, and the saltiness. They’re not shouting out from the rooftops, not clamouring for attention… they’re just there elevating this dish and making it memorable.

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