Filmmaker Shoojit Sircar’s cinema transports you to ordinary lives, filled with quirks, oddball characters, and a simmering potential for the extraordinary—not unlike your own. Rooted firmly in character and location, the viewer finds themselves in the middle of an argument in Delhi’s Punjabi neighbourhood in Vicky Donor or in an endearingly Bengali household in Piku. The director insists on it.
His latest, Gulaabo Sitaabo, is set in the crumbling, once-regal pockets of Lucknow, and was released on an OTT platform in the midst of a global pandemic. In conversation with NGTI, Shoojit da (as he is affectionately called) opens up about the significance of location, his love for Kolkata and Manali, and his favourite travel spots. Edited excerpts.
Kolkata is definitely a city you love. Can you tell us a few must-dos for visitors there?
I believe north Kolkata is very important. I moved to Kolkata seven years ago, and I visit the northern part of the city just before Durga Puja. I take a stroll by the Ganges and visit Kumartuli, where the Durga idols are made. It is one of the most fascinating places to visit. The bylanes of north Kolkata have many structures from the British and French colonial times. There’s also Chandannagar (in the Hooghly district), a French colonial area across the Ganges, and I believe they still get grants from the French for its upkeep.
Around Kolkata are the mangroves in Sunderbans. It’s a beautiful and wild place, I think no one has been able to conquer the beauty of the place in a photograph yet. Of course, after Cyclone Amphan it is completely devastated.
For food, start with Chinatown. In Kolkata, there are different kinds of food: food which is from West Bengal, food which is a crossover from Bangladesh, and Mughlai food, which comes from the Lucknow gharana, and is like improvised Lucknowi food. I love visiting Arsalan, Shiraz and Rahmania restaurants in the city for Mughlai food.
Location is pivotal to your movies—from Yahaan to Gulaabo Sitaabo. How do you choose the location?
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. For example in Gulaabo Sitaabo, location is pivotal. It deals with a dilapidated mansion and an old city, and that plays a very important character in the movie.
How much time do you spend in a location pre-shoot?
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.
So, what are your Lucknow recommendations?
The entire film I think are the spots to visit! Kesar Bagh, Lucknow Library, Bara and Chota Imambara, Rumi Darwaza, Lucknow University, Hazrat Ganj. And food, of course. Everywhere in Lucknow you get amazing food.
You also love football. Have you travelled to watch games live?
Yes. I travelled to Russia to watch the FIFA World Cup in Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2018.I watched the qualifiers, semi-finals and finals! Before that, I visited South Africa—Cape Town and Johannesburg—for the previous world cup.
On a personal front, what kind of travel do you enjoy?
I travel a lot in India. I am just so fascinated by the places I visit; more than the cities, I like to visit the outskirts. My favourite destination is Manali; not the main city, but the other side where no one visits. I sometimes go to Sunderbans, rent a boat and just hang around. I want to sit peacefully, that’s it.
Is there a place that has stayed with you, and you’d like to revisit?
The hills of Himachal Pradesh, always.
One place everyone should visit?
Bhutan. It is one of the most peaceful places I have ever visited. The people there are so peaceful too. It is a place everyone should visit, not to create chaos, but just to experience peace. I visited around six years ago, but it has stayed with me.
The pandemic has force-paused hectic work lives. What have you been doing during the lockdown?
Housework! I have no time to do anything but housework. I am now quite skilled with the magic mop, it is fantastic engineering I think.
How do you think travel will emerge from here?
I have a feeling that when the lockdown opens, there’ll be a huge boom of internal travel. International travel will be expensive and difficult to access, but within the country is where people will go.
Which is the first place you’d like to travel to, pandemic/lockdown allowing?
Himachal Pradesh! I generally visit Manali, Dharamshala, cross Khardung-La to visit Keylong, and Manikaran.
Have you ever travelled to a place and wanted to shoot a film there?
Yes, definitely. If you have watched my film October, I have shot it in Manali. Larisa Resort, the place where actor Varun Dhawan works is my friend’s resort. I went to stay there, and decided I want to shoot here. Then of course, Kolkata is one of my favourite destinations. I use every chance to shoot in the city.
What are your suitcase essentials—things you never travel without?
Minimalism is my mantra. I’d like to say a pair of jeans, my scarf, and my Darjeeling tea bags.
Has travelling made you a better filmmaker?
Travelling breaks you out of shackles. It relaxes you, and helps you think. Getting away definitely helps.
Three movies that come to your mind when it comes to travel?
Into the Wild, it has shown me how to travel. There’s a Satyajit Ray film I saw when I was a kid, Sonar Kella (The Golden Fort), where Feluda travels from Kolkata to Rajasthan. That journey was like a dream. And lastly, Bicycle Diaries.
And if you were to build your dream studio somewhere, what location would you choose?
(Laughs) Himachal Pradesh, of course.
Lubna Amir travels in the search for happy places (which invariably involve a beach) and good food. When she’s not planning her next escape, you can find her curled up with a book or researching recipes.