Location as character in Shoojit Sircar films
By Pankaj Sachdeva
Shoojit Sircar made his debut as a director in Yahaan
in the year 2005. The film is the story of a young Kashmiri girl Adaa (Minissha Lamba), who falls in love with Aman (Jimmy Sheirgill), a soldier of the Indian Army who is posted at a bunker near her home in Kashmir. Inspired by a real-life story that Shoojit read in a newspaper, Yahaan
is a tale of forbidden love in the land of guns and roses. Shoojit shot the film in the interior parts of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. In an interview, he said
, “I was just not granted permission to shoot on the locations that I wanted. I didn’t want to shoot in the predictable places. I wanted to go where my story takes the characters. I had to meet Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, and then we were shooting in hardcore militant areas. We shot the film like a guerrilla team, often giving out false shooting venues so that the militants didn’t reach there before we did
.” This aspect can be clearly seen in the film that captures the beauty of the unexplored Kashmir through its cinematography done by Jakob Ihre (who also did the cinematography
for the HBO miniseries Chernobyl
). The scenes in Yahaan
are shot on the fields, bridges, roads, and mountains that bring a different side of the heavenly land of Kashmir.
In addition to Yaahan, the location aspect is visible in all the other films of Shoojit Sircar. Location is a character of its own in his oeuvre. His films are shot on location without creating any artificial sets. The characters live and breathe the milieu creating a world that feels real. His movies also have scenes shot explicitly in the outdoor settings that capture the vibe of the location. His second film Vicky Donor (2012), about sperm donation, is based and shot entirely in Delhi. The protagonist Vicky (Ayushmann Khurrana), a Punjabi, lives in Lajpat Nagar with his mother Dolly (Dolly Ahluwalia), and grandmother Biji (Kamlesh Gill). Dr. Baldev Chaddha (Annu Kapoor) is a fertility expert who hires Vicky to donate his sperm to couples struggling to conceive a baby. Vicky meets and falls in love with Ashima (Yami Gautam), a Bengali staying in Chittaranjan Park.
Vicky Donor is an out-and-out Delhi film incorporating quirks in its characters inspired by real-life experiences. Vicky lives in Lapat Nagar, a colony built to house the refugees from Pakistan.
His house is a three-storey building with his mother’s parlor on the ground floor while his room is on the terrace. Talking about it, Shoojit said
, “What Juhi and I incorporated into the film was years of my living in and breathing the Delhi air. Of observing the quirks and nuances and the uniqueness of Delhi. In Vicky Donor, the focus was on Lajpat Nagar and a family living there. And everything was set up to lead to that. Everyone in that specific area of Lajpat Nagar, if you notice, lives in those 75 gaj plots. Mostly three-storey buildings, built in a certain style
—the small colonies, the interconnected terraces
. The people are very Punjabi. Almost every house has a biji or a Dollyji. The terrace is a hub of activity. The clothes lines, the paani ki tanki, which is a main issue of contention in this place. Like Biji says, ‘Paani ki line kaat doongi’. So, the house with the pipes network beneath it is sort of always accorded that slight ‘upper’ status.
” Ashima lives in Chittaranjan Park—an upscale neighborhood where many members of the Bengali community live. Many other locations of Delhi, such as Connaught Place, Jama Masjid, and Tivoli Garden, are also seen in the film. Vicky Donor also depicts a hilarious clash of cultures, possible in the cosmopolitan state of Delhi. The sophisticated Bengali family of Ashima is shocked by the loud Punjabi family of Vicky at their wedding. The film breaks many taboos, such as sperm donation, adoption, and remarriage, but plays to cultural stereotypes in a non-offensive and hilarious manner. There is another lovely moment in the film when Vicky and Ashima chat on Facebook and he asks her out for a date. He calls her ‘Fish,’ and she calls him ‘Butter Chicken,’ alluding to the famous food in their communities. Vicky’s dog is also named Whisky. Vicky Donor feels authentic and rooted in the world of its characters
In his next film Madras Cafe
(2013), Shoojit takes us to the south of India. The film is a political thriller set in the early 1990s in India and Sri Lanka against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan Civil War and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Major Vikram Singh (John Abraham) is appointed by the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) to head operations in Jaffna shortly after the Indian peace-keeping soldiers are forced to withdraw from there. Jaffna is the site of the prolonged battle of Tamils fighting for autonomy from the majority Sinhalese people. Tamils took to arms and joined the Liberation Tamil Front (LTF) leader Anna Bhaskaran (Ajay Rathnam), based on the real-life LTTE leader V. Prabhakaran. Vikram uncovers a conspiracy to assassinate the Indian prime minister by the LTF through the use of plastic explosives but is unable to prevent it. The film was initially titled Jaffna
but was renamed Madras Cafe
, as the plot to kill the Indian prime minister was hatched at the café. Political tensions prevented Shoojit from shooting in Jaffna but he still managed to recreate its milieu successfully in other locations
, such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala. He also shot several battle sequences on the outskirts of Bangkok, as firings by Light Machine Guns were not permitted in India. Real AK-47s, 9mm Berettas, and M60s were used. Army personnel were hired to recreate a war sequence. Shoojit Sircar again emphasized the authenticity of the proceedings in the film and said
, “We had to shoot some crucial scenes in Thailand and were there for over a week. The scene that recreates the civil war had to look, feel and sound authentic at any cost. So, real bullets and weapons were used. The scenes were shot with a lot of precaution
In 2015, Shoojit teamed up again with Juhi Chaturvedi to make Piku, a beautiful slice of life film. The film is the story of Piku (Deepika Padukone), an architect, who lives with her hypochondriac father Bhaskor (Amitabh Bachchan) in Delhi. Her father is perenially complaining about constipation. Rana (Irrfan Khan) is the owner of a taxi company that sends a driver to her every day to drop her at her office. After heavy drinking at a party, Bhaskor suffers an illness and wants to go to his ancestral home in Kolkata, and Rana drives them there. Piku lives in the Chittaranjan Park area of Delhi, which again makes an appearance in his work after Vicky Donor. Piku travels to different places in Delhi. She has a date at Select City Walk. She also takes the autorickshaw. There is also a distinct and genuine Bengali feel to the film. The film’s title has a red bindi, one of the most identifiable symbols of Bengali culture. Piku’s house has pictures of Ramakrishna Parmahansa and Rabindra Nath Tagore. There are paintings of Raja Ravi Verma. Bhaskor reads books on Holy Mother Sarada Devi. Boroline tubes and The Telegraph newspapers can be seen in the house. When Chabi Mausi (Moushumi Chatterjee) comes to visit Bhaskor, she says to discard homeopathy—the default option in Bengali households—and start allopathy. Bhaskor dances on a popular Bengali song Jibone Ki Pabo Na from Teen Bhubaner Pare (1969).
Later in the film, the characters take a journey to Kolkata. Piku and Rana visit the famous locations in the city, including Victoria Memorial, Howrah Bridge, St. John’s Church, Ganga Ghat, and Bishop Lefroy Road. At one point, Piku points to a site and says that there was once a theater, but now a new building has come up. Rana says that she is also doing the same by selling her own ancestral house Champakunj. She says that she is trying to be practical. He, then, makes a profound statement, “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.” Piku is also the journey of traveling back to your roots to get a sense of closure finally. Bhaskor traveled back to his place of birth which was always in his heart. He cycles the streets of Kolkata, eats the food that he was always avoiding, and has the best shit of his life. Bhaskor learned to let go, and death came to him quietly in the city and the bed he grew up.
Shoojit Sircar’s next film October (2018) tells the story of two hotel management interns, Dan (Varun Dhawan) and Shiuli (Banita Sandhu), working at a five-star hotel in Delhi. During a party, Shiuli falls from the top floor of the hotel and enters into a state of coma. Dan is immensely affected by her condition and takes care of her at the expense of his personal life. Caring for Shiuli gives a purpose to Dan’s life, and brings a change in him. October again incorporates the personal experiences of Shoojit Sircar and Juhi Chaturvedi as their respective mothers were also in a state of coma at some point in their lives. It is set and shot on location in the two ends of the hospitality industry—a hotel and a hospital—which again brings an aura of authenticity to the narrative. The film also shows the procedures associated with both the hotel (Radisson Blu Dwarka) and the hospital (Venkateshwar) with clinical detail. Every scene feels real. Delhi is another character in the film. The film opens with a metro rail chugging along in the foggy winter of Delhi. The film’s title is based on the change of seasons during the month of October in Delhi, symbolic of the change in Dan’s character. The Shiuli flowers blossom in the season. Dan is often found sitting at roadside dhabas. At one stage, Dan fixes Shiuli’s car in the middle of the road. Shiuli’s mother is a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology. At some other stage in the film, Dan moves to Manali where he finds a job as a hotel manager. The film shows the beauty of Manali as well. Whenever I think of October, I remember all these different locations as well.
Shoojit Sircar’s last film Gulabo Sitabo (2020), tells the story of two men, 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 about the role of greed in life. Like Champakunj in Piku, there is Fatima Mahal in Gulabo Sitabo. And, like his other films, the city of Lucknow is also a character of its own in the film. Every frame of the film, shot exquisitely by Avik Mukhopadhyay, breathes the city of Lucknow. Most films based in Uttar Pradesh usually try to impart the region’s language to its characters but miss out on the true ethos of the city. Gulabo Sitabo is rooted and shot in Lucknow. There is a mention of the city’s history. For instance, at one point, Baankey compares Mirza to the mother of Aasif-ud-Daula, the erstwhile Nawab of Awadh. There is a mention of the city’s geography. Its characters frequently speak about Aminabad, Imambara, Nixon Market, Hazratganj, and Nur Manzil. In one of the most memorable scenes, Mirza holds a balloon in his hand and walks towards the Qaiser Bagh Gate. There is talk about the city’s culture in the film. There are no abusive words used in the entire film (except once when Baankey uses the word ‘Chutiya’, which is also part of the local vocabulary) 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 go to mushairas anduse words, such as ulool julool. The tehzeeb of Lucknow can be felt in the film. There is also the depiction of a character belonging to the Anglo-Indian community of Lucknow. Gulabo Sitabo was initially set in Delhi, but they moved to Lucknow, where Juhi Chaturvedi also grew up.
All filmmakers create an internal world of characters in their work. Location is often a prop or a background element in them. The discernible element in Shoojit Sircar’s films is that location has been a character in almost all his films. In an interview
with National Geographic
, he elaborates, “Making a film requires active collaboration across music and costume to cinematography. Location sometimes is woven in the story, and in others, is just a backdrop to a scene. If the backdrop does not go with the characters with a realistic nature (and in my films, I try to be as realistic as possible), then of course you lose out. I spend a lot of time in a city before the shoot. You have to make sure that it becomes so natural to you, that you know the left, right, centre of the city. I know exactly, geographically, where my characters are going and coming from. If you see Gulaabo, you won’t feel the camera—you’ll only feel the chaos and sound of the old city. You have to go there to feel the city. What happens when you sit beside a river, or go to a temple, what are the sounds coming in. Sometimes sounds also create a feel of the city. To bring this out, you have to live there.
” I also think of his first film Yahaan
, where the Muslim girl Adaa has an adopted Hindu sister named Shree who lost her voice after an attack on her family. The film is set in the city of Shrinagar (with the name similar to the mute Shree) whose inhabitants, too, have lost their voice in the shadows of guns. Sometimes, it is also the characters who become an embodiment of their locations in films.
[Read more of the author’s work on his blog here