From 83 to Bob Biswas, here's how prosthetic in Bollywood movies is created to aid modern-day storytelling

In recent years, with actors and directors wanting their characters to look different and the demand for a film or show to look realistic, the use of prosthetics has increased dramatically.

Karishma Upadhyay December 19, 2021 10:04:43 IST
From 83 to Bob Biswas, here's how prosthetic in Bollywood movies is created to aid modern-day storytelling

Ranveer Singh as Kapil Dev in 83

What kind of food is served on a film set? Who picked out the paintings for the hero's bedroom? What does an Executive Producer do? Karishma Upadhyay's monthly column Bollywood Inside could attempt to answer these and other questions you might have about all things Bollywood but were too shy to ask.

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On the top floor of an old building close to the Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad, is Dirty Hands Studios. In different areas of the space, one might find a severed head, a baby hung out to dry, a pregnant belly being coloured, and next to the milk carton on the kitchen counter, a burnt hand.

Led by Zuby Johal and Rajiv Subba, the team here, that includes engineers, sculptors, painters, and machinists, creates prosthetic make-up and props for films and shows using silicone, fiberglass, marble, glass, and metal casting. The tryst with prosthetic design and makeup happened by fluke for the two National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad alumni but they have not looked back since their break in the movies with Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur 1 & 2 (2012).

Prosthetic makeup is not new to Bollywood. There is a famous story of Zeenat Aman sticking an ‘omelette’ (a piece of latex with a burn scar) on her face, and showing up at Raj Kapoor’s home to show him that she would be perfect for Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978). For Chehre Pe Chehra (1981), makeup artist Shashikant Mhatre created a different look for Sanjeev Kumar who played a double role in the film, complete with facial hair, leathery skin, and buck teeth.

As budgets and creative ambitions grew, producers began hiring make-up artists from Hollywood. Kamal Hassan’s transformation in Chachi 420 (1997) was courtesy American artists Michael Westmore and Barry Koper while Oscar-winning artist Christien Tinsley was credited with Amitabh Bachchan’s look in Paa (2009). 

From 83 to Bob Biswas heres how prosthetic in Bollywood movies is created to aid modernday storytelling

Kamal Haasan in Chachi 420

Prosthetic work is broadly divided into three categories – prosthetic make-up that transforms an actor like Rajkummar Rao into a 324-year-old oracle in Raabta; props like dead soldiers in Padmaavat; and action sequences like blood gushing out of a wound. “Take AK vs AK (2020) for example. The story is set over one night but we shot it over three months. Anil (Kapoor) gets hurt through the night so when there is a wound, you have to figure out not just how much blood will come out in that instant but also how that wound will heal through the night. You have to maintain continuity,” says Johal.

In recent years, with actors and directors wanting their characters to look different and the demand for a film or show to look realistic, the use of prosthetics has increased dramatically.

In just the last two months of this year, we have Bunty Aur Babli 2, that had Saif Ali Khan and Siddhant Chaturvedi in disguises that included patches on their noses and cheeks, and bald caps. In Bob Biswas, a few extra kilos and a wig helped Abhishek Bachchan morph into a younger version of the character that Saswata Chatterjee made popular in Kahaani (2012). And later this month, we will see Kabir Khan’s 83, where subtle changes have been made to everyone to make them as close as possible to the World Cup-winning team led by Kapil Dev. 

Get into the Skin

It all starts with the script. When Diya Annapurna Ghosh knew she was going to make a spin-off film on Bob Biswas, the eerie undercover killer who became iconic despite his brief screen time, it was understood that the actor playing the titular character would need to resemble the original. “Abhishek’s look is meant to be as close to the original Bob from Kahaani as possible, right down to the glasses he wore and the checked shirts. In terms of prosthetics for him, we only needed the wig because Abhishek had put on the weight that was required,” says Ghosh. She roped in British make-up artist Simone Beyleveld, someone she had worked with before (Badla, 2019, where she was an assistant director), who not just created the wig but also did all the bullet wounds and blood work for the film.

From 83 to Bob Biswas heres how prosthetic in Bollywood movies is created to aid modernday storytelling

Abhishek Bachchan in and as Bob Biswas

Getting access to the script is so integral to the process that Johal insists that she "won’t work with people who don’t share their script." “I need to know the exact situations that prosthetics is required for,” says Johal, adding, “If someone just tells me that they need a dead body and then on the day of the shoot, I am told that the ‘body’ died due to drowning, the mannequin I have made will not work because it’s not made of material that will float.” These details are important because there are a lot of constraints when working with prosthetics. Unlike regular makeup, where an artist can immediately start over, with prosthetics starting from scratch means waiting days for the piece to be moulded and painted.

It is a similar process for National-award winning make-up artist Preetisheel Singh D’Souza, who prefers to be referred to as a 'character designer.' “While I am reading a script, I start thinking about what a character should look like. It comes from his environment, his upbringing, and occupation. Gone are the days when an actor would look the same as a middle-class father, a coolie or a don. I combine prosthetics with beauty work (hair and make-up) to design the whole look,” says D’Souza, who studied at the Cinema Makeup School in Los Angeles, and runs Da MakeUp Lab with her work and life partner Mark D’Souza.

From 83 to Bob Biswas heres how prosthetic in Bollywood movies is created to aid modernday storytelling

Ranveer Singh as Alauddin Khilji in Padmaavat

When she got the script for Padmaavat, her first instinct about Ranveer Singh as Sultan Alauddin Khilji was 'beast mode.' “That look is a combination of little details, like his body hair wasn’t shaved, and the beard is long and scraggly. There are scars of all lengths on his body, and his complexion is sun-kissed.” D’Souza’s credits also include Bala (2019), Chhichhore (2019), and Haider (2014), and she also has multiple Akshay Kumar films (Bachchan Pandey and Ram Setu) on the floors.  

Once a look is locked, an important step is explaining to the actors involved the amount of time they would spend in the make-up chair. “Some actors are just inherently excited about the process. I remember after we worked with the late Rishi Kapoor on 102 Not Out (2018), he was very curious about the process. After that film, every time he signed a film, he’d call and say 'let's do something different,'” shares Singh. How long the process takes depends on how unrecognisable the actor is going to be at the end. In Bob Biswas, Bachchan’s character has a bald patch in the middle of the scalp. Instead of giving the actor a bald patch and then adding a wig, Beyleveld merged the two. “I think we saved a lot of time doing just one piece. This would take about an-hour-and-a-half every day to put on,” adds Beyleveld. 

Rising to the Challenge

Most makeup artists work with silicone, a material that is not breathable and retains Heat . Add to this our tropical climate, and it is clear that working with prosthetics is challenging, specially when transformations are as drastic as Amitabh in Paa, 102 Not Out, or more recently, Gulabo Sitabo (2020). Just before the latter’s release, Bachchan blogged about shooting in Lucknow’s scorching heat with multiple pieces of silicone stuck with medical glue. He wrote, “.. the prosthetic make up is always an issue during hot weather .. it tends to melt away the sticking glue and destroy the prosthetic .. adequate care on set was taken then to keep the face cool .. its a requirement from the make up department .. one that I abhor .. the cooling systems on set , yes provide the air conditioned air , but then with the frequency of shots the continuous in and out of the cool into the heat is a bad precedent for me .. either I remain cool or remain hot .. and if this can be called a metaphor, a figure of speech, it is completely unintended .. !!"

On the other side of the spectrum are films like Kriti Sanon-starrer Mimi (2021), for which D’Souza fashioned a pregnant belly in the form of a corset. “All she had to do was zip it up.”

From 83 to Bob Biswas heres how prosthetic in Bollywood movies is created to aid modernday storytelling

Amitabh Bachchan as Auro in Paa

Bollywood continues to have a foreigner fixation across departments on a movie set, and prosthetic makeup is no different. “We are still so enamoured by foreigners. So directors and producers believe that they’d do a better job,” says Johal, not mincing her words. D’Souza agrees, “The automatic assumption is that a foreigner would be better than an Indian technician.”

But both ladies, who have not just years of experience but also have worked with big names like Kashyap, Vishal Bhardwaj, and Sanjay Leela Bhansali, believe that things are changing. “Since travel became restricted because of COVID, we’ve been getting a lot of work, both film and series,” adds Johal, who is looking at close to a dozen releases over the next year, including Shakun Batra’s untitled film starring Deepika Padukone, Ananya Panday, and Siddhant Chaturvedi, Homi Adajania’s series Saas Bahu aur Cocaine, and Abhishek Chaubey’s series Soup.

Author of Parveen Babi: A Life, Karishma Upadhyay has been writing about movies and movie stars for almost two decades. On Twitter, she goes by @karishmau.

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