Gulabo Sitabo: An Expression of Civic Empathy?

Gulabo Sitabo: An Expression of Civic Empathy?

Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo, released in 2020, was a hit on OTT platforms. Amitabh Bachhan’s Mirza and Ayushman Khurana’s Baankey gave us a peek into the old-world Lucknowi life behind the historic lanes of the city. 

The protagonists are Mirza, the grumpy and duplicitous landlord, and the irritated and equally duplicitous tenant, Baankey, who’re fighting over the dilapidated “Fatima Mahal”. Add to this melee, a whole host of other characters, each with a selfish agenda of their own. And the confusion that ensues leads to a masterpiece that showcases the greed of human beings. 

But, who are Gulabo and Sitabo after whom the movie is named?


Gulabo Sitabo is a street puppet show 

It originated in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh in the 17th century. Sitabo is an overworked wife and Gulabo is the mistress. They’re always bickering but they also cannot live without each other. 

The puppeteer sits on the street with a semi-improvised plot for the puppet show. The play is conducted in a semi-musical way with dialogues and songs interspersed throughout the play. Combined with Manjira and Dholak, local humour, situational songs, the puppet show delivers a message about social causes. The puppeteer uses paper mache “Gulabo Sitabo ” along with a mixture of acapella and musical narration to attract the audience. The play talks about mundane day-to-day tasks and social issues. 

The puppet show played an important role in spreading the message of human values in the streets of Lucknow. It also had a huge impact on people’s way of thinking. The puppet play was done so well that it amplified social-emotional learning for kids in UP. It promoted civic-mindedness in a way that no one ever thought of. The centuries old puppet play of Gulabo Sitabo still spreads the message of civic mindedness on the streets of UP. And not only that, the culture spread to  other states too with minor changes to the script and the characters depending on the location.


Shoojit Sircar’s take on Gulabo Sitabo 

Sircar took inspiration from the puppet show to create the movie Gulabo Sitabo. Set in the grand old city of Lucknow, Mirza and Baankey are metaphors for Gulabo and Sitabo (the wife and the mistress) to the haveli. The haveli, Fatima Mahal, represents the husband. Mirza and Baankey are constantly fighting but so close to each other that they stick together till the bittersweet end. 

In this little feud, other characters like Gyanesh and Christopher join in with their own selfish agendas. Gyanesh, from the archaeology department, has his eyes set on the haveli to hand it over to his boss, in hopes of getting an appraisal. Christopher, a lawyer actually working for a goon, joins in to please the goon. He also hopes to pocket a small portion of the money that the ancestral Fatima Mahal can bring to his table. All this chaos leads to none of them even getting an inch of the Haveli!

This movie was beautiful. It promoted the intangible culture and heritage of Uttar Pradesh, and created something so exquisite that it became a hit. Mirza’s  greed made him blind to the point he forgot to show empathy and basic human emotions and couldn’t recognize the value of anything. We could witness this when he sold the antique chair for a mere INR 250, which later went on an auction for a whopping INR 125,000!


Creating impact in society 

Theatre, puppet plays, street plays, and many other art forms have shaped the society we currently live in. Street plays like Gulabo Sitabo from Lucknow, theatre clubs of Delhi, Karnataka’s Togalu Gombeyaata have been spreading messages of love, kindness and civic empathy for ages.

India is full of stories like Gulabo Sitabo- going head first to drive social change in the modern world. These plays help us learn important lessons and decide for ourselves what we want to be, of where we want our Karma to lead us. 

The main question is whether we want to be a Mirza or a Baankey, or create something better for #HumanityWithPurpose ?

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