Gully Boy, Kalank, Kesari: Understanding the evolution of Production Design in recent Bollywood films
Right from sourcing, research, sketching, building scale models to building forts and shanty houses, production design is a painstaking and artistic process.
While watching a film, we lose ourselves in a make believe, different world; for even the most realistic film is ‘created’ to feel like that. That’s the job of a production designer in a film crew. Coordinating with the filmmaker and director of photography, a production designer has to give suitable visual context to characters and a story. Over the past few years in Hindi cinema, production design has become more appropriate and less theatrical. In some cases, like Dharma Productions’ lavish epic drama Kalank, the larger than life canvas comes into play. As stories grow in terms of range and depth, production design, or the look of the film in an over simplification, has also matured aiming at standardisation with international cinema.
Gully Boy serves as the perfect example, where Murad’s world is bleak, grey and crowded with tin, scrap and people in a Mumbai slum. Built in the heart of Dharavi, Suzanne Caplan Merwanji, the film’s production designer though disagrees with the ‘realism’ in the film’s texture. “Personally, I find that "reality" and even "authenticity" are relative for a film designer & at the end of the day, it is about believability and taking the audience with you.Designers often "tweak" reality in many differing ways - by either creating a definitive "style" as in the films of Wes Anderson or by 'creating' a sense of reality. Gully Boy falls into the latter category. For an example, In the slum set we created, the plentiful bright blue plastics seen in slums all over the city were totally eliminated in favour of a controlled colour palette of many shades of green, terracottas, ochres and neutrals. In this way, we were able to create the mood of the piece & as the story unfolds and Murad's lot in life improves, so the colours along with other aspects of the design, reflect his evolution.”
Merwanji, whose work includes the trend setting Dil Chahta Hai in Hindi, and international films like The Darjeeling Limited (as set decorator), finds her cross cultural exposure and training helpful in creating a suitable mood and colourscape for a film. “Production Design is about creating the mood of a piece through an understanding of the script, through choices of location, colour palettes, design of interior and exterior sets and through their dressing. We want to augment the director's vision not take away from it. Set Decoration was my starting point in International films & it was from this perspective that I learnt the importance of detailing within the whole design. "Dressing" a set is not about interior designing but more about adding subtitles as it were that can give greater insight into the characters and mood,” she explains.
Merwanji points to an overall improvement in the quality of design in Hindi film and increasing exposure of international content as signs of definite growth in production design. Homegrown and finding their feet in the world of big cinema, Madhur Madhavan and Swapnil Bhalerao adopt a similar approach to production design. Having designed for Rohit Shetty, Madhur and Swapnil took up RAW as a challenge, for this was as muted and realistic as it gets. “Being a production designer, to me, is like living the story like an actor because you need to dive into it. Right from the start, we aimed at a clear colour scheme, which is muted. We haven’t used loud prints or sharp cuts like how the '70s retro fashion is perceived to be. While scouting locations, we stayed focused on the colour pallete, soil we found a good location that didn’t fit in, we would reject it. Building RAW headquarters was a challenge, for no one has ever seen the RAW headquarters so getting a reference too was impossible. We brainstormed a fair bit on all these details. “
Achieving authenticity for RAW was a challenge as the film travels to various Indian cities and is shot outdoors extensively. “We were very focused on recreating the '70s. For instance, there was no plastic in India during that time, so the plastic road blockers or sheets that one sees so commonly had to be avoided. We needed architecture that fit in, so Junagarh looked like Pakistan, and we recreated bits of the country on streets here.” His partner, Swapnil Bhalerao adds, “The most important part of our job on RAW was location hunting. We had to really go looking for props in markets like Mumbai’s Chor Bazaar, and had to make some props. We had to find locations without cell phone hoardings, cell phone towers. We had to source buildings that would resemble the era. For instance, in Gujarat, we found a near abandoned village which is almost empty. We used this location to shoot.”
Highlighting the gradual progress towards authenticity in Hindi cinema, both Madhavan and Bhalerao point out that they got Rohit Shetty, king of colour splashes, to tone down his palette in Simmba and Golmaal Again. They also joke that the only time production designers get talked about is when they work for Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
Working for Sanjay Leela Bhansali might not have ensured instant fame for production designer duo Subbu-Amit, but it has definitely shone a light on the hue contribution that design plays in making certain films successful. Subrata Chakraborty graduated in art from Shantiniketan while his partner Amit Ray is a graduate of Indian Art College and Draftsmanship, Kolkata. Aiming to be artists in Mumbai, they began assisting renowned production designer Sharmistha Roy, and then went on to find their feet in this space. From Dedh Ishqiya, Udta Punjab, Haider, to Padmaavat and Raazi, both display amazing range and cinematic knowledge. “We are both very hands-on. I can paint out an entire set by myself; if something goes wrong, I will do the repair work or patch work too. Amit can sew and do lots of small tasks. We plunge into the process right from the start, and stick to the director’s vision,” says Subrata. Working on Kesari with director Anuraag Singh gave them a chance to tackle a historical drama with creative freedom. Subrata says, “ It’s crucial to understand the director’s vision and to sync up with it. For Kesari, we traveled through Punjab to find references of the fort of Saragarhi, which doesn’t even have ruins left. We only found a few photographs at a museum in Patiala. The guns were referenced from the British Museum in London. Like we always do, we built a miniature of the location and captured all details in it. For instance, the colour of the stone and the film had to match, so we focused on sourcing the right materials. After that, it was a matter of good execution,” he concludes.
Having witnessed the evolution of production design over the years, Subrata Ray explains the first major change that has helped Hindi cinema progress. “Now, filmmakers are open minded and totally unafraid to experiment with VFX. Technology enhances and assists in creating the perfect location. Our job is to visualise the film through the director’s eyes. With VFX coming in play, this process has become a lot more qualitative.”
Right from sourcing, research, sketching, building scale models to building forts and shanty houses, production design is a painstaking and artistic process. As filmmakers adapt and aim to match up with international levels, getting design right has brought in variety, innovation and raised levels of audience interest. As Suzanne Caplan Merwanji introspects, “The idea of Production Design in its true sense is much more understood in India than previously and I think that most of the younger directors have fully embraced the concept & recognise its important contribution to the film making process. For me, the epithet "God is in the details" always resonates!”.
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