Lucknow is like an invisible person to me: Juhi Chaturvedi
The writer discusses the themes and flavours of Gulabo Sitabo, her fourth film with Shoojit Sircar
When a film’s sense of place is irrepressibly strong, it’s described as a ‘character’. For Juhi Chaturvedi, the writer of Gulabo Sitabo, the city of Lucknow has always exuded a living presence. “It’s like an invisible person to me,” she says of the city where she grew up, finished college from, and has finally gotten a film made about.
Shoojit Sircar’s comedy — starring Amitabh Bachchan as a greedy landlord and Ayushmann Khurrana as his tenant — has released on Amazon Prime Video to largely positive reviews. Praise, in particular, has been heaped on cinematographer Abhik Mukhopadhyay’s lensing of old Lucknow: its streets and archways, bustling town-square and, of course, the decaying haveli at the centre of the film.
All of which could well not have been. Initially, the plan was to set the film in old Delhi, preferably Chandni Chowk. But the shift to Lucknow presented its distinct advantages. “There’s a certain authenticity my writing could bring,” Juhi explains. “The Awadhi dialect, the lehza (mannerisms), the humour, and the insults… all of it is so specific to that place.”
There was also history. For centuries, Lucknow had been the cultural capital of North India. It was ruled by the Mughals, then the Nawabs and the British. Its syncretic values — also known as Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, a fusion of Hindu and Muslim traditions — are lovingly underlined throughout the film. Baankey’s (Ayushmann) family has been living in a Muslim household for years. In one scene, he visits a temple with his girlfriend Fauzia (Poornima Sharma). There’s another scene at a Church, and Brijendra Kala plays the curiously named Anglo-Indian character, Christopher Clark.
“In the times we were growing up, we never knew any Hindu-Muslim riots,” Juhi says. “The multiculturalism was a part of our upbringing, be it the Ghazals, the Kathak, or the Hindustani classical music. You could hear it in street directions: Begum Hazrat Mahal Park, Qaisar Bagh, Hazratganj. Whatever might be happening in the rest of the country, this is the Lucknow I know and remember.”
The title Gulabo Sitabo alludes to dying glove puppetry performances in the city. Like the two heroines of that tale, Baankey and Mirza are always at each other’s throats. Juhi has written such mismatched pairs before in Vicky Donor (Ayushmann-Annu Kapoor), Piku (Amitabh Bachchan-Irrfan Khan), and October (Varun Dhawan and his peeved supervisor). It’s her way of communicating complex personalities without slowing down the narrative, the writer says. “Baankey and Mirza have lived together for years. Their arguments and interactions are an ongoing part of their lives. I find it fascinating to bring out the depth of human relationships — whether good or bad. In two hours, you get a sense of their entire past.”
The film, though, pulls a fast one on its leading men. While the narrative swings between Mirza and Baankey’s rivalry and the impending seizure of their house, the final revelation has left everyone surprised. Juhi says she wanted to take the long view on these desperate characters. “Lucknow at one level has a lot of affluence and rich societies. At the same time, there are people leading a hand-to-mouth existence. But even within that, the humour is not lost. The emotion of greed is universal.”