The Interview: Shoojit Sircar

A famous Charles Darwin quote states, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Filmmaker Shoojit Sircar has clearly responded to that change, by releasing the Amitabh Bachchan-Ayushmann Khurrana starrer, Gulabo Sitabo, on Amazon Prime Video. Sircar has been behind some thought-provoking films in the last decade, like Vicky Donor, Madras Café, Piku, and October. His film makes the audience question things they know, the decisions they take in their everyday life, and even come up with their own interpretations of how a film ends.

The decision to go digital with Gulabo Sitabo has immortalised you, as any conversation about the digital release of a big film will be incomplete without you.

(Laughs) It was not an easy decision to take. After a lot of discussion, we arrived at this decision. We weighed in all the pros and cons. We all love cinema. The situation of COVID-19 is of epic proportions, and it has made us adapt to the new reality and the new format. I make movies because it’s my passion. I want the audience to watch them in the theatre, because the theatrical experience is electrifying. But, I wanted to show my film to the audience at the earliest. We didn’t know when the theatres would reopen, as the pandemic has made everyone sit at home. So, we decided to put our film where the audience is.

Do you think there will be any retribution from theatre owners when your next film is up for a release?

I don’t think so. I will have a personal conversation with theatre owners about this digital release, because we are a part of the same family. We all are in this together. If we start taking things personally, it will be a loss for cinema at large.

Without a theatrical release, how were you able to get the apt selling price for the film?

I’m sure it would have been tricky to reach an agreement concerning the amount. Ronnie Lahiri and Sheel Kumar will be able to answer it better, as the producers. But for me, money was not the factor when I gave my nod for the digital premiere. The only deciding factor was if we could release the film soon, and if we were okay with the film being an Amazon Prime Original.

Will we see you making content for digital platforms now?

Initially, I didn’t watch content on digital platforms. But this lockdown has nudged everyone to consume content on the web. The medium is here to stay. I wouldn’t mind experimenting with it.

What made you zero down on Gulabo Sitabo as your next, after October?

October was quite an exhausting film, given its topic. After October, we wanted to do something lighter, and we arrived on social satire. I had a grin on my face throughout the writing and making of this film. Gulabo Sitabo is your fifth collaboration with Juhi Chaturvedi.

What makes the two of you click?

We interact in the same way as we used to during our first film together. There’s harmony in the way we collaborate on ideas. We discuss the do’s and don’t’s of the story idea at the very beginning. We jam and flesh it out. Gulabo Sitabo is a story about these characters from Lucknow. Juhi hails from Lucknow, so for her it was playing on home turf, but it was new territory for me. As the film Is a satire, we agreed that we wouldn’t play it to the gallery. We kept this point in mind with every shot, every dialogue, and every moment of the film.

In an interview, you said you had thought of Amitabh Bachchan donning the role of Mirza while writing the film.

Yes. We thought of Mr. Bachchan while writing the script. We went to him with a one-line idea. But, he didn’t agree to anything. He was waiting for us to come back with the full script. When we gave him a full narration and showed him the look, feel and mood of his character, he agreed to come on board. Getting into Mirza’s look used to take Mr. Bachchan about two and a half hours every day, with the prosthetic make-up. He endured a lot of pain in the process. We were shooting at the peak of summer. We would shoot early mornings at 6 am and break only at 10 am. I was constantly checking on him, because I wanted him to be alright and have a pleasant experience shooting the film.There were times when I used to tell him to go and sit in his vanity van, in the AC. He would say, ‘What’s your problem? I want to sit here.’ He was a thorough professional. He didn’t move until it was break time.

How similar or different are the acting styles of Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana?

Mr Bachchan is very method oriented who likes doing a lot of rehearsals. He completely follows the script. He gives you a perfect take in the first couple of takes itself. Khurrana improvises a lot, because of his theatre background. He used to come up with one-liners that we have even retained in the film.

What’s the status of your next film, Sardar Udham Singh?

The film is in post-production. We were fortunate enough to complete the shoot before everything went under lockdown. As of now, the film’s release date is in January 2021. We might change that, but we will decide once things get back to normal.

How are you coping with Irrfan Khan’s demise?

We were very close, and I was in touch with him throughout the time he was unwell. On the day of his demise, his son Babil called me, to inform me. I couldn’t speak for days. It was difficult. It happened in the middle of the pandemic when I was in Kolkata, and his family was in Mumbai. It’s a huge loss. I can’t even imagine the pain his family must be going through. He was a great artist and a great human being as well. I can still feel his vibrant presence around me.

Your twitter bio says, “first footballer then a filmmaker. I make films when I am playing football 🙂 and of course an illiterate”. Have the football grounds begun calling you yet?

Yes. But my lower back is injured from doing all the chores during the lockdown. I can’t resist the football ground. My physiotherapist knows that once the lockdown is lifted, I’d want to go back to the ground. I’m 53 years old and can play a full game of football. But, I also get frequently injured. My wife has given me an ultimatum to quit playing competitive matches, or else she wouldn’t let me near a football. So I have stopped participating in competitive football matches, which I was playing until last year.

Your subtle messaging in films is open to interpretation. Is that an influence from your fellow Bengali directors, or is that something that you have developed over the years?

A lot of aspects have come from Satyajit Ray, and also from European and American film-makers. But the aspect of leaving it open to interpretation came about on its own. For instance, not giving a closure in the climax worked beautifully in Piku. It’s hauntingly beautiful. A lot of people still ask me, ‘Why didn’t you take one shot showing Khan entering the home after the badminton game?’ I ask them, ‘Why? I leave that to you to conclude if he went inside the house or not’. I received a lot of beautiful messages from people when they rewatched Piku post Khan’s demise. I truly believe that leaving things open is how it should be, the audience should make their own stories.

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