“Mohabbat Karte Hai Hum Apni Haveli Se, Be Inteha” – You can hear a decrepit Mirza enunciating this line in the preview of Shoojit Sircar’s latest offering ‘Gulabo-Sitabo’ – the Haveli in question is over mildewed, century-old mansion somewhere in Lucknow. The trailer reveals the premise of the movie, which primarily revolves around an aged Mirza, played by Amitabh Bachchan, and his endless bickering with his reel-life tenant Baankey Rastogi, portrayed by Ayushman Khurrana.
One of the initial scenes of the movie brings forth a reference to the interesting title, where a roadside puppeteer can be seen putting up a show with two gaudily-dressed hand puppets – the hard-working, relatively mellowed housewife Sitabo, and her husband’s paramour, the charming Gulabo.
The story of the puppets Gulabo and Sitabo goes a long way back across the lanes of Uttar Pradesh, where their squabbles are presented through limericks, hilarious banter, sardonic barbs and often prurient jokes.
The Real Story of Gulabo-Sitabo Dating back to Post-Independence India
The story dates back to the early 1950s, when puppetry was one of the dominant sources of entertainment in the newly-independent country. Be it at country fairs thronged by inquisitive children and their parents or at street sides on a lazy afternoon, the art of puppetry was yet to be museumised in the country.
At that time, a nomadic family from Naraharpur village in UP’s Pratapgarh district was well-known in the hand puppetry scene of North India. This family is often credited for its contribution to Concept Puppetry – where social messages were neatly woven into the puppetry performance.
Ram Niranjan Lal Srivastava, a member of the family who worked in the Agricultural Institute of Allahabad (present Prayagraj) at the time, decided to try his hands at the lineal vocation.
He created the two puppet characters – Gulabo and Sitabo, destined to be each other’s sworn enemies. They fight over the same invisible man, Sitabo’s husband and Gulabo’s lover, and their arguments mostly deal with matters of the household, while ribald jokes are infused in between to amuse the audience.
However, the creator, Ram Niranjan chose to incorporate occasional jibes at social evils of the times like child marriage, female infanticide or dowry system.
Soon, Ram Niranjan began touring the country with his family, putting up his Gulabo-Sitabo shows everywhere. Word about the story soon spread. On a cold winter morning over chai, or maybe on a sultry summer afternoon, crowds would jostle to get a glimpse of Gulabo and Sitabo being at each other’s throats.
The main storyline remained the same, but different sub-plots were added often by the creator to keep the audience entertained throughout. The precisely engineered characters and sharp dialogues with a tinge of humour are often attributed to the success of Gulabo-Sitabo.
In 1956, when the Literacy House was established in Lucknow to promote adult and non-formal education, it soon became a hotspot for rendering education through various forms and forums, including puppetry. Bill and Cora Baird, a famous puppeteer duo from USA, helped create the Educational Puppetry Department at Literacy House – to uphold the objectives of Sakshar Bharat programme through such informal means.
Ram Niranjan was a part of the early team at the Department, where his puppetry was used for raising social awareness.
Resuscitating a Fading legacy
The Gulabo-Sitabo performances soon became a phenomenon in Uttar Pradesh and beyond as many small-time puppeteers adopted the story and started presenting it in their own ways. In general, Gulabo and Sitabo puppets are generally made of paper-mâché and dressed in shiny, vibrant attires, adorned with trinkets and jewellery. Among the two, Sitabo’s attire and appearance are purposefully shown less enchanting than the scintillating Gulabo. The puppetry show is generally accompanied by drum (Dholak) and cymbals (Manjira).
“The a capella narration, rendered in the spoken-sung style by the puppeteer seated on the floor, constructs a semi-improvised plot which is a mixture of salacious jokes, caustic reflections, laced with local humour, and songs relating to shared incidents and the vicissitudes of daily life” – World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts writes about Gulabo-Sitabo.
However, the legacy of Gulabo-Sitabo faded over time, occasionally resurrected by a few professional puppeteers here and there, and many unnamed ones who still continue to entertain wayfarers with their captivating rendition of the age-old story.
Padma-Shri awardee puppeteer Dadi Pudumjee had revived an interest in puppetry for a while at his Ishara Puppet Theatre, but the craft failed to garner much of the previous attention.
That is until, filmmaker Shoojit Sircar and screenwriter Juhi Chaturvedi decided to revive this dying art form through the more popular silver screen.
In fact, the surviving members of Ram Niranjan Lal Srivastava’s family, who still pursue puppetry as their sole profession, were reportedly elated to hear the two familiar names resurface in the popular media again. They, along with many practising puppeteers of the country, hope that the film will pique the audience’s interest in this beautiful art and save it from fading into oblivion.
A Tale of Melancholy in Satire
Gulabo Sitabo happens to be the first Hindi film to see a digital release before hitting the theatres. The film explores the typical animosity between landlords and tenants, through humorous dialogues, and antics. Veteran actor Amitabh Bachchan steals the show with his caustic camaraderie with Ayushman Khurrana’s character throughout the film.
The two lead characters’ hysterical rows, complete with all known forms of jibes, jeers and taunts – subtly expresses an underlying tone of melancholy, perhaps picturised as the crumbling heritage mansion Fathima Mahal.
Interestingly, Pratapgarh is the district where the ancestral family of Amitabh Bachchan belonged. In fact, the puppeteer Srivastavas still continues to refer to the Bachchan family as their own “hamare hi Pratapgarh ke”. With the Gulabo-Sitabo film, perhaps that connection comes a full circle.
The craft of puppetry in India can be traced back to 4000 years ago, where contemporary Sanskrit plays were enacted through these performances. However, the heritage craft now faces the threat of extinction. Here’s hoping that the Amitabh Bachchan-starrer rekindles the lost interest in the domain.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)