Juhi Chaturvedi left Lucknow years ago but the city has not left her completely. It is a part of her that she holds dear, and refuses to part ways with for any length of time. The works she's most acclaimed for however " Shoojit Sircar's films Vicky Donor, Piku, and October " are all mostly set in Delhi. That is, until Sircar's satire Gulabo Sitabo, which released on Amazon Prime Video India earlier this month. The film, starring Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana, is set in Old Lucknow.
"Since it's my hometown, where I've grown up, I never had the distance required to write a film based in Lucknow," says Chaturvedi. "With this story, I felt it was the right time. [It does justice to] Lucknow's language, culture, mindset of its people, what drives them or not, lanes and nooks and corners, food, music, that air, that slow pace..."
The slow pace is crucial here. While most writers set their first stories in their hometowns because that has what shaped them, Chaturvedi took her own time to revisit Lucknow through her films. She argues that she wanted the audience to get lost in Lucknow before they could find themselves again, like the plot of the film does. There has been criticism from some quarters about the pace of the film, but she maintains it is as integral to the experience of the city as its inherent tehzeeb (etiquette).
Gulabo Sitabo, as the opening moments of the film suggest, is folklore demonstrated through puppeteering, where two sisters engage in endless bickering. This duality is key to the narrative as Mirza (Bachchan), the landlord of an ancient haveli, and Bankey (Khurrana), an impoverished tenant who lives at the haveli at a vintage rent, incessantly argue over the physical space, and the cost of living that comes with it.
However, Chaturvedi, who has also written the dialogues, never lets their arguments descend into acrimony. "Every language, every dialect has its own depth, its own hidden sarcasm. Sometimes, you depend on heavy words and emotions to express that, and sometimes, certain dialects don't need that kind of aggression to express themselves strongly." She believes the Lucknow dialect is "layered", and has a"fragrance" of its own. "Even in the most aggressive moments, it tries to remain dignified in its choice of words. I've tried to capture that."
It is interesting that Bankey and Mirza are never vicious in hurling insults at each other because they meet the same fate towards the end of the film. The tug-of-war over the haveli becomes futile when eventually the legal owner, Mirza's 95-year-old wife Beghum (Farrukh Jafar), sells the property to a London-based man, whom she elopes with for the second time, for a meager sum of Rs 1.
In the final frame of Gulabo Sitabo, Mirza and Bankey share the same pain and sense of loss, and probably remorse. Moments before that, they stand desolately outside the entrance of the haveli as Beghum passes in front of them in a luxury car after celebrating her 95th birthday there. The Gulabo-Sitabo puppeteer reappears, adding insult to injury that the two men kept bickering in vain as a woman was pulling their strings all along.
This is also where the motif of goats enters the picture. A goat is omnipresent in the film, from the setting to the background score in the trailer to even the Twitter emoji of Gulabo Sitabo. While Juhi claims the animal is a fixture in every Lucknow household, she admits the metaphorical idea behind it was also to envelop the film with a sense of foreboding: "People are either the sacrificial lambs or scapegoats. Mirza and Bankey well end up becoming the 'bali ka bakra'."
Several cinephiles, including Firstpost reviewer Anna MM Vetticad, have chosen to interpret the story through a political prism. "Like India and Pakistan fighting over Kashmir, treating it as a coveted piece of land rather than a home to its present and former inhabitants, ultimately, neither the Gulabo nor the Sitabo of this tale has any actual affection for the individual, i.e. the haveli, they wrangle over " he/it is a practical compulsion for one and a useful object for the other, nothing more. And they fight and they fight until the person to whom it truly belongs serves them a life lesson they were not expecting," Vetticad writes in her review of the film.
Chaturvedi, however, stays mum on the interpretation. "Like I said earlier, the film is about greed. That's all." In that case, one does wonder whether the blended echo of the aazan and the aarti in the film was merely an isolated embellishment. "The aazan and the temple bells together form the audio of Lucknow city. It's what you hear all the time, and when you're setting up a film in a city like Lucknow, you can't ignore that detail. It's as important to the city as its monuments. Inseparable," says Chaturvedi.
The politics Chaturvedi has brought to Hindi cinema in the past, is that of caregiving. Her 2015 film Piku was all about the titular character (Deepika Padukone), in her 30s, looking after her perennially ill 70-year-old father Bhaskor Banerjee (Amitabh Bachchan). Then there was Dan (Varun Dhawan), a lost soul in October who finds a renewed purpose when he looks after a colleague Shiuli (Banita Sandhu) for months after she goes into coma after an accident.
In Gulabo Sitabo, however, Chaturvedi points out that there was no one to be "taken care of". "Everybody has an extremely sound mind and thinking of their own here. Age has nothing to do with it. Even at 95, Beghum is as alert as Guddo (Bankey's sister), who's in her 20s. From the house help to the guy who came to buy the chandelier or Bankey's sisters or Mirza or Bankey or Beghum or that archaeology fellow (Vijay Raaz) or Mirza's lawyer (Brijendra Kala) or Mirza's friend... they only cared about their agenda if they could find a way to gain a share of this giant property. It was about our selfish benefits, which is a truth of life."
When asked how she gets into the minds of characters apparently quite distant from.her own realities, she responds: "You don't have to be in the Army to write an Army film. You don't have to live through a famine to know the plight of a hungry man. You don't have to be a cancer patient to make a film on cancer. Are we saying writers are that removed from society?"
The shooting of Gulabo Sitabo in Lucknow gave Chaturvedi the chance to indulge in a few 'greedy' joys of her own. "I was there for an extended duration, and that gave me a chance to visit a lot of places, and meet my teachers and friends, which otherwise doesn't happen because of the limited time one has." She reveals they also shot "a small bit" in her college and the area in which her home was situated.
But she never allowed the 'greed' of a writer to get the better of the story at hand. "I wasn't writing a memoir or a biopic on Lucknow. Everything that's written is to serve the vision of the film. Its idea has to be central. Our film has tried to deeply understand and express this behaviour called greed, and that's a universal phenomenon." But even there, she says, the setting has played an indispensable role. "Lucknow has shaped me, and taught me life lessons. Whatever I write emanates from that knowing."
Just like Mirza and Bankey, Gulabo and Sitabo,
India and Pakistan aarti and aazan, archaeology and urbanisation; the feelings of holding on and letting go are two sides of the same coin that is the world of Gulabo Sitabo. Even the one who gets the last laugh, Beghum, has to let go of her haveli and the city in order to relocate to London with her lover.
Chaturvedi confesses she never had to choose one over the other for good: "I've never left Lucknow in that sense. I keep going back to it, though not often as I'd like to."