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Mainstream Indian cinema has of late been embroiled in a happy romance with their audiences. What is fuelling this romance aren’t multiplex stars like you’d think. Its been strong stories and films that have visual integrity. There is a slew of Indian filmmakers who now work with the understanding that a film’s production design is as valuable as a marquee star.
Rachna Rastogi Sen has been doing production design for films (Dhoom 2, Karthik Calling Karthik) and TV commercials for a long time now. She has been around to see the birth of new wave production design in India, its subsequent growing pains and its push into adulthood. Rachna recently took some time to tell us her story and all about her new film – Arjun the Warrior Prince (UTV, Disney).
I’ve had a lot of people explain Production Design to me and it tends to be different. How would you describe it?
Rachna: Production Design, simply put, is the discipline that creates an appropriate visual world that the characters of a film inhabit. Depending on the script this could be region specific, period specific, futuristic, fantastical, theatrical – the field is as varied as the scripts of films.
Is coordinating so many things exhausting or exhilarating?
Rachna: It is an insanely demanding but exhilarating area of work. A true marriage of visual arts with technology.
Of all the different departments of the film that you have to work across, which ones do you have the most challenging creative differences with?
Rachna: Well let’s put it this way – the most satisfying and creative aspect is the brainstorming with the director and DOP. The most challenging is to convince the production to pay for the vision.
Let’s talk about Arjun The Warrior Prince. Any apprehension at first about working on an animated movie?
Rachna: None. The reason being, Arjun was being directed by a friend from college – Arnab [Chaudhuri] whose work we really admire. So when he called us we were super excited. To be working on an epic, from our own glorious past, with a team of friends – it doesn’t get better!
How different was your work on Arjun compared to what you do on a live action movie?
Rachna: The design process on an animation or live action film is similar. The difference lies in the process of execution. In our experience with the two mediums: whereas Production Design for animation liberates us from the budget constraints – elaborate sets, décor, costume pose – it adds the complexity of designing every minute detail specially of props & décor or natural environment, which would have been sourced in a live action film. This dramatically increases time at the design stage.
On the supervision too, traditionally we work with many specific departments with specialized skill sets (carpenters, moulders, painters, welders, armourers, printers, tailors, florists, set decorators.) In Arjun our team of modelers/painters (initially from UTV and later Tata Elxsi) had to wear all these caps rolled into one. With not too many past projects the scale of Arjun, this was an unprecedented learning curve for everyone.
You worked on one of my favorite movies Karthik Calling Karthik, where I thought you did fabulous work. What was that experience like? Any particular challenges that you remember with that production?
Rachna: KCK was an unusual film for Excel Entertainment. It was far more contained than their previous productions, and dealt with an introvert character. Since it was written by the director as a ‘mindscape’ film. We decided to keep the production design very closed too.
Karthik’s house is an extension his inner world – a very real rented one bedroom apartment. Even after renovations it has a restrained and brooding feel, to suggest that even though Karthik is going along with his girlfriends desire, he can never fully let go.
His office was an privately owned – generic mid size – corporate place, easy to get lost in, conducive to favoritism and office politics. All spaces reflected this loner-type character’s comfort levels with his surroundings.
It was an extremely efficient production, with the biggest challenge being its tight back-to-back 73 day shoot.
Who are the filmmakers who understand Production Design the best in India?
Rachna: Currently there are hardly any Indian filmmakers who don’t understand production design. That they choose however to give production design it’s due depends on the rigorous planning and budget from the Producers end. In our dynamic process of film-making, production design is thus often the martyr.
The scenario is changing slowly but surely. Generalistic themes are giving way to specific films: set in a specific environment, honest to the script – be it in terms of clothing, language or setting. This kind of cinema finding appreciative audiences is good times for us, as production designers, to attempt to create a slice-of-life kind of visualscape for the film.
Tell me a little bit about your design studio Xheight. What do you do? Who all are in it? Who all do you work with?
Rachna: Xheight is a small Design Studio based in Mumbai. Started by me and my collegue KK Muralidharan – both graduates from National Institute of Design. We specialize in spatial design for Film, TV, Theatre and Shows. We also consult for Content Design for Museums and Educational Learning Centres like planetariums and exploriums. We do a little graphic design, not as much as we would like to.
However films being in the public domain we are often known as Production Designers or Scenographers. Our inhouse team is small and competent – and scales up/down with the projects’ demands. The list is a bit endless. Let’s just say we have works with varied independent production houses, movie banners, theatre productions and TV channels as well as corporates.
Someone who has worked with you who I’m very fond of once recognized you and Murali as pioneers who brought the concept of Production Design to TV advertising. What were the early days like? Any interesting pioneer frontier tales that you would like to relate?
Rachna: So not correct…
From our Institute days some contemporary Indian films left an indelible impression on us for their visual language. These to my mind are the pioneers: Suzanne Merwanjee for her work in Pestonjee Kamal Swaroop for his work in Sidheswari. Arundhati Roy for work her work in Electric Moon to name a few.
Then there were the classics : Basu Chandragupta for his exquisite work in Shatranj ke Khiladi and Charulata (which is when I discovered he had worked on Apu Trilogy too, but to my then uninitiated eyes I saw no design intervention there. Only now do I realize how difficult it is to achieve that level of transparency!) Biren Nag for Pyaasa, Sahib Biwi aur Gulam and others.
And my all time favorite Bollywood film for Production Design…Shaan!
Fresh out of college, armed with the appropriate certificates and head full of ideas, no filmakers would have taken their chances on us. It was early days of Satellite TV – with many Youth channels, and an emerging new visual grammar. There was the Art Director who fabricated sets/props and was paid for the job in it’s entirety including his or her design and art time.
When we were called to do show styling, props and gizmos or TV commercials not knowing any better we were offering only Design Consultancy, without a fabrication team. Hence the Art Director was not replaced – merely responsibilities were reallocated. We would still need that person. Our services would have to be paid for additionally by the producers! Many people were skeptical of this approach…saying “Youngsters, ha! They will not survive.” “Pay for only design? Ha!”
One thing lead to another and we owe some of our most remarkable early projects to the stalwarts of Advertising – Nomita Ghosh and Subir Chatterjee and the unwavering support of Yunus Pathan a senior and well respected Art Director those team in those days was like an extended family.
Ok now here is the part where I ask you seemingly innocous questions that magically reveal insights about you. I hope you are ready.
What kind of movie would you like to work on most as a production designer:
– A sweeping historic epic
– A date night movie with lots of interior scenes
– A sports movie
– A thriller shot entirely in Europe
Rachna: That’s a tricky question to answer as there are two of us with very different tastes.
For me: period epic, date night film with many interiors.
For my business partner Murali (as he is called…and no! we are not married!), a Harry Potter type fantasy, period epic, science fiction with lots of concept art and special effects, a spy thiriller with awesome gadgets.
Who is on your short list of people you’d kill to work with and why
You know all these super hero movies that are making a killing in Hollywood? If you could choose a super power that would help you be the best production designer ever, what would you choose?
Rachna: I would choose The Joker from Batman to declare war on Bollywood and sieze any film that is an insult to the brain or eye!! And I don’t need to be a production designer to make this choice.