As a child, Juhi Chaturvedi hardly remembers a morning when she brushed her teeth in front of a basin. Brushing was a leisurely 30-minute ritual which began from the courtyard of the house, moved to the porch for a bit and reached the flower-bedded lawns where a hand pump would provide the faculties for rinsing and cleaning up. The house, located in Lucknow’s Mahanagar, was imposing and welcoming, a double-storeyed standalone structure with as many as nineteen rooms shadowed by five mango trees. Chaturvedi was born, raised and educated in the city, before she moved to Delhi and then, Mumbai.
She remembers the kids from the mohalla playing cricket and badminton because the house happened to have that kind of space. She remembers Ram Khilawan and Ram Milan, two cycle rickshaw pullers, who’d park their vehicles in their house when they’d leave for their villages during summer, a time when clothes would often disappear from the clotheslines. Along with trust, petty theft existed too.
She remembers the house through light and fragrances: the smell of camphor blending with flowers like rajnigandha, bela, gulaab, and juhi. “Fragrances have a deep impact on my mood. They work as mood-enhancers, immediately reminding me of my home.”
Gulabo Sitabo, her new movie, captures her ache and the longing for the past, a world she left behind and a world that has been left behind. It’s a well-observed satire that’s rich in details and brims with wit that’s unique to the region.
“I’ve been lucky to have met very interesting characters in my life. Where else do you borrow from?” she says. “With Gulabo, I wanted to say that nothing good comes out of greed. Which is why the end is the way it is. I didn’t want to offer those characters a redemptive arc.” It’s Day 1 of the movie dropping on Amazon and she’s basking in the love. “No pressure of first-day collections, no weekend stress of numbers. Feels great.”
She emphasises the need to be patient with the film. “Just like the city it’s set in, you need to treat the movie with patience. Like the unique language of Lucknow, where people say 10 things before reaching the point, Gulabo Sitabo mimics that quality. Both are rewarding.”
Having witnessed the landlord-tenant relationship closely, Chaturvedi wanted to excavate the little details and more importantly, foreground the pettiness that often dominates the exchange. Among other things, Gulabo Sitabo also inverts a popular gender trope: where you usually see the pampered North Indian man in the household with the women perennially engaged in doing domestic chores, Bankey’s sisters in the film are spunky, determined and assertive. It’s a quiet slap on patriarchy without ever making the film exclusively about it.
“I wanted to show that as an upper caste man, he’s going to survive one way or the other. But the girls need to be educated at all costs. For them, the world won’t be too kind and that’s why they’ve hardened themselves. And that’s why the mother is very clear about securing their futures even when it comes at the cost of Bankey dropping out.”
One of the film’s standout character is Bijendra Kala’s Christopher, who says he speaks in English at home and has ‘lunch’ and ‘dinner’ for food. It was Chaturvedi’s fascination with the Anglo-Indian community in Lucknow, who often carry a misplaced sense of cultural superiority (as they go to the ‘church’ and their kids study in ‘convents’) that she wanted to satirize.
“There was a lot more of Christopher, but we retained only a few portions.”
Chaturvedi feels that for all its eccentric beauty, Gulabo Sitabo is a documentation of the past, of a way of life that is fast vanishing. “And it’s about karmic justice. Because no matter where you go, you’ve to pay for your actions.”
After graduating from Lucknow’s College of Arts and Crafts, Chaturvedi moved to Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar and started her career as an art director at an ad agency. Her experience in the capital, her observations about the city and the characters that inhabited it, would lay the ground for Vicky Donor, her first film as a screenwriter. She didn’t know a Vicky per se but she knew the ‘type.’
She hadn’t been to a film school. She hadn’t read screenplays. She wasn’t an avid reader of stories as a child either. However, her father was a history professor at Banaras Hindu University and stories were a part of growing up. “You internalise the conversations you have at home. The Chaturvedis had a particular flair for language. There’s a word we use: paneecha. It means to rip a person apart, the present equivalent of a roast.”
One busy afternoon at the Chaturvedis’ the grandfather was upset as his son as Juhi’s father had failed to look into a domestic chore after repeated reminders. Furious, he didn’t yell at him, but instead typed out a formal letter, with an address and everything, expressing his anguish and disappointment. He then got a help to send it to the room below. The house erupted in laughter. The job was done. This event inspired the Piku scene where Amitabh Bachchan’s Bhashkor writes a detailed note to his daughter, charting out a qualitative assessment of his poop cycle of the day.
Dr. Srivastava, played by Raghubir Yadav, too had a real-life parallel. He happened to be Chaturvedi’s grandfather’s personal doctor, who was trusted over and above everyone else. Funnily, nobody in the family ever saw Dr. Srivastava, he was always a disembodied voice on the phone. “This is why in Piku, Dr. Srivastava is the final authority who Bhaskor trusts blindly.”
Bhashkor himself was inspired by her own father and grandfather. Even today, her father remains as possessive of her as he used to be. “At times, I’ve to remind him. ‘Papa, I am in my 40s, you can’t be questioning me about things. Remember, you got me married?’ He doesn’t want to share me with my daughter or my husband,” she laughs.
If Piku was a culmination of characters she knew intimately before they appeared on screen, October was a stream of consciousness from yet another deeply personal experience: the death of her mother in 2012 after a prolonged illness that she endured for nearly 30 years. “October is what I lived,” she says. “For us, hospitals had become yet another reality. We grew up there. We became comfortable to the point of being friends with the nurses, the doctors, the ward boys.”
Chaturvedi’s mother survived a near-fatal hemorrhage when the writer was very young. But the complications that arose out of the condition meant that the she was in and out of hospitals very frequently. From hypertension to a kidney complication that led to a transplant to dealing with memory loss and finally cancer, the 30 years saw Chaturvedi’s mother in coma and on ventilators. The caregiving that she saw herself performing would become the basis of October.
“What I did was out of kinship, what Dan does is absolutely selfless. I wanted to spotlight the inherent goodness that exists in all of us but one that’s revealed in a moment of crisis.”
October ends with Dan taking the shiuli plant with him, a metaphor suggesting that Shiuli continues to live with Dan, who loved her unconditionally. The film is a quiet meditation on the transformative power of love. “She’s going to be there with Dan through all seasons.”
One thing the experience taught Chaturvedi was to never wallow in self-pity. She remembers using humour to diffuse tension, making jokes about the hot doctor who was treating her mother and who she had a crush on. “You can’t let the sadness take over. You’ve to strip it off its power by infusing humour in it.” She remembers writing initial drafts of Vicky Donor from the ICUs and hammering out dialogues of Madras Cafe from hospital hallways.
There was another challenge: since most of her engagement with her father revolved around nursing his wife and her mother - for 30 long years - she didn’t know how to relate to him in her absence. “What do we talk about?” But time, as it often does, healed things and eventually, her father moved in with her. They still live together.
All the four films whose screenplay she’s written so far have been directed by Shoojit Sircar, her collaborator from advertising days. She met him while shooting a Moov ad in early 2000 when she was newly married and had just moved to Mumbai.
“I was still getting used to the pace of the city and it was overwhelming. My idea of Bombay was different. I thought it’d look like the way they showed in the movies of Basu Chatterjee and Amol Palekar. And here, I was. At Juhu-Versova link road, a far cry from the Bombay I had imagined.”
Until Chaturvedi had her daughter, she didn’t quite accept Mumbai, often breaking down because of how exacting the city could be. The job paid well, the nature of it was satisfying, but it was only after something entirely hers was born in the city did she truly feel a profound sense of belonging. The roots had been laid.
“Seeing her experience Bombay the way I felt Lucknow is so beautiful. My daughter changed everything. I could see myself living here for good.”
At work, Sircar and Rensil D’Silva, who was heading the firm she worked at, encouraged her to write films. “They sold it to me by saying it’s like stitching together multiple 30-second ads. And the understanding was already there. If anything, advertising teaches you how to tell a sharp story with great economy. You learn a lot about the country through ads. You travel to places and get a window into a reality far removed from yours.”
As an ad film writer she created the Mountain Dew commercials and more recently, the Titan and Saffola ads. While ads bring in a sense of discipline and require lesser time, as a feature film writer, Chaturvedi’s cardinal rule is to not judge the characters that she’s writing. “I may not agree with their decisions but I’ve to nurture them with empathy. I’ve to understand them in the circumstances that they exist in. Which is why I don’t think I can write crime because I don’t understand what drives somebody to kill someone. I haven’t cracked it and that’s my limitation.”
In the winter of 2003, Juhi Chaturvedi stood outside the house her grandfather built. The same Lucknow house that was her sanctuary of safety, a place of peace, an oasis of togetherness. Furniture from the house was being loaded into a truck which she stared at vacantly. The house was being sold and at that point, she refused to accept this.
It was out of a financial compulsion and at the time, she was too early in her career to stall the deal in terms of the finances.
Several years later, she would write a film called Piku, featuring a similar family home - Champakunj - and in fiction, she’d prevent it from getting sold, something that couldn’t be achieved in reality.
Acting on an impulse, Chaturvedi ran inside, once again, like she had so many times as a little girl. “For the first time, I saw the house completely empty. As if it was bereft of life, stripped off its soul.” Then she cried for a really long time, apologising to the walls and everything that they contained. She apologised to her grandfather, who was by then, already dead. “Your sons failed you. They couldn’t save the house,” she said. She still dreams of the house, sees her grandfather. But it doesn’t hurt.
“I’ve moved on. But there are a few things that always belong to you.” While they were filming Gulabo Sitabo, also a movie about people and their attachment for a haveli, Chaturvedi snuck up into the house again. She made her way to her room and saw her cupboard, still intact. “My name was still scribbled on it.”
Years after their palatial house was sold, she’d move into her own apartment in Worli, one of the last neighbourhoods in South Bombay that still carries the architecture and evocative spirit of old Bombay. That her flat was on the first floor made her feel more connected as she doesn’t quite like the idea of living high up in a skyscraper.
Days after she moved in, one morning, she saw the house flooded with light. Something struck her. She went inside the kitchen and unpacked some camphor. Gently, she lit them up and the space was engulfed with the reassuring fragrance of her childhood.
“In Bombay, I had finally found my Lucknow.”