Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Gulabo Sitabo—The Price of Life

Shoojit Sircar's Gulabo Sitabo opens with a street show about two puppets Gulabo and Sitabo. The puppets were originally created in the 1950s when they found fame for playing the roles of a man's wife and his mistress. The puppeteer in the film, Mohammed Naushad, calls one of them as smart and the other as clever and adds that the two are at loggerheads with each other. Gulabo Sitabo is also the story of two puppets, Mirza (Amitabh Bachchan) and Baankey (Ayushmann Khurrana), who share the relationship of a landlord and a tenant, fighting with each other over rent. Set in Lucknow, the film starts with humor, meanders into drama, and ends with a surprising profoundness. Gulabo Sitabo is the fourth collaboration between the writer-director duo of Juhi Chaturvedi and Shoojit Sircar.
If the writer-director duo's previous film October was a study of grief, then Gulabo Sitabo can be called as a study of greed. Early in the film, the puppeteer calls Mirza a laalchi after he takes some coins from his show. Mirza had the habit of stealing and selling every little item that he could lay his hands on; be it a bulb, a pickle jar, or a chandelier. Mirza's prime interest in life was getting money. Everyone around him warns Mirza about his stinginess but he believes no one ever died of greed. He bargains even while buying a shroud that the shopkeeper reminds him that he should let go of greed at least in death. Mirza associates a monetary value with everything unaware of their emotional value. He sells his favorite chair for a measly two hundred fifty rupees, which is later priced at over a lakh. It is a reflection that Mirza did not see the true value of those things. In life, most things come with a price tag but some are truly priceless. His wife Fatima Begum (Farrukh Jaffar) was not going to let him sell the Fatima Mahal because for her it is priceless. She has too many memories associated with the haveli; she even chose to not marry her first love of life because she did want to move to London. Mirza, however, is blinded by his avarice. The popular MasterCard campaign captured the emotion perfectly—"There are some things money can't buy." The film's tagline Ek Priceless Jodi also underscores this aspect of pricelessness.
Later in the film, Mirza and Christopher Clark (Brijendra Kala) go on a trip to collect the signatures of Begum's relatives to remove their claim from the haveli. After meeting the family, Christopher wonders the reason for them not liking Mirza. Mirza replies that he did not feel like that which again shows how he cannot see anything else except the haveli. In the end, Baankey asks Mirza about what Begum saw in him when she agreed to get married to him. He replies, "Hamari jawaani." Baankey is surprised at the answer as it is hard for him to imagine that Mirza could have been young once. But as Begum revealed, she chose him as he was willing to be a ghar jamaai. The overarching theme here is that Mirza is not able to see things beyond his perception. Begum keeps talking about Nehru Ji but it felt like Mirza is the one who is stuck in the time warp. He is stuck in a marriage hoping that his wife dies at the earliest. He is enamored by the idea of owning the Fatima Mahal that he leaves out on other pleasures of life. He chose not to have any kids of his own as he wanted to be the sole inheritor of the haveli. What use will be of the haveli at this stage of life when he is nearing eighty-years of age. As one of the songs in the films advises him, "Kya leke aayo jagme, kya leke jaayega. Haan sab yahi chhod jayega." He cannot see life is passing by him. There is a beautiful scene towards the end when Mirza walks back from Begum's birthday party with a balloon in his hand. For all the running around he did for the haveli, he is left with nothing except a ball of air. He lost both his Fatimas, the Mahal as well as the Begum.
Mirza from Gulabo Sitabo shares some traits with Bhaskor Banerjee (Amitabh Bachchan) from Piku. Both men were sort of unlikeable. Their wives had a difficult time living with them. Turned off by him, Fatima Begum runs aways from Mirza even at the age of ninety-five. In the case of Bhaskor, Chhobi Maashi (Moushumi Chatterjee) wonders how Bhaskor's late wife (who was also her sister) tolerated him and if she died early because of the challenges of living with him. Like Mirza, the hypochondriac Bhaskor never enjoyed life fully. He was living under the scare of catching a disease. He was always constipated symbolizing that, like shit, there was something that was stuck about him. He used to hide salt in the house making everyone eat bland food. All his life, he ate kaddus and karelas but then goes for a joyride on his cycle, and eats all kinds of delicacies. He finally learns to let go and has the best shit of life. He, then, dies peacefully in sleep. Mirza, however, does not mend his ways and is left all alone and is left driving a tonga for sustenance. And, just like Mirza has his favorite chair, Bhaskor had his chair for shitting.
Mirza's counterpart in Gulabo Sitabo is Baankey, a potbellied-uneducated man, living with his three sisters and his mother. He was constantly exchanging creative barbs with Mirza, hatching schemes to avoid paying rent. At one stage in the film, Tom and Jerry is playing on the television pointing to the cat-and-mouse game between Mirza and Baankey. The first time Mirza and Baankey appear on the scene together, they are even dressed in the colors of Tom and Jerry. Mirza is in a grey-blue kurta while Baankey is in a brown one. Both keep fighting and scheming but it is Begum who has the last laugh. By the end of it all, Baankey ends up with the same fate as Mirza's. Like Begum, his girlfriend Fauzia (Poornima Sharma) leaves him and gets married to someone else. Like Begum, Fauzia returns to Baankey's shop with her new husband. She asks for organic flour to mock him and proceeds to the mall. In the times of organic flour and high-end malls, Baankey is still running a tiny shop that has an old flour machine. Like Mirza, he, too, is stuck.
Not just Mirza, the other characters in the film also displayed their greed. Baankey had to pay the decades-old rent of thirty rupees but he goes to extreme lengths to avoid paying this pittance of an amount. He would ask his sisters to do fake drama of having no money in front of Mirza. There is also Gyanesh Shukla (Vijay Raaz) who has his ulterior motive of giving the haveli to a politician. Christopher Clark also wants to sell the haveli to his builder friend. Mirza's friend Pandey (Shri Prakash Bajpai) was also looking for his commission from the builder and tries to hide when he hears Mirza has come to sell the haveli. At one point in the film, a media circus ensues after a baba dreamt of gold buried in the city. Everyone wants a share of the buried gold because they are all golddiggers. The film shows all the men as greedy. 
On the other hand, the women in Gulabo Sitabo, namely Fatima, Guddo, and Fauzia, are clever and seem to be more in control over their lives than the men. Fatima Begum was always one step ahead of Mirza and understood his antics all along. She sells the haveli to her ex-lover taking the wind out of the sails of everyone. There is also the charming Guddo, played by a spectacular Srishti Srivastava, who is perfectly described by Christopher Clark as "She is too good." She is much smarter than her brother Baankey. She is the one who devises the strategy to deal with Mirza. She can win arguments with anyone. She is unapologetic about her sexual escapades. She is not shy to admit that she had three boyfriends. She also uses sex to get what she wants; like the time she goes to meet Gyanesh in a hotel to ask for a job in exchange for sexual favors. Baankey also knew about it but he cannot take any moralistic stand because he, too, is having secret liaisons with his girlfriend Fauzia at his shop. It is not explicitly shown but is discernible that Baankey and Fauzia have a sexual relationship. This aspect of sexual freedom of women was seen in Piku as well. On being probed by Chhobi Maashi if she is sexually active, Piku (Deepika Padukone) replies, "It is a need." Piku also had a partner Syed (Jisshu Sengupta) with whom she was not in any sort of romantic relationship. They were strictly friends-with-benefits. The time when Bhaskor falls ill after a party, Syed had spent the night with Piku in the same house. Coming back to Fauzia, like Guddo, she is also not afraid to speak out her mind. She demands to be dropped home because Baankey picked her up from her house. In any other film, a scene like this would have involved other dynamics (such as religion and neighbors talking about it) but Gulabo Sitabo does not make any big deal out of it.
Women, especially the older-in-age characters, in the universe of Shoojit Sircar and Juhi Chaturvedi have always been charming. There is the progressive Biji (Kamlesh Gill) in Vicky Donor who makes no fuss when she learns that her grandson's fiancĂ©e is a divorcee. She also likes to enjoy a drink every night with her daughter-in-law. There is the sassy Chhobi Maashi in Piku who freely talks about sex with her niece and was herself married three times. There is the gracious Vidya Iyer (Gitanjali Rao) in October who goes about living life with strength every day while dealing with profound grief. There is the amazing Fatima Begum in Gulabo Sitabo who manages to trick everyone and gets married to the love of her life notwithstanding the stage of life she was in.
Every frame of Gulabo Sitabo, shot exquisitely by Avik Mukhopadhyay, breathes the city of Lucknow. Most films based in Uttar Pradesh usually try to impart the language of the region to its characters but miss out on the true ethos of the city. Gulabo Sitabo truly feels rooted in Lucknow. There is talk about the city's history. For instance, at one point, Baankey compares to Mirza to the mother of Aasif-ud-Daula, the erstwhile Nawab of Awadh. There is talk about the city's geography. Nixon Market, Hazratganj, and Nur Manzil are frequently spoken by its characters. There is talk about the city's culture. There are no abusive words used in the entire film (except once when Baankey uses the word 'Chutiya') even though people in the film bicker all the time. The barbs are creative, like calling someone deemak or choose hue aam jaisi sukhi gutli ka chehra. People use words, such as ulool julool. The tehzeeb of Lucknow can be felt in the film.
Gulabo Sitabo feels jarring at places, perhaps, due to the excessive prosthetics used on Amitabh Bachchan, which makes the dialogue hard to decipher at places. The film is languidly paced which tests patience. What keeps the film going is great performances from its cast. Amitabh Bachchan is simply marvelous as Mirza. In spite of all the things that Mirza does, one can't help but feel sympathetic for him. The greed of the character of Mirza reminded me of Sudhendu Roy's Saudagar (1973) in which Amitabh Bachchan had again played a greedy scheming man. The film is the story of Moti (Amitabh Bachchan), a jaggery trader, who falls in love with Phoolbano (Padma Khanna). Moti asks Phoolbano's father for her hand in marriage who agrees to the match but demands five hundred rupees as meher. Unable to pay the amount, Moti schemes and marries Majubi (Nutan), a widowed lady, who prepares jaggery for him. Moti's plan was that he would be able to collect the meher that Phoolbano's father asked by saving the money he paid to Majubi after he gets married to her. His plan succeeds after which he divorces Majubi and marries Phoolbano. But life teaches him a lesson for his deception when he loses all his customers due to the poor quality of jaggery he sells which makes him realize the true value of Majubi. Saudagar is a beautiful story of greed, lies, and deception. Amitabh Bachchan humanizes Moti that despite his flaws, there is sympathy for him by the end, just as there is some for Mirza in Gulabo Sitabo
In the very first scene of Gulabo Sitabo, Mirza takes off a light bulb and sells it. It took me to the introduction scene of Debraj Sahay, again played by Amitabh Bachchan, in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Black where he also holds a light bulb. In a lovely interview with the Film Companion, writer Juhi Chaturvedi elaborated on the bulb scene from Gulabo Sitabo. She says, "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." In contrast, the scene from Black is about moving from darkness to the light of knowledge. Debraj holds a bulb and says, "Come into the light," symbolizing that he will bring light in the life of Michelle (Rani Mukerji). The bulb is about to get extinguished and is 'dying' they say, another symbolic reference to Debraj's own waning life. These scenes again show the extent of thought that writers put while crafting a single scene in their films.
In Piku, Bhaskor vehemently argued against the selling of his ancestral house Champakunj in Kolkata because his mother's name was associated with it. Afterward, Rana (Irrfan) and Piku go on a tour of the city. Piku sees a building that came up at a place that was once a theater. Rana tells her that she is also doing the same by selling her own ancestral house. She says that she is being practical. He, then, replies, "I am not saying tum galat ho. Maybe this is the way forward. Isi ko log development bolte hain. Par apni roots unko agar ukhad do, toh kya bachega." Similar shades are present in Gulabo Sitabo. Begum also does not want to sell Fatima Mahal because it is too special for her as it was made by her grandfather. Builders and politicians want to take over her haveli and construct new houses. Gulabo Sitabo is about the emotional attachment of people over certain possessions. But it is also about people struggling in a world that is changing rapidly. It is fascinating to note then that a mainstream film (with big names) that depicts and cares a lot about the old-world charm releases directly on a streaming platform instead of a traditional theater. Maybe because seeing the plight Mirza and Baankey, it learned that those who do not embrace change end up with nothing except a ball of air.
Trivia:
1) Puppeteer—Mohammed Naushad
2) Subtitles are also done by Juhi Chaturvedi.
Other Reading:
1) On PikuLink
2) On OctoberLink
3) On Puppets and Ventriloquists in Hindi Cinema—Link

The Cutting Scissors:
There was no record of it on the Central Board of Film Certification website, maybe because the film released directly on Amazon Prime.

Dialogue of the Day:
Baankey: "Abki bahut dinon baad tapke, Pandey Ji."
Pandey Ji: "Haan, pake the toh tapak gaye."
—Gulabo Sitabo

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Puppetry and Ventriloquism in Hindi Cinema

Paheli (2005)
Shoojit Sircar's Gulabo Sitabo (2020) takes its title from Gulabo-Sitabo puppets created by Ram Niranjan Lal Srivastava in the 1960s. Gulabo-Sitabo were presented as warring sisters-in-law in shows and were known for their commentary on society's evil practices. There is also a related but different art form called ventriloquism where a person creates an illusion that their voice is coming from elsewhere, usually a prop, known as a dummy. While puppeteers give words to their dummies from behind the stage, ventriloquists lend a voice to their dummy from a stage. These art forms have been represented in cinema, especially, in some of the older films when these were quite popular.
Gudia (1997)
One of the earliest films to feature a ventriloquist in Hindi cinema was Roop K. Shorey's Ek Thi Larki (1949). As its title suggests, the film's story is centered around a girl named Meena (Meena Shorey). She is on the run from the police as she is being accused of a murder she did not commit. In one particular sequence in the film, she disguises herself as the Princes of Champatpur and checks into a hotel where a ventriloquist performs a comical act with a dummy in front of an audience. Ek Thi Larki is also popular for its song Laara Lappa Laara Lappa Layi Rakhda. Dwarka Khosla's Dilruba (1950) also featured a ventriloquist. The film's plot revolves around a dance troupe owner named Professor (Yakub) who steals an expensive necklace and plants it on Ratan (Dev Anand) while traveling on a train. Professor, then, asks one of his dancers Roopa (Rehana) to recover the necklace from Ratan. At some stage in the film, Roopa and her dance troupe stay in the house of the local landlord Diwan Sahab (Gogia Pasha) who has a ventriloquist's dummy named Chandu. The dummy often makes biting comments against his master Diwan Sahab. 
Ek Thi Larki (1949)
Dilruba (1950)
Kishore Kumar played a ventriloquist in Narindra Suri's Begunah (1957). The film, however, has an infamous story associated with it. Within ten days of its release, it was taken off from the theaters as it was believed to be plagiarized from Hollywood film Knock on Wood (1954) that starred the famous American comedian Danny Kaye. The story goes that Danny Kaye had come to Bombay for work and was informed about Begunah. He watched it and felt it was copied from his film. He then contacted the producer of his film Paramount Pictures who filed a case in the Bombay High Court alleging plagiarism under the provisions of the new copyright act. The court concurred with them and ordered the producers to immediately withdraw the film from the theaters and destroy all prints within a few months. Therefore, no known prints of this Begunah are believed to exist. It was only recently the National Film Archive of India reported that it had found a reel of the film. Begunah also featured the song Aye Pyaase Dil Bezuban that had a cameo appearance by music director Jaikishan (of Shankar-Jaikishan fame). 
Begunah (1957)
The most popular instance that immediately comes to mind while thinking of puppets in films is the song Jahan Main Jaati Hoon from Anant Thakur's Chori Chori (1956). The song is picturized on Raj Kapoor and Nargis who play Sagar and Kammo in this unofficial version of Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934). The song begins with a puppet show where two puppets are dancing. Moments later, in a dream sequence, Sagar and Kammo are also transformed into puppets singing the duet. Raj Kapoor had another puppet song Are Buddha Hai Ghoda Laal Hai Lagaam in P.L. Santoshi's Sargam (1950). A sequence in the film involves an old man wanting to marry a girl much younger than his age. The characters played by Raj Kapoor and his co-star Rehana perform a puppet show and mock the elderly gentleman who had also come to watch the puppet show by singing a song about him (a buddha) wanting to spend his life with a young woman. 
Chori Chori (1956)
Sargam (1950)
Amiya Chakrabarty and Nitin Bose's Kath Putli (1957) not only just featured puppets but was titled after puppets, too. The film starred Vyjayanthimala and Balraj Sahni in the lead roles. It is the story of Pushpa (Vyjayanthimala) who wants to assist her puppeteer friend Shivraj (Jawahar Kaul) with his puppet show to make ends meet. Unfortunately, he meets with an accident and is left paralyzed making him unable to perform puppet shows anymore. Staring at a life of penury, Pushpa approaches a theater owner Lok Nath (Balraj Shani) for help, who offers her work as an actor. The film also features the song Bol Ri Kathputli Dori Kaun Sang Bandhi in which Pushpa dances like a puppet.
Kath Putli (1957)
Gulzar's first directorial venture Mere Apne (1971) had Meena Kumari as Anandi Devi, an old widow who is brought to the city by her distant relatives. She soon realizes that the real reason her relatives brought her to stay with them was that they wanted to keep her as a house help. She leaves them and starts living in a dilapidated house in the city where she is taken care of by some young struggling men. One of these young men is Sanju, played by Danny Denzongpa (in his debut film), who is a ventriloquist, or a jamura as he calls himself. 
Mere Apne (1971)
Amitabh Bachchan played the only triple role of his career in S. Ramanathan's Mahaan (1983). The film was the remake of Kannada film Shankar Guru (1978) and portrayed the story of the separation of a family. One of the roles that Amitabh Bachchan plays in the film is that of a ventriloquist. India's only well-known ventriloquist Ramdas Padhye's doll was used in Mahaan. It is believed that Amitabh Bachchan was mighty impressed with Ramdas after watching him perform at the 1982 Filmfare awards and expressed his desire to play the role of a ventriloquist. Amitabh Bachchan got an opportunity to do so in Mahaan. Ramdas and his wife Aparna played an important part in Mahaan and operated Amitabh's puppet in the film. Ramdas Padhye's father Yeshwant Keshav Padhye was also a ventriloquist and is credited to have started ventriloquism in Indian in the 1920s. His puppets have also featured in Hindi films, such as Nandlal Jaswantlal's Akeli Mat Jaiyo (1963) starring Meena Kumari and Rajendra Kumar (in a double role). Akeli Mat Jaiyo is a story of mistaken identity where one of the characters played by Rajendra Kumar is a ventriloquist and has a dummy named Jack.
Mahaan (1983)
Akeli Mat Jaiyo (1963)
Mahesh Bhatt added ventriloquism in Papa Kehte Hain (1996) depicting the story of rich girl Sweety (Mayuri Kango) suffering from daddy issues. Sweety stays with her maternal grandparents. As a means to talk to her father, she carries a dummy dolly with her all the time and calls it Papa. She speaks to him and ventriloquizes his thoughts. Bengali director Goutam Ghose adapted a play of writer Mahashweta Devi to make his first Hindi film Gudia (1997). The film depicted the story of two ventriloquists trying to survive in an era that was becoming increasingly political and communal. One of them is Hamid (Pran) who has a dummy named Urvashi with whom he participated in many shows. After Hamid is diagnosed with cancer, he passes his knowledge to his assistant Johnny (Mithun Chakraborty) who takes Urvashi with him. Johnny and Urvashi perform acts all over and become popular with the masses. After communal riots break out in the city, Johnny unveils the culprits behind them through his acts which leads to Urvashi being destroyed by the same rioters. Johny's assistant Rosemary (Nandana Sen) consoles him and brings him back on the stage and takes the place of Urvashi as a living dummy. Gudia was showcased in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1997 Cannes Film festival.
Papa Kehte Hain (1996)
Gudia (1997)
There have been some films even in the 2000s that depicted these art forms. In Dil Hai Tumhaara (2002), Kundan Shah narrated the story of two stepsisters Shalu (Preity Zinta) and Nimmi (Mahima Chaudhary) who end up falling in love with the same man Dev (Arjun Rampal). The sisters' mother Sarita (Rekha) tries to ensure that her real daughter Nimmi gets the love of her life. Shalu has a childhood friend Sameer (Jimmy Shergill) who is a ventriloquist and is seen with a puppet named Rangeela. Later, Amol Palekar adapted Vijayadan Detha's short story Duvidha into his film Paheli (2005). The film is the story of a ghost who falls in love with a woman Lachchi (Rani Mukerji). He takes the form of her husband Kisanlal (Shah Rukh Khan) and starts living with her while he stays in the city for work. Life gets complicated when Kisanlal returns and Lachchi is confronted with a difficult choice as she, too, fell in love with the ghost. Instead of humans depicting stories of puppets, Paheli uses puppets to depict the stories of humans. Two puppets, voiced by Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah, were the sutradhaars of the film. Paheli also features a song Phir Raat Kati where its lead couple dance like puppets with strings attached to them.
Dil Hai Tumhara (2002)
Paheli (2005)
There have been a few films featuring ventriloquists that were made in other languages but were later dubbed in Hindi. One such film is Mahesh Khotare's Khilona Bana Khalnayak (1995), originally made in Marathi as Zapatlela (1993). The film stars Laxmikant Berde as Lakshya who is a ventriloquist. He receives a doll as a gift that starts speaking on its own and goes on to kill people. It is, then, revealed that a noted criminal Tatya (Dilip Prabhavalkar) had put his soul in the doll and was using it as a means to fulfill his evil purposes. Another film in this segment is Srinu Vaitla's Rakhwala Pyar Ka (2010), a Hindi-dubbed version of Telugu film Namo Venkatesa (2010), starring Venkatesh who plays a ventriloquist in the film. 
Khilona Bana Khalnayak (1995)
Rakhwala Pyar Ka (2010)
R. Balki tried to give an interesting angle to ventriloquism using the baritone of Amitabh Bachchan in Shamitabh (2015). The film depicts the story of Daanish (Dhanush), a mute guy who wants to be an actor but is unable to find any work. An assistant director Akshara (Akshara Haasan) pities him and takes him to the doctor to help him get a voice. After examination, the doctor recommends a chip to be fit in Daanish's larynx. Any third person can transfer their voice into the chip, and when that person would speak, the words would appear to come from Daanish's mouth. Daanish goes ahead with the recommendation and approaches Amitabh (Amitabh Bachchan), an old failed actor, to lend his voice to Daanish. Shamitabh effectively turns a mute person into a living ventriloquist's dummy which was a fascinating concept. Additionally, the film has some funny metacommentary all through it though its execution left a lot to be desired. At one point in the film, Rekha is called to give an award to Daanish and is left stunned by his voice as it reminds her of the man with whom she had a relationship in the past.
Shamitabh (2015)
With time, new modes of entertainment came in, and puppetry and ventriloquism lost their charm. These art forms were nothing but precursors to cinema itself. Like cinema, these art forms rely on the medium of storytelling on a stage. As this post began with Shoojit Sircar's film, it is only befitting that it concludes with one of his other films. In Piku (2015), there is a scene where Piku (Deepika Padukone) reminisces about an old theater in her city that was replaced by a building. Her wise companion Rana (Irrfan) comments that it is exactly how it happens in life; old things get replaced by new ones, just like the way, she is selling her ancestral home. He adds that it is not wrong and, "Maybe this is the way forward, isi ko log development bolte hain, but apni roots agar unko ukhaad do toh kya bachega." Development is absolutely vital, but sometimes it is worth revisiting the path that brought about that development.

Trivia:
1) Falguni Pathak's Maine Payal Hai Chhankai features a puppet show.
2) The posters of Kathputli (1971) and Helicopter Eela (2018) had puppets.
Kathputli (1971)
Helicopter Eela (2018)
3) Aamir Khan played a ventriloquist in an advertisement for Tata Sky.
References:
1) Say hello to....Ramdas PadhyeThe HinduLink
2) VPuppets.com—Link
3) Rotten TomatoesLink
4) Bollywood Shakespeares by C. Dionne, and C. Kapadia
5) IMDb.com, Wikipedia.org, and various news sites

Dialogue of the Day:
"Hum sab to rangmanch ki kathputliyan hain jiski dor us upar wale ke haathon main hai. Kab, kaun kahan uthega ye koi nahin jaanta."
—Anand, Anand