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In conversation with Shoojit Sircar

Shoojit Sircar, prominent Indian film director and producer, films his character’s landscape with an eye that is at once joyful and marvellous. His latest Gulabo Sitabo, one of the first Bollywood films released digitally this June on Amazon Prime Video worldwide, is testimony to that, yet again. Be it Baankey Rastogi (played by Ayushman Khurana), a young man struggling to look after his mother and educate his three younger sisters or Mirza (played by the legendary Amitabh Bachchan) who quite steals the show as the grumpy, greedy old man obsessed with Fatima Mahal, the 100-year-old palace he and his wife Begum (Farrukh Jafar) own, Sircar combines his signature mix of theatre influence and intellectual pith. You have to watch the film to understand it.

Sircar’s films, in his own words, ‘are an outburst of expression and not made to convince anyone’. But because they peer deep into life around us, he has become a filmmaker that allows viewers to resonate with his films and connect. Take Vicky Donor, Piku, Madras CafĂ© or Pink to name a few, he provides an incredible insight into life.

Sircar is known for making independent films but he stresses that Gulabo Sitabo is a commercial cinema (more on that below). Rest assured, Sircar yields pleasant surprises for us through his work—whether independent or commercial.

And in a time of social distancing, we meet Sircar through Zoom, one of the delightful sources of connection now, where he shares more about his work and the default creative retreat he is now in, thanks to the pandemic.

Are you happy with the audience response to Gulabo Sitabo, your first digitally released film?
Yes. I expected people to enjoy and understand the film and get the little intentions that the film had, specially the character of Begum and all the other women characters, not to forget Mirza and Baankey. I think people got them. But yes, there were also a lot of people who didn’t like the film. That’s fine, that is part of the creative process. However, I am happy for the people who liked and enjoyed the world of Gulabo Sitabo. That was the idea—to present the Gulabo Sitabo world, which is essentially the world of greed. I am happy I could present it and that I could make this film.


What resonated for me was the concept of finding home. What does it mean to you cinematically?
If you see in India and all my films including Piku, it is always important to find your roots. I guess it is true for all human beings… you reminisce your roots, you go back to your roots. So, somewhere, Gulabo Sitabo (a name spun out of a glove puppetry where Sitabo is the worn-out spouse and Gulabo is the scintillating mistress) also symbolises the crumbling state of that haveli (mansion). Someone told me the hero of the film is the haveli which Mirza wants at any cost as also his begum who is 17 years older to Mirza but got married nonetheless just so someone could take care of the haveli because it has been gifted to her by her father. I think somewhere down the line, this heritage, this concept of home, keeping home, being at home are very important for us Indians or for all humans I should say. It is very important for humans to be associated with their roots.


Did you have to make any compromise in the making of the film?
Rather, I would say I have done not many mistakes in this film as I did in my earlier films. The way it was conceived and the way I had thought through came out much better than what I expected.


Is working with Amitabh Bachchan a challenge?
It is fun for sure working with him but it is also a challenge because first, you must understand that he is the real superstar of our film industry. Two, he has more than 50 years’ experience in the industry. He has seen it all. For him to trust us and to trust me in terms of the way we are looking at the character and then completely surrendered to the character of Mirza is humbling and gratifying. I think what he has done in the film is, he has completely deconstructed himself his Amitabh Bachchan persona into Mirza. And that’s what an actor should be and that’s what he has done. He has completely disappeared in the character of Mirza, you don’t see anybody else, you only see Mirza—getting into the skin of the character and forgetting who he is. I suppose that’s why the actors enjoy and get the kick out of their performances.


But is there a sense of responsibility?
A little bit. And yes, of course, we will have to take care of him because of him but Mr Bachchan also knows what we are intending to do with the character. So, there is some kind of integrity in the script and the way we treat the film. I feel responsible for the character. It’s always a dream to work with Mr Bachchan, he also understands that as a filmmaker I am quite deep into the character, there is no pleasing anyone. The end goal for us is to do the characters right.


You must have lots of fond memories working with him?
There are many. You learn so much from him. His process is really wonderful because the kind of time he gives in terms of preparation and the preparing and understanding—that’s really commendable. For example, in Gulabo Sitabo he had lots of makeup. In the beginning of the shoot, I was a little sceptical and scared about whether he will be able to withstand this kind of cumbersome make up in the heat. Mind you, we were shooting in the thick of summer. I told him ‘sir this will be tough on you to take on this kind of make up sitting at one position for three-four hours and then shooing the entire day and again taking it out’. But he said, ‘no I want Mirza to be like this’. I tried to persuade him into shooting during the winters and, again, he said ‘no, let’s shoot in summers, I have no problem’. I told him it would get very hot, but he was fine with the idea.

During the shoot, I got really concerned as you have  to somehow manage the makeup otherwise it could slip down the face because of the sweat, so I would tell him to please go to the van and relax.  On the contrary, he would insist on being on the sets. ‘Do you have any problem with me?’ he would ask, laughingly. That’s what he is, he wants to be there all the time and be involved, which is admirable.


Your collaboration with Juhi Chaturvedi is great. What inspires the ideas behind your films?
We try to portray films as closely as life itself. So, I think we have a kind of a common factor in terms of understanding a film. I think it’s basically seeing life around. I have seen these characters such as the ones you’ve seen in Gulabo Sitabo. I have seen the people who live in these houses and they are just paying half a dollar rent a month for this place or almost 80, 90 or hundred years. The houses are crumbling but they are still somehow living within that 20X20 feet wall to wall house, they are just somehow managing with life and there is always a fight between the tenant and the landlord. I think we have all seen this in our childhood especially growing up in old cities like the old city of Lucknow (where Gulabo Sitabo was shot). It’s purely an observation that we tried to put it out there for everyone.

 

You would have enjoyed some really good kebabs and nawabi food in Lucknow?
Lucknow food is phenomenal but I am a vegetarian so I had chefs and  restaurants who sent/gave me very good vegetarian food, they also gave me brilliant vegetarians kebabs. I am enjoying being a vegetarian for quite some time now and I have no regrets. There is no pressure, I can go back to being a non-vegetarian any time. So far, I am quite good being a vegetarian.


Your films are not for slotted for mainstream commercial cinema. Do you work on your projects with the intention to change perceptions?
I feel that Gilabo Sitabo is commercial cinema. I find that the commercial cinema is art cinema because I can’t understand the former. I really find it sometimes difficult to understand commercial cinema where a car is, say, blowing 20 feet up. That’s bizarre for me, that’s really art for me. So, I think this is more real for me as cinema I believe in. I really don’t see films as commercial or art. I see it as a piece of creative work, it’s an outburst of expression. So there is no effort to convince anyone because I don’t make films for anyone. I make films for myself, I come first, I enjoy. I don’t cater my films and if it works people see it, that’s fine. I am quite happy that I am able to make films of my own choice and make them the way I want to. That is more important to me.


Will you make a film based on immigrants?
Yes, I will make a film on immigrants. I was toiling around with an immigrant story for some time. In fact, we were working on a story. Let’s see. When it becomes an absolutely full-grown script, then we will do it.


Will you pick someone from the diaspora? There are many Bollywood hopefuls here.
(laughs) Yes we will work. I have been working with overseas actors. Banita Sandhu is British and she debuted in our film October.


I have a personal bias, any films on northeast India?
Absolutely. Soon you will see a film which will be based on the northeast of India. It is too early but surely there will be a lot of actors and my backdrop is going to be northeast.


Is there any actor you would like to work it?
My personal favourite is the one who is gone—Irrfan khan. He was my only favourite. I will continue working with Mr Bachchan, I would want to work with Deepika Padukone again or Ayushman Khurana. I work with a lot of newcomers. In fact, Gulabo Sitabo had many newcomers. In all my films there are lot of newcomers and I would like to explore that possibility always.


In the current pandemic, what are you working on and how are you passing time?
My kitchen in my home has become the most inspiring place right now. I am learning different kinds of cooking every day, I mean simple vegetarian food. Also, I am discovering my home. I realise there is so much work around the house which I never knew earlier as I was out shooting most of the time. That apart, I am reading a lot and watching various documentaries ranging from spirituality to health to world war, historical subjects. I think we have a long way to go with this pandemic, so let’s see where we are headed.


Any update on your latest project?
I am working on Udham Singh with Vicky Kaushal in it. It is a period film. The shooting is over and the post-production work is on. We will release next year, possibly soon whenever the theatres and everything else open up. Hopefully, you will get to see it soon.


Would you prefer a digital release if the current pandemic goes on?
At this moment, we haven’t thought of anything. We will take as things as they come. It was only Gulabo Sitabo that we experimented with in terms of the digital platform release and we are quite happy with it. But yes, have not decided on anything so far.


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