The protagonists of Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo might be men played by two big stars but it’s the women calling the shots. The 95-year-old Begum (Farrukh Jaffar) spends most of the film in a loveless marriage with a husband (Amitabh Bachchan) who’s counting down the days till she dies, only to expertly turn the tables on him in the film’s last act. Guddo (Srishti Shrivastava) is far smarter than her brother (Ayushmann Khurrana), coming up with schemes to improve their living situation and using her sexuality to get what she wants, but the film never lets us judge her for it.
Sircar talks about how he found the right women to play these roles, his favourite on-set memories and why he loves the film’s last shot:
I love that the film’s protagonists are these two big stars, Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana, but it’s really a film that belongs so much to its women. What went into getting that balance right?
If you see the basic story of this film, it’s the story of Mirza and Begum. Mirza has this idea in his head, he’s focussed on trying to get the haveli, and maybe Begum has less screentime, but Gulabo Sitabo is the story of how she outsmarts him. Baankey and Mirza may be the main guys but whatever they do is so foolish. In all my films, maybe it’s a deliberate choice or maybe it comes naturally, but you have these women – Vicky Donor had Dolly (Ahluwalia) and Biji, who are independent and progressive, there’s Piku.
Guddo’s quite a bold and fiery character. When Juhi Chaturvedi and I were sitting with Srishti, we told her that this character’s an older sister who wants to get a job by hook or by crook. She’s the most jugaadu person, she knows her brother won’t be able to take care of the family and so it’s up to her. We wanted her to act as the leader of the family and take all these calls on her own. We also wanted her to be liberal in terms of her sexuality. Most of the reactions I’ve got from men and women are that they haven’t judged her for it. If you go to small towns or a city like Lucknow, I’ve seen women who are as open about their sexuality as Guddo. The scene on the terrace was brilliantly written. It addressed that she can have multiple partners. It’s her body, her life, her choice.
Begum’s someone who Mirza has absolutely no say in front of. Even at her age, she’s running the mansion. He’s just her Man Friday and she treats him like he’s nothing. That was our brief for Fatima. Another subtle thing in their relationship is that he can’t walk into her room anytime he wants. She only allows her house help in, Mirza needs permission to enter. We also wanted to show Begum’s past glory by the end of the film. Of course, she doesn’t go out now because of her age and because she’s suffering from dementia, but in her birthday scene, she’s wearing her best clothes, with that zari, and her fancy glasses. The entire neighbourhood looks at her. She’s beautiful. And by now, Mirza’s a nobody.
Farrukh and Srishti are both fantastic in their roles. What was the casting process like?
When we were scripting it, the casting of Fatto was the most difficult. We didn’t know who we could cast to play a 95-year-old, who could look that age. We were looking at various options, and then my producer Ronnie Lahiri referred me to Farrukh. He had seen her in a film. I told him this wasn’t a small part, there were many scenes and I didn’t know whether she would be able to manage or not. We got quite lucky in that Farrukh’s from Lucknow. So I ran to Lucknow with my casting guy. I’d told her I was coming, but I didn’t break the news about the film or that I wanted to cast her. I thought she couldn’t walk because there was a walker there, so I went into another room with her daughter and said, ‘Are you sure I should tell her about this? Will she be able to pull through?’ She said, ‘Please don’t say this in front of her, she’ll throw you out of the house.’
I asked her to do a few lines and it was just her adaptability that came through. She was very excited about working with Amitabh Bachchan. I was like, ‘Will you be able to do it ma’am? It’s a lot of work.’ And she kept saying, ‘Don’t worry, just tell me what to do. Don’t let me sit idle, just keep giving me work. I feel ill only when I don’t work.’
Our team did lots of auditions with very good actresses for the role of Guddo, but when I saw Srishti, she was absolutely brilliant. With her we had one clear advantage – her parents are from Kanpur. The girl who plays Ayushmann’s girlfriend, Fauzia, is also from Lucknow. She’s a theatre artist there. The girls who play Ayushmann’s sisters are also from there. We held auditions there and that’s how we found them.
Tell me about filming the scene in which Fatima and Mirza are talking about her family and he’s sneakily trying to find out who’s dead. That looks like it must’ve been so fun to film.
That scene was great fun but also difficult to capture because Farrukh is great, but has slight memory problems. She’d told me she wouldn’t be able to remember an entire page of dialogue. And because she comes from a theatre background, she’s used to doing scenes in one go. So for us to figure out the blocking and where the cameras would be placed was a bit of a problem. So I told her we’d shoot the whole thing in one go, then break it up in parts and do it again. Then I told Mr. Bachchan, ‘Sir, there will be many points at which you have to push it through and get it back from her.’ And I told her, ‘You can say whatever you feel like to him.’ She was like, ‘Does he know I’m going to do that?’ So I said, ‘It’s okay, say whatever you feel, whenever you feel it.’ The result was that even we were laughing behind the camera.
They have great chemistry. Even the scene in which she’s holding up all 10 fingers is wordless and yet so much is implied. It’s hilarious.
That scene was mind blowing. It’s one of my most memorable moments of filming. I’d told Farrukh to flex her fingers and she was like, ‘Should I make fun of him? Should I tease him?’ And I’d said sure. That was a late addition to the film. I love that the whole scene is wordless, even him taking her fingerprints at night. They’re gorgeous scenes.
Farrukh was also very excited about the mehendi scene that comes earlier in the film. She kept asking us if we were really going to apply mehendi to her hair. Finally she was like, ‘Let’s do it, but don’t keep my hair wet for too long please, I might catch a cold.’ So we kept it ready and got the shot quickly.
You mentioned Guddo’s liberal sexuality. Let’s talk about the scene with her and Vijay Raaz in the hotel room.
Both of them would keep laughing because that scene was so hilarious. The idea was that he wants this, but his inner conscience reminds him he’s a married guy and has children. When Juhi narrated this scene to me, I told her, ‘It doesn’t matter what other scenes the movie has, this one has to be there for sure.’ That’s where Guddo’s smartness is also apparent. She wants a job and this is how she’s going to get it.
The haveli is a character in itself. How did you find it and what’s the story behind this location?
This is Mehmooda Palace in Kaiserbagh. It’s an old house. My executive producer is from Lucknow. He’d lived in old Lucknow and that was an added advantage because we then went there and started hunting for locations. It’s a huge haveli. There’s a whole other side to it that you don’t even see in the film. We spent weeks there structuring the house so that viewers could have a clear understanding of its geography, its layout, where the characters are going in and coming out from. I would perform the scenes myself and send them to Juhi and my cinematographer Avik Mukhopadhyay so we could adjust the script accordingly. The house was just so apt to the scenario – it’s believable that these characters live here, that the archaeological department would have to intervene. When we went there and saw the haveli, Avik decided to shoot the film with a single lens. It’s a 30 mm wide lens. The idea was to show everything and not conceal anything. I wanted to capture the chaos of the haveli, there’s a baby crying, there are goats. All the frames in the film are chaotic.
Another big moment for me in this film is its last shot – that chair from the haveli is now kept in an antiques showroom in Mumbai. It’s got that price, but it’s also got a story, it’s got a legacy. We pick up furniture without thinking about it, but the journey that the chair has, where it starts and where it ends, who the buyers and sellers are, I love that idea.