Exclusive Interview: Gulabo Sitabo Writer Juhi Chaturvedi on Audience Response, Amitabh Bachchan & Plagiarism Controversy

Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo hit OTT, last night. The time is right to talk to Sircar’s most trusted lieutenant Juhi Chaturvedi.


You were accused of plagiarism for the script of Gulabo Sitabo…
To begin with, my concept for the film was registered in 2018, much before the contest. Furthermore, Shoojit, Mr Bachchan and I discussed the idea of Gulabo Sitabo in 2017, and it’s all on record. Moreover, I never received a copy of the script Mohandas Lane I was accused to have copied from. Yes, I was on the jury of Cinestaan Festival with Rajkumar Hirani and Aamir Khan but Mohandas Lane did not come to us in the last eight that come to the adjudicators. This has been independently confirmed by the scriptwriting contest organisers as well.

Most crucially, our film’s story is different from that sent out in the notice. It is surprising how grave allegations are being made solely on the basis of a 2 minute 41 second trailer, these were simply designed to malign me and the film. Just because someone else’s script has a haveli, which Gulabo Sitabo also has, that does not imply that Gulabo Sitabo is a lift from that film.

It has also been pointed out that Amitabh Bachchan’s character looks very similar to a person photographed by journalist and Delhi chronicler Mayank Austen Soofi…
Several Muslim men when they grow old look like Mirza does. Of course, I had written in my script that I want him to have a beard, skull cap and oversized glasses. But the clincher came from cinematographer Abhik Mukhopadhyay, who referenced a pencil sketch by Russian artist Olga Melamory Larionova.

Photograph by Mayank Austen Soofi (left)

Portrait by Olga Melamory Larionova

A lot of people have liked the film, but some critics also feel that the banter in Gulabo Sitabo gets repetitive after a point…
Lucknow mein bahut fursat hoti hai. People in Lucknow rarely come to the point directly. They will go round and about in long sentences and then come to what they exactly want to say. In such a backdrop, I had to be true to what my director is going to depict. And please don’t compare Delhi banter to Lucknow banter; they are vastly different.

I related to it quite well, even though I am not from Lucknow… the ups and downs in a joint family hit very close home as I live in one. How did you get it so real, or at least, dangerously close to real?
(laughs) A writer observes much more around him than others do. He/she assimilates the world and its behaviour around him. I myself come from Lucknow and I have lived in a joint family. And after the initial setup and plot, to go deeper into the story, a writer has to draw references from real life, to imagine what each character would speak like or do. For example, if I am writing Mirza, I have to start thinking like Mirza or someone like Mirza whom I have seen or met. A writer has to get into every character that he writes, else that character will not build up and flesh out.

And mind you, there exist several kinds of people. Take Shoojit for instance. His reply to KRK today on Twitter clearly exemplifies that he is a very calm and composed man. So even the way Shoojit is, for instance, his personality, his quirks, may inspire something I may write in the future. A writer is always taking notes. It’s an important aspect of writing to understand the people around you.

Everything that affects me deeply leads me to a trip of self-introspection. I start asking myself: why is a particular thing bothering me so much? And then, a writer always gives vent to his feelings on paper. All this may not be used in all the films I am involved with, but it does find its way inside as and when it’s required.

KRK lashed out at the film, but Shoojit has given him a very calm and sweet reply…
Shoojit and I have always made films that we believe in. Else in these past few years, we would have churned out far more ventures than what we’ve done. We are not running a factory. Sirf paise hi kamane hote toh we would have played to the gallery, but have we ever done that? Everyone in this world cannot like every film. Everyone in the world need not even like the pace of every film. One who knows Lucknow ki bhasha will surely understand the nuances and reasoning in Gulabo Sitabo and will largely relate to it as well.


Who came up with the title Gulabo Sitabo?
The working title was something else but as the Lucknow milieu started building up in the script, Shoojit was extremely intrigued by the place, its textures and the dynamic between the two characters. And hence, the idea to pay homage to the glove puppet theatre tradition of the region. Gulabo Sitabo are prominent puppet characters that have been an integral part of the region’s culture. They are sisters in law and constantly warring with each other, much like Bachchan and Ayushmann in the movie.

Tell us about the casting process. Both Bachchan and Ayushmann have been a part of movies you have done with Shoojit in the past, but bringing them together for these specific roles, how did you think of that?
I always had Amitabh Bachchan in mind. The crookedness and mannerisms of Mirza is an amalgamation of several people in our society. With so many layers loaded in such a challenging role, I could not envisage anybody else other than him. When we discussed the idea with him, he not only jumped but also came up with improvisations: yeh daalo, yeh add karo. He was on board from Day 1. Ayushmann came into the picture only after the script was complete. Shoojit felt that their personalities would complement each other interestingly, for the kind of banter that the script had.

You wrote a fascinating character for Amitabh Bachchan in Piku. How would you compare the two characters?
There are similarities between Bhaskor and Mirza. Both are a product of circumstances. The former is burdened with the insecurities of old age, the latter, with his own greed. And there’s another similarity.

Which is?
Despite all their flaws, both characters have an inherent charm.

Are you open to moving out from your comfort zone (working with Shoojit) and writing for other filmmakers?
Why not? As long as the person who wants me to come on board has a thrilling idea that drives me to allocate 18 months of my life… else, my personal growth will be hindered. But I don’t make plans. I’ll play by the ear and cautiously see what comes my way.

Where do you write?
At home.

With people around?
My writing is the outcome of chaos.

Are you happy that Gulabo Sitabo premiered on OTT (Amazon Prime)?
We were all happy when it was supposed to release in cinemas in November 2019. Then, we were all happy when it got rescheduled to April 2020. And now, we are all happy that it is on OTT. I think as long as the maker is happy with his/her film, it does not matter much.

October didn’t do well at the box-office. Did you have a hunch beforehand? And, do you think that film was an experiment?
Box-office is a number. Cinema is a feeling. I write for the feeling. People still speak highly about October and it’s not possible that every film notches high box-office numbers at the ticket windows.

How much space and freedom does Shoojit give you? Has he ever come up with suggestions of infusing elements that you aren’t comfortable with?
See, when you work together, there will be days when one airs his views, but he has never compelled me to introduce anything that I don’t think will go with the flow. We discuss and we converge, either way.

Do you show him chunks of what you’ve written or is all in one go?
Audiences do not see the film in chunks (laughs). I show him the full script in one go.

Are you present on the sets during the shooting process?
Yes, always. 

Juhi, the movie is also an ode to Lucknow where you come from, and your language, your shuddh Hindi is an effective indicator of that, both in your script, and now, in conversation. I am going to be translating all you have said, while transcribing the interview. You always scored high marks in essay writing in Hindi, didn’t you?
(laughs) Yes, I did.

Note: If any news or content published on this website, is picked up by another media, website or print, please attribute the story by writing ‘As reported by Vickey Lalwani‘.

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