Gulabo Sitabo: Bollywood’s first post-lockdown film skips cinemas

On Friday evening, Delhi-based lawyer Ishika Goon and her flatmates hunkered down at their apartment in the Indian capital, Delhi, to watch a new Bollywood film.

In normal times, Ms Goon and her friends would have flocked to the neighbourhood theatre for their Friday night cinema fix.

But the lockdown to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus has meant that cinemas are closed and most movie-lovers are watching their favourite films at home.

So when the news arrived that the star-studded Bollywood summer release Gulabo Sitabo would bypass cinemas and premiere on streaming giant Amazon Prime Video, there was a ripple of excitement among film lovers.

“This doesn’t give you the same rush as watching a movie’s Friday release in the cinema. But we are now reconciled to the fact that we may not catch a movie in the cinemas in the near future,” says Ms Goon.

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Headlined by Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan and rising star Ayushmann Khurrana, Gulabo Sitabo is a light-hearted comedy. The film is based in modern-day Lucknow, the north Indian city once known for its aristocrats and magnificent mansions that would resonate with music, dance and poetry,

Bachchan is cast in the role of Mirza, an old curmudgeon, complete with flowing beard and wobbly gait, looking after his wife’s crumbling mansion. Khurrana plays one of his tenants, the cantankerous Bankey.

Without giving too much of the plot away, Gulabo Sitabo is a gentle satire on greed and longing for a better life. The quarrels between the landlord and tenant resemble a local folk art form called Gulabo and Sitabo. These are the names of glove puppets who play a pair of squabbling sisters seen on the streets of Lucknow.

Mirza and Bankey are like the puppets, locked in quarrels over money. Bankey is too poor to pay rent; and Mirza doesn’t have enough money to enjoy his mansion without it.

“Gulabo Sitabo is a quirky, light-hearted movie that the audience can enjoy with their families”, said Shoojit Sircar, the director. He has delivered a slew of hits that include comedies like Piku and poetic dramas like October .

The film has received mixed reviews. Some have appreciated the film’s “quirky characters and gentle humour”. Others have been more guarded, saying that the humour and satire did not find its mark. The Guardian found it a “strangely mismanaged parable about property management that renders its stars all but unrecognisable”.

More films are scheduled to be released by streaming companies over the coming months, as the prospects of cinemas opening in India in the near future look dim. They include Shakuntala Devi, a Hindi biopic of a famous Indian female mathematician played by award-winning actor Vidya Balan.

“This is the dawn of a new era for Indian entertainment,” said Sircar.

All over India, producers, defying protests by cinema owners, have begun taking their releases to streaming platforms such as Amazon Prime Video, Netflix and Disney+ Hotstar because of the lockdown. More than half a dozen Tamil language films have already been released on big streaming platforms.

The jury is out on whether Indian movie-goers prefer watching new releases in their homes.

One survey showed that the country’s five biggest cities accounted for more than half of streaming users, and Indians under the age of 35 accounted for 89% of viewers. The majority watched the content on smartphones.

An online survey during lockdown found that 82% of Indians prefer the big screen experience of watching movies in cinemas and are ready to go back to movie theatres if social distancing and hygiene can be guaranteed.

For Khurrana nothing quite matches the joy of a cinema release.

“It was my dream to see myself with Amitabh Bachchan on the big screen. But it is the producer’s decision [to release it on a streaming platform],” Khurrana told a cinema portal.

“If I had a choice I would have gone for the big screen first and then to streaming. But this coronavirus thing is unprecedented and this call had to be taken.”

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