The director’s much-awaited 'Gulabo Sitabo', with Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana in the lead, is set to release on Amazon Prime Video on June 12.

Shoojit Sircar on Gulabo Sitabo and why there should be a change in Indian cinemaAll images: Amazon Prime Video
Flix Interview Wednesday, June 03, 2020 - 15:19

In the middle of a two-month-long lockdown, even as film industries try to teeter back to normalcy, director Shoojit Sircar has been busy. He has a new release just days away, and perhaps for the first time, a big-ticket Hindi movie has skipped a theatrical release to premiere on a digital OTT (over-the-top) platform.

The director’s much-awaited Gulabo Sitabo, with Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana in the lead, is set to release on Amazon Prime Video on June 12. 

TNM caught up with Shoojit over the phone to talk about his upcoming release, why he decided to go digital, and his memories of actor Irrfan who passed away in April this year.

Can you tell us about Gulabo Sitabo and what inspired you to tell this story?

Well, the film is set in Lucknow. The story — which is what you see in the trailer also — indulges in a few characters and a few families; there is one haveli, and there are many other locations that are there. It peeps into their everyday life, their living, their struggles, and you can see that they come from an economically lower group and they have much more struggle in their life.

I have tried to present this film as a social satire. I have never experimented with satire and this is the first time that I'm doing so. Satires are sometimes a little difficult and sometimes a little easy. For me, it was difficult because satire becomes a comment (on society) but I think I enjoyed this process. And this film is about lots and lots of characters. It is an ensemble cast and has some fascinating performances —  and it is coming from the same stable of me and Ronnie (Lahiri), the kind of movies that we have made earlier. 

You are working with Amitabh Bachchan again. Can you tell us what it is like to work with him?

This is the fourth film that I have done with him and I have worked with him on many campaigns also. He is extremely obedient and disciplined. He is absolutely true to the script. He takes everything very seriously, whatever we have envisioned.

It is very important that an actor like him completely gives in to the director’s vision and the script’s vision, and that experience is quite fascinating. For example, we were working in Lucknow, it was the month of June-July and it was the peak of the summer of Uttar Pradesh. And wearing all his clothes and makeup, he would still perform. I would tell him, 'Sir, break lele kya (shall we take a break?), should we wait for two-three days and then start, it is too hot,' but he would say 'No, I will work. I will go.' Then I would shut up and start shooting. Sometimes I’d shout, saying, 'Please sir, please go to your van, you don’t have a shot now, I will manage.' But no, he would sit there on a chair - he would be sweating (laughs) but he would still sit there. So, I think this is the experience and the dedication that he has, which is fascinating. 

Amitabh Bachchan in Gulabo Sitabo

Your second lead in Gulabo is Ayushmann Khurana, whom you launched in Vicky Donor. You’re working with him again after eight years. What do you think of him as an actor and how does it feel to be working again with him?

I have been in touch with him since Vicky Donor, so we have been quite close. I haven’t watched all his films, I just watched one film, Article 15. But whatever I have heard from people and read, he is doing quite well. So for us to work together again, it was nothing new, it was just for us to start off. I think for him, it was quite new to work with Amitabh Bachchan. I think that must have been really more enjoyable, because a lot of people want to work with Mr Bachchan. He was absolutely true to the character. We were sure that he would not play to the gallery, in the script also and in the treatment also. And that’s what happened.

Amitabh and Ayushmann in a still from Gulabo Sitabo

Are you apprehensive about the response to Gulabo Sitabo now that it is releasing on an OTT platform?

When the cinema theatres issued a letter on public platforms about the film releasing on an OTT platform, I said that I understand their objection and that they are unhappy, but my point is that I will know how my film will turn out. We must all understand that the situation is like this. If there was no pandemic and no lockdown on April 17, my film would have released, nobody knows. But nothing is planned and you have to adapt to situations.

I was not apprehensive at all, I was very sure that I was going to go with digital once the lockdown started. I had been shooting all around the world and so I knew what was coming up, I had a little sense that this pandemic is coming and that it is going to be a long haul possibly. I put it on my social media as well that it was going to be a long haul. So when it came to deciding and going with digital media, I did not have any apprehension. Once I decided, I stood by it and I still stand by it. 

Amitabh and Shoojit on sets of Gulabo Sitabo

Speaking of the lockdown, will India see a rise in movies with low budget, but high production values? Do you think the pandemic may change the process of filmmaking?

I think it depends, if the uncertainties continue like this for some time, then maybe. But there is no small budget film or big budget film. A film is a film. I do not see them like that, the way cinema rolls out. But having said that, we will have to wait and see, because we are unable to shoot. Lots of films are not complete. I took this call because I wanted the film to go to the audience as fast as possible. But I think the decision is based absolutely on who can hold and who cannot hold (onto the film). Different producers will have different mindsets and discussions amongst themselves. So, I think they will have to decide among themselves. 

You're among the filmmakers who are making the offbeat the mainstream, with the success of films like Piku, October etc. Do you think Bollywood will eventually stop making the big, glitzy films that it's been long known for?

I think this is a normal film. I call those films offbeat films. I have grown up watching these kinds of films of Satyajit Ray, Ghatak, Bimal Roy and Mrinal Sen; even in Hollywood, I have watched Woody Allen to (Andrei) Tarkovsky to (Luis) Buñuel and so many other filmmakers. So I don’t think that this is something out of the box that has appeared. I think there have been some fascinating filmmakers who have been making normal films just like these, like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Sai Paranjype, Govind Nihalani, Shyam Benegal — so many are there. All of them have made films that are so normal. 

You have also worked with Irrfan Khan, who passed away earlier this year, and you worked with him in Piku. What do you remember most about him? Do you have any memories you'd like to share?

Everyone asks me this (laughs softly). It’s difficult to forget Irrfan. His memory is so vibrant. Just now I was talking to someone about how difficult it was to break the news that Irrfan is no more... It was very tough. We had been following up for the past 7-8 days and at 11 am, his older son called me and told me this… it was quite devastating. For me, Piku was the first film in which I worked with him and one where I started interacting with him. Generally, what you see, what he speaks, he is absolutely genuine. Most artists sometimes are not genuine... But Irrfan was an absolute gem, an absolute, genuine person. Whatever he spoke, there was a lot of truth to it. That is why he was such a great artist. And you can only be a great artist when you are genuine and truthful. These were some of his beautiful, magical qualities. It is a big loss. We keep saying ‘loss, loss,’ but I think he was the real loss. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Irfaan.

A post shared by Shoojit Sircar (@shoojitsircar) on

For the coming months, what would you like to see in Indian cinema? And what do you think 2020, or even 2021, has in store?

I hope that there is a change. I hope there is a change for good in terms of the thinking, in terms of the vision and in terms of the making. Because the world is going through a changing phase. This is going to haunt us for a long, long time. And I hope we come out of basic differences, human differences, we come out of hatred — there is possibly love and peace, and I hope cinemas somewhere down the line take such roots somewhere and help societies to form. I hope that change happens. 

Do you feel that many movies shy away from having a ‘message,’ perhaps because they are not considered commercial successes?

I don’t think I agree with that. I have an audience which is my own. There are a lot of films that are released and there is a huge amount of audience. I cannot cater to everyone, you know. Some people will like it, some may not, that is fine, but that does not mean that takes an audience out.

The right way of seeing this is that every film has got its own life and own state. If not today, tomorrow someone will see that film. The problem is that people in our industry have made the box-office a milestone. That is not a milestone of a good or bad cinema. I think cinema decides its own milestones. Otherwise in Hollywood, nobody would have remembered Satyajit Ray. He made films in 1955. Today if people come to India, they talk about Satyajit Ray, you tell me how that is possible? Nobody saw his films at the time, they did not release in theatres on this scale. If you ask anyone in Hollywood, they will first talk about Satyajit Ray or they'll talk about Mahatma Gandhi. How? We must understand that if something is good, nobody can stop it. 

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