As a city, Lucknow has long fascinated filmmakers. The reason used to be that it has a certain legacy, of language and culture, and filmmakers loved to bring that ambience to the screen. Urdu had been the language that dominated cinema made in Bombay; Urdu writers and poets had flourished in its studios. Lucknow, being the city where Urdu is spoken with a charm of all its own, was often a backdrop for its stories. The fascination in recent times does not seem to be the same. The city has changed and so has cinema.
Lucknow has grown and like most cities with a long history, it has its new quarters and old. The old city, where I have lived, close to Rumi Darwaza, is crowded and haphazard but it throbs with life that still connects it to its history and culture of centuries. The new part of the city is indistinguishable from other cities today, with its well-planned colonies, parks, malls and multiplexes.
Gulabo Sitabo is the latest in the attempts to tell a story set in Lucknow, set in its old quarters. Sadly, it wants to take in the ambience but misses out on the essence.
There is a way to see a city when you are a tourist. And there is a way you see the city when you are a voyeur. And there is a way you see the city when you want to make a film. How does this film look at the city?
Unfortunately, in a somewhat touristic and voyeuristic manner, it photographs every corner of the old city. The filmmakers crawled over every possible location. Exhausting, how nothing was left. Not just the main monuments and landmarks- Rumi Darwaza, Chowk and Kaiserbagh. Even the bus-stands are covered. But geography is hardly respected and locations are mixed up without a thought for the people of the city and how they would receive it. You appreciate the hard work, of the production design department. But without genuine feeling for the people, it just becomes a catalogue of locations for an utterly confused look at their lives. Farrukh Jafar is presented, and she does the most admirable act, as Fatima Begum, a relic from the past. Her relationship with Mirza is so flat, it remains far-fetched and never carries us into actually believing it. Mirza comes across as a silly and ridiculous figure, not the greedy character they want to present him as. The way the filmmakers seem to look at class and privilege is, to say the least, problematic. The great thing about Lucknow people is their grace, even in poverty. Something you see reflected in every film of Muzaffar Ali. Ayushmann Khurrana overdoes his bit and fails to carry it off. The really convincing characters are those played by supporting actors, Brijendra Kala and Vijay Raaz. But then they could be from any city, and there is nothing about Lucknow specifically in them.
This is a film in which not just production design, everything is reduced to craft. Craft of acting, craft of cinematography, of screenplay writing, of direction. All boxes are ticked. Everything is addressed. Everything is resolved. But films do not stand because all boxes are ticked. The history of cinema shows, again and again, even imperfect, and often imperfect works stand out over time. And they do so why? Because of empathy and compassion, heart and soul. As Fellini confessed, you have to be honest in art, you cannot deceive. It is an unforgiving medium.
There was a time when cinematography and art direction of Hindi movies, and advertising films, used to be super glossy. The locations and sets would be so polished, they looked plastic. Not a crack could be seen. Not a stain that would not be wiped out or painted over. Now the pendulum has swung in the other direction. And a fetish is made of the rough and grungy. It is a similar affectation, as with gloss.
When I teach cinema, and revisit films, it is interesting to see how films that survive and go on to become classics, are not so much about craft as about clarity and honesty, of thought and feeling -- which Raj Kapoor had; which Guru Dutt had; which Hrishikesh Mukherjee had. And today you struggle to find a modern masterpiece. Because increasingly you find that filmmakers have mastered the technique. They have mastered the craft. But are lost, without honest feeling, without roots into their subjects. I can think of only two filmmakers, in modern times, who got it right when they attempted to capture the culture of the place that Gulabo Sitabo visits. Shyam Benegal, in one of his finest films, Junoon. And the masterpiece remains Umrao Jaan by Muzaffar Ali, a man steeped in the culture of Awadh. The sensibility of Piku does not quite fit in with Lucknow, even present-day Lucknow. And the result is a jarring mishmash.
(Mazhar Kamran is an Indian film and documentary film director, and cinematographer.)