She doesn’t just construct a set or rearrange furniture on a live location that is conducive to a film scene. She designs the overall visual look of the film. In an extensive and exclusive chat with Pandolin, Photographer-turned-Production Designer Meenal Agarwal, who worked on Ankhon Dekhi, Quick Gun Murugun, Mixed Doubles et al, distinguishes between the two job profiles and demystifies the art that goes into creating ‘beautiful’ movies


Photographer Meenal Agarwal kicked off her journey as a production designer – a more widely accepted concept in Hollywood – out of her passion for art. It started with her filmmaker-actor husband, Rajat Kapoor’s film Mixed Doubles, and soon she progressed to work on her husband and friends’ productions. Currently she is working on a Yash Raj Film starring Ayushmann Khurana. And in between films she takes up advertising assignments to keep her creative mind occupied.

Not many know that you are actually a photographer. What caused the transition from photography to production designing?

I used to shoot for magazines. But after ten years of photography I had reached a plateau. It didn’t excite me anymore and there weren’t many new avenues to explore. Meanwhile art started really exciting me. When I would watch a movie, I would look at spaces. I remember in school I wanted to do architecture, but I didn’t take Maths in college, a must-have subject if you want to get into architecture. So then I decided to go work with Suzanne (Caplan Merwanji), she has designed for Snip!, Dil Chahta Hain, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara etc. After that I worked on Raghu Romeo – I gave my design inputs but wasn’t on it officially. Finally Rajat (Kapoor, she is married to the filmmaker/actor) asked me to come on board officially for Mixed Doubles. But I was skeptical ‘coz you know how it is working with someone you are married, couples end up fighting and the relationship goes for a toss. Then I let go of my doubts and took the plunge. And that’s how I started. Currently I am working on a Yash Raj Film that stars Ayushmann Khurana.

To a common man art direction and production design is the same thing. Can you differentiate between the two jobs?

Art direction is purely to do with the space – construction, interiors, walls, furniture, etc. Production design is creating a cohesive look for a film. If you see Hollywood films it is visually consistent. You will see a certain colour palate followed throughout the film. The clothes and your spaces will complement each other. A production designer works on what season the film is being set in, what kind of lighting it will have, etc. Like in Ankhon Dekhi (AD) we had a winter palate, a summer palate, a spring palate and a wedding palate. They were all controlled so the costume team and design team worked hand-in-glove. For AD we chose the 80s era, in the script the story isn’t set in the 80s, but we wanted the look of that period. We took clues from the script (landline phones and a letterpress printer) and designed around it. Production design came about with Gone With The Wind. William Cameron Menzies, who designed the costume and film with art, was the first person to be credited as a production designer in a film.

What is the process of working on the design once you take on a project?

First I read the script and then give my inputs. For the next month I sit with the director and Director of Photography (DOP) and discuss the locations, the economic background of the characters et al. Then we fix on a colour palate as it’s very essential. For instance, if you are going to Haridwar you know you will have that many colours to work accordingly. We don’t do an actual storyboard here, but I do a colour storyboard. I figure the mood of the scene, for instance if it’s a dramatic moment then it should have a certain set of colours. These are subliminal things, which you don’t see as an audience but you feel it. Then one maps the character’s growth and takes that into account while designing spaces. Then the next two months goes in sourcing and execution. That’s the prepping phase, and then comes the detailing. You work with the costumes. A film like Avatar is completely a production designer’s film.

Meenal Agarwal 1 (1)

Do you think production design is given much importance in our film industry? 

No. Most directors don’t pay attention to the space really and understand how it will enhance the film. Most of them work with DOPs on these things. But because I have been a photographer I have the advantage to know how the light works, how the colours will look when it is shot and how the space will appear. In some films I have had the liberty to tell cameramen how to frame a scene. But a lot of directors wouldn’t even think about it because it’s sacrilegious to tell the DOP what to do.

Do you prefer to create sets or work on live locations?

Both. Most of the films that I have worked on are low-budget, as we couldn’t afford to create sets we worked on live locations. But it brings in a lot of limitations like that you can’t change it, whereas that is not a concern while working on a set. You can be a pseudo architect – play with the layout, the floor, the windows, and, if you have the budgets, you can let loose your imagination. I get to do that in advertising. But live locations bring a certain ambience that you don’t get on a set. The production design of our films has improved a lot, but we haven’t reached a level where one can’t make out if a set is a set. Also, to shot on set is limiting, for e.g. you can’t get the exteriors if you are shooting a set. So you put a Chroma (green background), but nobody likes to work that way. In advertising a set works because it’s a few minutes thing.

Most of your films have been low-budget, but in terms of production values and aesthetics it never looks compromised. How do you manage to do that in limited resources?

You beg, borrow and, sometimes, steal (laughs). We have become very good at begging. We go to people’s house and ask for things. And these are strangers. We tell them that we like a particular thing and are willing to pay some money or ask them to allow us to borrow it. We really negotiate for what we want. Like for my current film, we were shooting in Uttrakhand, we needed a peculiar style of bed. There was no Chor Bazar where you know you will get old furniture. Luckily we landed in a house where we found this beautiful ‘70s bed, which was lying in a closed room. We asked them if we could borrow it for a month. They were happy to lend it because it was lying there anyways.

Meenal (1)

Your films look very real. Is it a conscious attempt?

Yes, it’s a very conscious thing because I don’t like to do things where the space and characters jar. Luckily I have worked with Sanjay Mishra in Ankhon Dekhi – he is one of the few actors who uses props all the time. He was the one who had suggested we give him an iron so he could iron clothes in the film. But most times actors are someone who act and leave the space – very few actors use the props that are in the space they are in. In AD the sabzis in the house changed according to the season. In summer we used watermelon, and during the winters we gave them matar and gajjar so the actors can use it. How much can the actors talk! This just adds to the story, and makes you believe in them. But it doesn’t matter in the hardcore commercial movies because people like to escape. In films like Ankhon Dekhi, we are not escaping, here we are escaping into their lives, but not leaving reality.

Realistic or commercial – what kind of films do you enjoy most to work on?

I like both. I’d love to do a flamboyant film. I have done two low-income group films that were back-to-back. There’s another film which is coming my way, but I don’t want to do it. Because I get bored, the houses will be more or less the same pan-India in the low economic group – of course it is different in the north, south etc. It will have the similar colours on the wall, almost same furniture, so you can’t really fool around so much. But you try to figure ways to make it exciting. So you bring seasons in place. You do your fun stuff and play with it, hoping that people appreciate it.

What kind of referencing do you do for your films?

I do a lot of referencing, but it’s not only outside it’s also very internal. The surroundings you have grown up are your references. All the art you have grown up around will always reflect in some way or the other. My photography experience comes into place. I like photographer Tim Walker, so if I am doing a stylised piece I will go back to his works. Or things that impacted me are in my subconscious and will come in. If there’s an artist you have liked, it will come out somewhere. Then I have friends who are architects, so I ask them about spaces that they have seen or heard about which would fit well for the story. Once I found Sadruddin Daya’s office, it was constructed by architect Nari Gandhi, it was one of the eight best offices in Asia according to Time magazine. Daya was caught in Cobbler Scam in the 90s, but at one point he was a very rich man. My friend had insisted I go see it. I still get goose bumps thinking of that office. It’s so beautifully made I can’t tell you. It’s like a dream.

One notices a lot of European influence in your work?

Ya. One, because there’s a lot of reading material and archival stuff available on European art. In India we haven’t archived much of the art. It’s just started in terms of blogs and stuff like that. Two, my aesthetics are inclined towards European design as I like what they do. I have travelled a lot over there. I did a residency course over there. So that influence is there.

Is there a particular genre or film theme that you really wish to design for?

Film noir has always been my favourite visual style. But a period film for any production designer is a dream theme ‘coz you research everything and create everything. It’s fantastic to create a world that no longer exists. I don’t know about fantasy films, sometimes I think I can do it and sometimes I think I can’t do it. I really want to watch Ashim Ahulwalia’s Miss Lovely. He is one director I would like to work with as he has an eye for details. That’s fun too. I also like going slightly over-the-top and pushing the envelope a bit. And I’d like to work with a lot of money, so I can say chalo yeh bhi kar do, yeh bhi bana do and do everything!

meenal 2 (1)

As you said our films have come a long way visually, but yet a set will look like a set. What could be the reason for that?

Even if we spend so much we don’t give enough time to the technicians to prepare. Every film is new. Whatever one has done is done. Every story comes with its new challenges. You need time to research it, find it and do it better. But because we don’t have money we don’t do enough pre-production as it costs money. So, filmmakers feel why spend on it when we have got away with it for so many years. Everybody works like that. Sometimes it’s like – I did it for a friend – the art team works all night, then at 7 am the light people come to set lights and after that the shoot proceeds. I have also been in a situation when I was sourcing props for the same day’s shoot.

Do you visit the sets/locations during the shooting?

Not anymore because they take 30 takes of the same shot. How much can you see of the same thing! Otherwise I like to be on the set. Also I can ensure the team doesn’t have problems.

Who are you favourite production designers in India and in international circles?

I like Suzzane Caplan’s work a lot. Then there’s Mukund Gupta, he did Do Dooni Chaar. He’s again in the real zone. Today there are so many people in this line of work, when I started there weren’t many people. Internationally, I don’t remember names but I remember films whose production design I liked. I liked Wes Anderson’s recent film, Hotel Budapest. Then Minority Report was amazing back in its time. Terrence Malik’s last film, The Tree Of Life, was beautiful.

What is the difference in designing for a film and an advertisement? 

There is lots of difference. One, advertising has more money compared to the features I have worked on. Two, films have a lot more time to create the set because you have at least two to three months for prep. So you can create things that are not ready yet. Advertising projects always come a week before so you can’t make things. But because you have more money you can create things like floor design. And since it’s only a day’s work we can create things that are fragile but looks nice. Then the aesthetics are also very different. With a feature you can go more real, while advertising it has to look good – like your mother who is supposed to be sixty looks like a 40-year-old. Advertising has become real, but not so much. Also in advertising you get top of the line technicians, but not so much for features.

Did you study production design? 

No, but always I wish I could have studied. I didn’t even really study photography. I did Mass Comm so I just got to hold the camera. I learnt to load a film when I joined a newspaper. Everything’s been learning on the job. But then I console myself that Tadao Ando learned on his own and he is like a star architect who made beautiful structures. But I always wish I can go somewhere and learn.

By Rachana Parekh