They are fearless, firebrand feminists. They know how to navigate their way in a man’s world. And they are as regular as you and me. They are the women of Gulabo Sitabo. The film, released this month on Amazon Prime, has been penned by a woman. So naturally, Juhi Chaturvedi’s script gave female characters the attention they deserved, albeit in a gift-reveal manner. All through the run-up to the film’s release, the spotlight was on male leads Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana. But the women were the film’s secret ingredients that took the audience by surprise, piquant flavours without whom Gulabo Sitabo would have tasted bland.

The audience can’t seem to get enough of the mischievous Begum, the fierce Guddo, and the proud Fauzia. They are all people are talking about, and the response from viewers has been overwhelming, they tell me. Srishti Shrivastava, who plays Baankey’s (Khurrana) younger sister Guddo, always knew she wanted to be an actor since she was a little girl. She says her family’s excitement and pride at seeing their daughter on-screen was off the charts. “When they saw the movie, they were blown. Right now they aren’t focusing on any flaws in my acting, because beti screen par hai toh usse zyada unhe kuch nahi chahiye.” 

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Poornima Sharma, who essays the role of Fauzia, Baankey’s girlfriend, says she was elated to see memes of her line “Hume pata nahi tha aap itne gareeb hain” go viral, with friends forwarding them to her on WhatsApp. Sharma, who makes her debut with this film, is a proficient artist from the Hindi theatre scene and is currently stationed in Lucknow where the film was shot. “I got a positive response from all quarters, especially for the Lucknowi dialect I spoke with fluency in the film,” she says.

However, both women agree, that the unrivalled star of the film, hands-down, is Fatima Begum. 87-year old Farrukh Jaffar, who plays her, has a slew of movies to her name but it is as if the Indian audience has discovered her with this one. She is everyone’s favourite character from Gulabo Sitabo, and when I asked her who hers was, unabashedly came the reply, “My own.” But that everyone had eyes for her, despite Bachchan’s towering presence, is something she attributes to the generosity of the audience. In her endearing, throaty Fatto Begum voice, she humbly tells me, “All I knew was I had to speak, and I only focused on that with my heart and soul.

Sure enough, she did, and it came through colourfully. Fatto Begum is the moral axis on which Gulabo Sitabo spins; she exposes the greed that had rotted away Bachchan’s Mirza and Khurrana’s Baankey with stunning astuteness and shrewd scheming. On whether women should be a little calculative to gain their means and ends in what is essentially a man’s world, Jaffar readily agrees, “Bilkul. Every woman should try to be like Fatto Begum.” That said, she doesn’t lose sight of the light-heartedness of things. Her favourite scene is the one where “laalchi Mirza”, as she calls him, takes the Begum’s thumbprints when she is sleeping.

Along the thread of keeping one’s aspirations first, lies Fauzia’s character too. She leaves Baankey for other comforts more material than the fabled concept of unconditional love and is unapologetic about it all. Poornima explains that Fauzia does so because “she was a practical woman. Money and lifestyle were what mattered most to her and there’s nothing wrong with that.” Living in a gender-unequal world, she feels “women don’t necessarily have to be over-smart, but just enough to not be wronged.

Srishti sums it up, saying, “Every woman is in a different situation in different parts of the world.” This iterates that being a woman is not a one-size-fits-all experience. Women sail through life with varied outlooks, opinions, and behaviours. “You don’t have to be shrewd, you just have to not cushion your thoughts. Women are always scared of the consequences of their words. As women, we just have to be honest and not be at all fearful,” she says, claiming that that is also her biggest takeaway from Guddo, who “is not afraid of anything.”

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In the movies Juhi pens, each character has a noticeable arc, however minor it may be. In an interview with SheThePeople Chaturvedi said that she doesn’t forcefully write “feminist roles”, but just that in her “world of storytelling women are as important as men.” In Gulabo Sitabo this is evident in the way women just seamlessly occupy their own spaces in the men’s world, without creating a big hoo-ha about it. They don’t need a feminist discourse to tell them they matter. They know it already.

All the women in Gulabo Sitabo are go-getters, they are thinkers, they don’t mind getting their hands dirty. Jaffar tells me that “the portrayal of women in the film is accurate, more so aspirational.” The way no stress ruffles the Begum or the manner in which she keeps her emotions walled off – these are qualities of resilience associated with men. Here, the women are endowed with them. “We must, as women, never back down in the face of trouble. I am like that in real life too,” she declares proudly.

Poornima agrees, saying, “To me, the most important character was that of the Begum. She sits in a corner and observes everything, revealing her thoughts only when the perfect moment strikes.”

Srishti is especially versed in such roles, having played feisty characters like Albina in Gully Boy and Jo in TVF Girliyapa’s Girls Hostel – which are wrongly typecast as “tomboyish” for their boldness. On choosing to play such “badass, independent” roles, she says “I think I just get attracted to them… or they attract me.” This time around, for playing the emancipated, educated Guddo, Shoojit Sircar guided her saying, “Sab buddhu hain, sirf tu hi intelligent hai iss ghar mein,” she recalls with a laugh.

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Juhi’s writing is muted – it tells us, quietly, smartly, that women have to be assimilated into the society to place them at par with men. This comes through in the way these women have been written – nothing extraordinary, and so very basic. Guddo and her sister are educated, at the behest of their mother, while her brother Baankey is good-for-nothing. Fauzia desires to climb the class ladder without the baggage of love. Begum is sharp-minded, and from her wheelchair, dreams of a happily-ever-after.

“I am not writing films to show one gender down,” Juhi said. Srishti attests to this, saying, “I remember Shoojit sir saying once that he’s just trying to tell stories, and it just so happens that my stories have stronger women than men.” So while this creator-duo doesn’t angle their women with a deliberate gender-power reversal (where Begums hold the cards of the game), it is possible that this kind of scriptwriting may lead the change towards redefining gender roles.

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The three women concluded with telling me what a blast it was, playing such exciting characters on screen and what lies ahead for them. While Poornima expressed a desire to work with names like Tigmanshu Dhulia, Anurag Kashyap, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Srishti hopes directors she wants to work with will call her to audition after Gulabo Sitabo. As for Jaffar, she says, “Whatever role I get, if it is in my capacity, I’m ready to take on it.”
Tanvi Akhauri is an intern with SheThePeople.TV. 
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