Crafting realism on celluloid: Production Designers Subrata and Amit
What does Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola, Dedh Ishqiya, Talvar or Haider have in common? It is their impressive production designing that has played a key role in bringing realism on celluloid. The credit of which goes to ace production designers Subrata Chakraborty and Amit Ray who are known for their distinctive style. The duo have now recreated their magic in the upcoming film Udta Punjab, which draws from reality and has largely been shot on real locations in Punjab.
Pandolin caught up with the proficient men, who have been working together for the past 16 years, to know more about Udta Punjab, their style of designing, winning multiple awards and more.
How did Udta Punjab happen to you’ll?
Subrata: When we finished working on Dedh Ishqiya, Abhishek (Chaubey, Director) sent us the script of Udta Punjab, which was in late 2014. When we read the script, we were excited about how realistic it was. We then spoke to Abhishek to understand how exactly he wanted the production designing to be enhanced. He told us to first go on an almost 20-day recce, which he wasn’t part of. So before the technical or any other recce happened, Amit and I went to this sensitive and hardcore village in Amritsar. This is 50 km from the Wagah border. It is a very controversial village and most of the film is based around that. That was our reference point and we had to see the rawness of the place, its color tone and the way of living of the people. It is a village that has a lot of Bihari migrants as many rich Punjabis hire Bihari labor in their rice and wheat fields. When you enter the village, you can feel something odd about it and think that there is some problem in it. During our stay there, we gripped the content and then it got much easier when the production designing started.
What was the research and referencing that was done for the film? Did Abhishek share any specific references as well?
Subrata: Abhishek’s references are so clear that it gets easy to do our production designing work – in terms of color tone etc. We couldn’t have shot in the village that we saw in our initial recce, so we recreated that at Tarn Taran. Our reference points revolved around how particular drugs enter Amritsar from Pakistan or Kabul-Kandhar and how they further get distributed all over India. We were shown a film, which was again very controversial, so I won’t be able to tell the name. We saw how people hide, make drugs and make them available. We found an abandoned factory at Tarn Taran and the set was constructed over there.
Amit: Our reference was basically everything about Punjab. And we researched for about five months for it. Chaubey told us that no matter what, we are going to be in a completely realistic zone. Basically, we are from Samir Chanda’s (Production Designer) school of thought, hence even we like to work in a realistic manner. There are many filmmakers who go in the unrealistic zone but Chaubey isn’t like that.
How would you describe the production design in Udta Punjab – what was the demand of the story?
Subrata: The demand of the story was realistic, realistic and realistic. The color was completely raw. If you go to Punjab, it is very beautiful. We wanted to show the time when wheat is harvested and that period and time zone is already picturesque. So we had to enhance that in the production design.
Amit: The film is about drugs and being based in Mumbai, one has more resources to meet people who take them. So before going on the floor, we did complete research by meeting people who consumed drugs and showed Abhishek how we wanted to make everything appear real. Therefore only the material used in the film was fake but rest everything is real.
How much of the film was shot on real locations versus sets? What were the key sets designed?
Subrata: 70% of it is shot on real locations and 30% sets were created. We molded every real location according to our requirement. Abhishek had written the story with Amritsar in mind, so it was completely shot there and areas around it.
Amit: Even though we were shooting on real locations, a lot of sets were created. There is a sequence with Shahid (Kapoor)’s concert. Though we had done all the work from our side, when Norway based choreographer Sudesh Adhana came, he told us that he wanted a truck on the stage. Now that was a huge task as we didn’t have enough budget. And the local vendor had already constructed a regular, 59 X 60 stage. So we reconstructed everything but the biggest challenge was to take the truck on stage. We had to shoot the song within three days, so the production department was quite helpful in providing different fabricators. A new team was provided after every eight hours, and this way around four teams worked on it.
What were the kinds of props dominantly used? Were they fabricated or sourced from somewhere?
Subrata: We made the exact same looking chemical as is used by drug addicts. There is a container of a cylindrical form that they use and we looked for it for almost two months at places like Chor Bazaar, Delhi, and Mumbai. We took the exact same container for the shoot in Punjab. When you see the film, you won’t feel that props or things have been set up. You’ll feel that original things are used.
Was there a color theme that is visible in the production design as well?
Amit: We used Punjab’s colors which include red, yellow, burgundy and earth color. If you see Dedh Ishqiya, it also has darker colors. Samir dada taught us the importance of keeping in mind the background of the person whose house you are showing. The color theme will vary if it is a house of a Punjabi, Bengali or Gujarati.
What challenges were involved in this film and how did you’ll work around them?
Subrata: To be honest, we never faced any challenges that one normally ends up facing. The Punjab production was looked after by The Theatre Army Films and they were quite strong in their work. They had all the requirements and locations sorted. Also, we had already shot in Punjab. People there are warm. We even shot on the roads and in one of the scenes, Alia (Bhatt) went on a bus. But we never faced any trouble. The costume and makeup was such that most people didn’t even realize that she was Alia Bhatt. Same was the case with Shahid (Kapoor) because of his look in the film.
But one of the most challenging jobs was to bring a realistic zone in the movie. Cinematographer Rajeev Ravi is from a completely realistic zone and for the first time we were entering Anurag Kashyap’s zone too. Also, we had budget constraints on the film as it wasn’t a regular film and would be watched by people who have social concerns. There were 45 real locations in the film and in all those locations we had done some or the other kind of extensive production work. But working on a limited budget is also a very interesting thing. When you don’t have many means, you come up with amazing things.
How much of the production design happens in the pre-production stage and how much during the filming stage?
Subrata: Whatever films I do, they have a lot of pre-production work. For instance, we recently did Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon for which our team spent around four months in pre-production. And it is extremely important for the pre-production work to be perfect because only then will there be no hiccups in the shoot. If you haven’t done your pre-production properly, it will be visible in the film.
Amit: We spend around three months for pre-production and a major part is designed in that process. Often, the production designing department gets associated with the film even before everyone else. But in most cases people don’t understand the hard work. A lot of people don’t even get the difference between art direction and production designing. We recently did 24 and I can’t even describe the amount of respect they have for our work. When we got the award for Best Production Design for Haider at IIFA and went to Malaysia to receive the same, they had set up a separate stage for the technicians where there was no audience. Cinematographers, production designers or costumes designers are the people who are closely associated with the film from the very beginning. I felt so bad that after going all the way, what was the point if we couldn’t even share the stage with others! Therefore, I have huge respect for awards like Filmfare because at least they let you share the stage with the other winners.
You both have done many films together. Please tell us more about your initial background.
Subrata: We both know each other from the past 16 years. Amit was my senior in college. After coming to Mumbai I joined Samir Chanda. Amit joined a bit later and since then we have been working together. A lot of people from the industry would call us changu mangu (laughs).
Amit: I came from Calcutta to Mumbai to work with Samir Chanda. Since Subrata was already working there and he was my junior from college, a very warm relationship grew between us. We didn’t even realize how all these years passed. After Samir dada expired, all his films started going to other art directors. So we got really frustrated. Though our families were still in Mumbai, both of us just picked up our laptop, some clothes and moved to Calcutta in the hope of getting some work. After doing two projects there, some projects started pouring in. Vishal sir was the first person who offered us a chance after Dada’s death in the form of Matru Ki Bijli Ka Mandola. We started constructed the set at Kamalistan studio. And after seeing the set, he said that he could feel Samir Chanda in the work. He then gave us Ek Thi Dayan followed by Dedh Ishqiya.
While associating on any film, are your roles different and defined? What is it that you guys look for before saying yes to any film?
Subrata: Our pre-production work is always quite strong. We ask for two scripts and then read it separately. After reading it, we meet in our office, give our respective opinions and conclude by agreeing on one point. Then we have a discussion with our assistants and take their opinion. At times, a junior could also give a fantastic idea. This makes our work quite easy.
Amit: I’ll give you an example. At the time of Rangoon, we didn’t pick any other film since Vishal Ji wanted us both to be part of it. So if Subrata was in touch with Vishal ji, I would provide him back end support. So we work on different things and then discuss it over the phone at night. Presently Subrata is doing Meri Pyari Bindu while I’m working on Nikhil Advani’s series for Star. We might be working on separate subjects but we still keep providing support to each other.
What is your criteria in saying yes to any film?
Subrata: We should have some scope to show our work. And then, of course, the director should be good so that you enjoy working. We are currently working on Yashraj’s Meri Pyari Bindu which is a completely new world for us. The director and production house are such nice people that we are thoroughly enjoying. This is a completely different zone that we chose since we wanted to do work which wasn’t similar to what we have already done. We did Nikhil Advani’s Katti Batti and Hero too for the same reasons.
From winning awards for Haider to Talvar, your work has gained lot of appreciation. Is there a distinct style that you’ll have which is visible in your work?
Subrata: We believe that any work that comes to you, should be done with all your heart. Also, the most important factor is that we have been lucky to find the right kind of directors, DOPs and other technicians, so the work becomes easy. You start understanding their perspective and vice-versa. Nobody in our team keeps any kind of ego. Even if a carpenter gives any suggestion, we take it. Even Dada used to work like this.
Amit: People often compliment us that when we construct anything, it is difficult to figure if it’s real or constructed. It takes a lot of time to establish yourself in the industry. We still have to work with so many directors to say that we have achieved something.
Do you prefer working on real locations or creating sets? And why?
Subrata: Creating a set and working on it is very easy. In real locations, it is challenging to take people in that zone. But even when we construct a set, we make sure that it is perfect. 90-95% of Rangoon is shot on sets.
Amit: While creating a set, a different zone gets created. One can easily give the required flavor. And I can proudly say that we are good at giving the perfect flavor and providing a real zone.
What influence has the late Samir Chanda had on your life and work?
Subrata: Dada was a magician. He would always say that if you are going to create a character’s house, try to be that character first and then think of the things that are needed in the house. Unless you get into the character, your production designing will never be good enough.
Amit: There is a 100% influence of Dada in my work. Till his last film, I saw him doing even the smallest task by himself. He always said that you have chosen your job as an art director, so there is no harm in doing any task related to it. Also, honesty is another trait that he taught us. He would say that if you want to sustain in this industry, always be honest and one day you’ll definitely get recognized.
What are your other upcoming projects?
Subrata: Rangoon is scheduled to release. We are in talks for a film with Vidhu Vinod Chopra as well.
Amit: We have started the pre-production for Nikhil Advani’s Lucknow Central starring Farhan Akhtar.