Please note: This interview contains spoilers
Gulabo Sitabo was sold to us as the story of a crotchety, old landlord in Lucknow who is perennially at loggerheads with his tenant. The first half of this film confirms this narrative, until the plot unexpectedly pivots and you realise writer Juhi Chaturvedi and director Shoojit Sircar were sort of fooling you all along. If you haven't seen the film on Amazon Prime Video yet, this is a good time to drop off.
For the rest, here's a deconstruction of the plot twist by Juhi Chaturvedi. She speaks about how Gulabo Sitabo was always meant to be about a smart and fiery Begum who is married to man who loves her grand haveli more than her.
The film appeared to be about a landlord and tenant, but it's more than that. Did you use that as a front so that people wouldn't see the plot twist coming?
Definitely. There was a progression in Mirza's misdoings. I had to give enough time for that. The starting idea was that a man marries a woman much older than him for the love of her property. He thinks that one day she will die and he will own the house. That's the basic plot and that's also what I put down when I registered the script. Everything else that happens is incidental to Mirza's desperation. This is Mirza and Begum's story and we didn't want to reveal it in the trailer because we would have given it away.
I started my journey from this marriage. Just imagine an entire lifetime of living this fraud of a relationship. Mirza is such a crooked man that he doesn't have children just so that the property doesn't get divided. While writing I knew that Begum must have been aware of what he's up to. She knows her husband inside out and she's not meek or submissive. I was sure that her intelligence has to come out and I was working towards it, but I was also ensuring that no one comes to know where this is going. When you reach the end and go back, you realise that the clues were always there.
A common criticism of the film is that it is too slow. Did you fear that you may lose your audience by taking too long in building up to the twist?
Yes, a lot of people have felt that the film was slow but I was sure about what I was doing. First, let me give you the technical reason. The film is based in Lucknow where pace is never an issue. Everything is so stretched. You go around in circles to come to a specific point. That's the nature of the city. Even the dialogues were long and characters had lengthy interactions. That takes time. I was sure this had to reflect the pace of the city.
But more importantly, I had to show people the extent of Mirza's greed. The film starts with him removing a bulb. Bulb is roshni, knowledge, gyaan. Then he removes the chandelier, another source of light and knowledge. I wanted to tell many more stories and incidents on the kind of man he is. I wanted to show how he was slowly moving towards complete darkness and that eventually he was left with nothing and had to become a tange waala.
If I had rushed this, you would have had sympathy for him in end. You'd think he wasn't that bad also. I needed time to show that side of him.
Were the actors on board with this, especially Ayushmann? When you narrated it were they surprised that it's the Begum who becomes key to the story?
Even before I could complete writing the film, while working on October, Shoojit had told Mr Bachchan the story and he jumped at it. He loved the thought of a man being so crooked that he marries a woman 15 years older for her property. He was waiting for the shoot to get over so that we could do this. I told him 'Is aadmi ka bhala nahi hoga' and he said, 'That's how it should be. You better stick to that!'
For Baankey, I wasn't sure of his age initially. I thought maybe I'd make him older. Then we settled on someone in his 30s who is not married and is looking after his three sisters. The first person Shoojit thought of was Ayushmann. He knew what the story was about. That makes it more wonderful for writers like us. These are two leading actors in their respective age groups and for them to agree to a sister like Guddo, a wife like Begum, a girlfriend like Fauzia – it takes a lot.
Tell me about the 'Begum gai scene'. It's a long scene and there's a lot going on. All the characters are present and from here on the story pivots.
It was always imagined as a really chaotic scene. It set many timelines. First the politician comes and says 'iss tarik tak ho jaana chahiye yeh kaam'. So one timeline is agreed upon. Then the builder Mun Mun ji says in two days I want to do the exchange of money. We were building to a point where we knew that a storm is about to come but no one expected this.
In the scene from the night before, Mirza is alone in his courtyard, the goat is running around and he gives it a pat on his back. Baankey on the same night tells his sister 'LIG mile ya flat, rehna ek saath hi hain'. It was calm. The storm had to erupt like volcano and that's when begum would strike.
If you look back you will see I had established that Begum was missing. We're told she's not well or she's upset so she doesn't want to meet anyone. Only the doctor who was actually the lawyer would come.
Another thing is that I show chatais being used as blinds, it's very typical of this kind of set up in Lucknow. There is a life that is outside the chatai and one that is behind, and you can't tell what planning is going on there.
I had written that scene three times. With each draft I tried to be more sharp and precise. And then the energy of the set comes in. We shot the film in a linear way so by this time everyone was deep into their characters. And Shoojit and Avik da (cinematographer) choreographed it beautifully. Shoojit kept reading it over and over again. We shot the entire thing in one day.
When I wrote the first draft I had researched enough to know the basic structure of these havelis. But when I saw the final location, I made changes in the draft from the geography point of few.
Were you particular about how you worded Begum's final letter? This was the first time we were being introduced to her thoughts and also learnt about the backstory of her marriage with Mirza.
Yes. Shoojit had asked me to write the letter separately. It had to be written very carefully for all these reasons. I also wanted Begum's sarcasm to come through her writing. The initial letter was much lengthier because it was important to write everything so that you know how you're editing… what can be done away with, what can be shown visually, how we will see Baankey moving out. On set we realised what all we can do away with in the letter. Also Shoojit never over shoots. When he films, he's also editing in his mind. If something can be wrapped up in two shots he will shoot only that much.
What was your vision for the birthday party in the end? Did you always have a clear image of the Begum in sunglasses cutting a pink cake with that cool background music?
Initially, I thought should we show that there is a party happening in London. But it had to end at Fatima Mahal and Baankey and Mirza had to be shown standing outside. Also we wanted to address matters like if the restoration work had begun and if Abdul Rehman (Begum's new husband) had made this a heritage building or a boutique. I figured that he and Begum first met during Partition time and there were lots of men then who had shifted to Britain because they weren't sure of whether they should go to India or Pakistan. So maybe Abdul Rehman is one of them.
I had not imagined the music but it had to be modern. In one of the earlier scenes, it rains and when we see the empty haveli we know that it is a sign of a new beginning and removal of toxicity. Sab kuchh naya taaza ho gaya. So the music also had to be naya taaza. It needed to fit in with Abdul Rehman – this man who's come down from Britain – and the kind of guests who were invited – the young and upwardly mobile section of the city.
Did you ever consider that the end may appear too far fetched? A 93-year-old woman runs out on her husband, traces a former lover and marries him.
That thought never came. In my head the Begum was always the power centre of the house. She controls the money and she's not at the mercy of her husband. That changes the power equation. That's why she writes, 'will you send me divorce papers or shall I send it to you?' Her power came from the fact that she was the owner of the property. If you talk to our grandmothers, you'll see their take on life will be different from our parents who are far more conservative. In Vicky Donor, Beeji didn't care that the girl her grandson wanted to marry was a divorcee and couldn't have kids. She said, 'haan, toh adopt kar lo na'. They have nothing to prove to anyone.
She also used Mirza. Like she writes in the letter. Ki aap choriyan karate rate our hama char chalta raha. She knew exactly what was happening in the house. Just because you're behind those curtains or you don't have a voice doesn't mean you don't have a brain. You can never disregard the intelligence that age has.