'Digital is the future': Shoojit Sircar on Gulabo Sitabo's release

Filmmaker Shoojit Sircar talks about adapting to new situations, the likelihood of theatres bouncing back post-Covid-19, and what makes Amitabh Bachchan special

Kunal Purandare
Published: Jun 12, 2020 10:47:02 AM IST
Updated: Jun 12, 2020 12:30:46 PM IST

I am Senior Assistant Editor with the Forbes India magazine in Mumbai. A journalist for over a decade, I am also the author of Ramakant Achrekar: Master Blaster’s Master, a biography of the great cricket coach, and Vinod Kambli: The Lost Hero, a biography of the former India cricketer. Apart from my love for news and writing, I am passionate about cricket, movies and music

shoojitImage: Amazon Prime Video

Shoojit Sircar inadvertently found himself in the midst of Cyclone Amphan in Kolkata in May. “It went through my house… it was scary and chilling,” says the filmmaker, who went to his hometown in the second week of March, and has been living there since, following the nationwide lockdown that came into effect later that month. The other storm he did not see coming was when he announced the release of his latest film Gulabo Sitabo on Amazon Prime Video. Theatre owners were miffed at his decision, while the industry contemplated the pros and cons of a digital-first release at a time when theatres are shut and uncertainty looms large because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In an interview with Forbes India, Sircar—director of films such as Vicky Donor (2012) and Piku (2015)—explains the rationale behind his move, gives his take on the future of entertainment in a post-Covid-19 world, and remembers his friend Irrfan Khan, who passed away in April. Edited excerpts:

Q. You seem to have attempted a new genre with Gulabo Sitabo. How did the idea come about? 
It’s a new territory for me, for sure. The first idea came from Juhi [Chaturvedi, the film’s writer] and we kept working on it. Yes, you can say it’s a new genre because it’s the first time I’ve tried satire. It’s a world of several people, including a landlord and a tenant, who come from an economically lower strata of society. They are struggling, and somehow manage to live their lives in Lucknow. The film focuses on their lives, their relationships and their characters. The camera will actually penetrate their minds, issues and homes. 

Q. You reunite with Amitabh Bachchan, after directing him in Piku. What made you approach him, and what makes him special as an actor?
He was always on our radar. While we were writing the film, we had informed him that we would approach him. The only question was whether he would accept the offer… I was not sure. Thankfully, he liked the script. His speciality is that he completely trusts the director and his vision. His biggest gift is his meticulous engagement, whether it’s with the costume, looks, dialogue delivery, location or the background score. Amitabh Bachchan has an aura of his own, but he is one of the finest with his co-actors. He is the best for them... he is so giving.

Q. When did you decide to go for a digital release of the film?
It was only when we crossed the theatre release date [April 17] that we decided we should think about having a digital release. We wanted to close this and move on to our next film. Even now, it’s uncertain when the theatres will reopen. A lot of our technicians depend on us, and so we took this call to release the film on June 12. The situation demands this and we should adapt to it. 

Q. This is a new experience for you. Will you be open to this in the future?
I have taken the plunge and am glad that I did. I am happy to have experimented and will wait for the results. Amazon is a huge platform… the movie will release in around 200 countries. I’ll see how it goes and then take a call on what I can do and what I cannot in the future.

Q. So, this was a feasible decision given the circumstances…
Yes, it makes complete sense. It was a practical decision. I am happy that I am going digital as it is the future. 

Q. But theatre owners have expressed their disappointment. What would you tell them?
I understand their point of view, but I will tell them they should understand my point of view as well. The situation is such… I make one film at a time and a lot of people in my production house are dependent on me. We do whatever is best for the film. There is nothing beyond the film… the film dictates everything. I told them there is nothing personal in this. If we were not under a lockdown in April, the film would have released in theatres.

Q. Is it any different, say when it comes to promotions etc, when you release a film first on a digital platform?
I hate promotions. I am happy if there are less promotions… it’s a tiresome process for me. At this moment there is a lockdown, so any release would have been the same. But I think it’s the same… nothing changes.

Q. As a filmmaker, are the jitters any different compared to a theatrical release?
I don’t have to bother about the box office where people will hound me with numbers every day. I’ve made a film the way I want to and I am happy that it is releasing, so that’s a big relief. The second relief is that I don’t have to decide an interval point. In terms of experience, the film is not going to lose anything. Yes, watching a film in a theatre is a different experience. I cannot guarantee that... but I can definitely guarantee the kind of film that you can expect from my stable.

Q. Will theatres bounce back once the lockdown ends?
Of course they will bounce back, but we will have to see how much time that takes. The fear, the hygiene aspect… all such things will matter. The fear will slowly fade away and theatres will eventually bounce back. 

Q. And digital platforms and theatres will coexist?
Yes, they will coexist. Cinema is a medium where you watch a film in a theatre with a lot of people. That’s why it was made… the idiot box came later. But the good thing is that televisions have flat screens today and the picture and sound quality are good. So if you have a good TV or a laptop with nice headphones, and keep the lights off… that viewing is also interesting. It doesn’t take away much, but yes, the 70 mm experience is different.

Q. At what stage is your next film, Sardar Udham Singh, and will its release get pushed ahead?We have finished shooting the film. It’s in the post-production stage. Yes, the release date will be affected. The industry will be in a state of confusion when it opens up again. It has experienced a huge loss, as have other industries and sectors. There will have to be some guidelines, otherwise there will be a bottleneck of films, and they will release together. It will have to be sorted out.

Q. Will shooting be the same again in a post-Covid-19 world?
There will be proper guidelines regarding that and protocols will have to be maintained. But surely, in the beginning it’s not going to be easy because shooting is a chaotic affair. There are 100 to 200 people even for a small shoot. So, there will be diktats and behavioural changes. If this virus stays for long, we will have to adapt to new ways of shooting.

Q. What have you been doing during the lockdown?
I am working so much at home that I have got a back pain. I am doing a lot of household work… it’s exhausting. I don’t get time to watch anything, but I managed to see some documentaries.  

Q. You lost your friend Irrfan Khan during this period. Have you come to terms with the loss?
He is a huge loss. As a friend, I cannot forget him so easily… he was so lively and such a nice human being. Not only me, but everyone else also feels it’s a personal loss. If I am watching something on television, I feel he is going to come out of the screen. It is difficult to come to terms with the loss.

Q. What next?
My immediate focus will be Sardar Uddham Singh. But I am going to take it easy. That’s the lesson that I have learnt.

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