Towards the end of Shoojit Sircar’s latest film Gulabo Sitabo the camera lingers on an empty corridor in Fatima Mahal, a palatial haveli well past its prime, with Baankey’s (Ayushmann Khurrana) youngest sister overlooking it, reflecting over the time she had spent there. Reflection is a word that comes to your mind often when you watch Gulabo Sitabo, a film meant to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace, pondering over all its characters and story arcs. Be it how the spats between its two male leads are represented via the puppets Gulabo and Sitabo, or the way Fatima Mahal is washed of all the lust and negativity it has endured by the rain towards the end. In a way cleaning up its toxic past. The richness of this film is in its layered narrative. As the film’s writer Juhi Chaturvedi puts it, “Like Lucknow’s famous biryani it has been cooked over a slow flame. There’s no hurry in the city’s environment, so how can a film that is based in Lucknow be rushed?”

Box office is not known to be kind to films that have no urgency in their storytelling, so did having an OTT release due to coronavirus circumstances actually play in the film’s favour? Chaturvedi says that when the film was being made and edited it was for the theatres, but if this is how it has to be done under COVID-19, then so be it. “As long as the voice, that is voice of the film maker, actors and the writer all put together, is reaching everyone, for us as creators that is the biggest joy,” says she.

Like Lucknow’s famous biryani it has been cooked over a slow flame – Juhi Chaturvedi

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Another thing that sets Gulabo Sitabo apart from other films is that here the female lead is Fatima Mahal, the decrepit haveli with a mystical personality of its own. You see a glimpse of what it could have been in the rusty fountain that graces its courtyard. But the present of Fatima Mahal is broken bannisters and walls that crumble under a mere kick.

farrukh jaffar gulabo sitabo
Farukh Jaffar as Fatto Begum, who owns Fatima Mahal

As Chaturvedi points out, we all know of such buildings and structures that have existed for generations. “These are part of our urban spaces also. We cannot ignore them. They are dying, they are disappearing, they are ignored. But they are there still. For me it is an ode to that world gone by. There must have been a life going on in Fatima Mahal hundred years back.”

We often forget those conversations that a woman must be having with her own self to survive.

Coming to the film’s male leads, both Mirza (Amitabh Bachchan) and Baankey (Ayushmann Khurranna)  are quite complex and flawed men, and yet they do not come across as repulsive. It must have been a challenge for Chaturvedi to try and invoke sympathy among the audience for a husband who is waiting for his wife to die just so that he can claim ownership to her property. Right and wrong, faithless or faithfulness, greed or selflessness, Juhi feels that all these things exist next to each other in our society.

Gulabo Sitabo Ayushman Khurrana
Gulabo Sitabo Ayushman Khurrana

Says the writer of films like Vicky Donor, Piku and October, “We can’t always be about goody goody people.” According to her greed emanates in these male characters from something very deep inside them. “Why would a structure attract you so much that you spend your entire life only to acquire it,” Juhi says, pointing out how Mirza didn’t want to sell Fatima Mahal but just own it. The whole mindset of acquiring and consuming and having your name on anything, don’t we all have it? “Mirza is suffering from this absolute urgency or lust have everything, and sadly he is not aware of it.”

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While the subject and its treatment of Gulabo Sitabo is very different from the films Juhi has written previously there is a common theme that it shares with her other works: ageing. From Vicky’s Biji to Piku’s Baba and now Fatto Begum, Juhi’s films capture not just people who are dealing with the perils of ageing but how it affects those around them. She says that for her old age is not something that you can just remove from the society. “Your senses and reflexes become slow, physically you are not there, but mentally and emotionally you are still there. So how can you write off a human being? As long as the breath is there the person is there,” says Juhi, adding that we cannot say that this world only has place for its youth. Knowledge and intelligence comes only when an entire lifetime has been lived. “What do you know at forty? If you compare it to an eighty-year-old person, you are half there. If I can, I would love to have them in all my films,” revealing that her own grandparents played a big role in shaping her personality.

When it comes to women characters in Juhi’s films, they are all very clear-headed, smart and outspoken. For Chaturvedi inspiration comes from life. Women’s resilience and tolerance in the harshest of situations inspires her. “We often forget those conversations that a woman must be having with her own self to survive. Every day she must be telling herself, ‘chalo koi baat nahi’. They also know that abhi time nahi aya hai. Whenever it will come, whenever the day comes when I have enough courage or financial independence to stand up, I will do that.”

Empowerment for women doesn’t have to be channelised in words always. She gives the example of Baankey’s widowed mother in Gulabo Sitabo who has one son and three daughters, and yet how she ensures that her daughters are educated, knowing that the former has the business to himself. Similarly, Fatto Begum she says must have known what kind of man her husband is for a long time, but she waited for the right time. “It is not about winning day to day squabbles, it is about the bigger fight. When it comes to retaliation, the idea for women is not to slap a man if he has slapped you. We seek far bigger justice. Infact I think we are seeking understanding more than revenge.”

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According to her not just India, it is everywhere in the world, in every field that women have been the secondary gender. “They have been the silent spectators when men are speaking in boardrooms or living rooms, just coming in and serving tea and bhajias and going back to the kitchen to chat with other women.”

So what’s stopping them from calling out this systemic oppression, I ask her? “I don’t think anything is stopping them. I think they are just gathering enough resources and waiting for the time to come to give it back, or question or explode. In lot of ways it has already started happening.

As human beings we will go beyond this differentiation on man and woman, there will come a time. Maybe not in our lifetime, but eventually it will come.

While she strongly advocates equality, Juhi doesn’t write from a gendered lens. “I am very clear that in my world of storytelling women are as important as men. I am not writing films to show one gender down, neither am I forcefully writing sympathetic role for women or feminist roles,” says Juhi, reminding me how Rana and Sayyed in Piku are extremely gentle men, “It is not from a female gaze because I know that such men do exist, who will not make use of an opportunity and just pounce on you and kiss, even if you are alone with them for ten days.”

[Image Credit: IMDB + Official Poster]

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