Titli ’s house is a veiled reality of the family
Designing a space where the characters can thrive, suffer, and flourish falls under the job description of a Production Designer. A job, that Parul Sondh seemed to have executed beautifully in the film Titli, where she has created a world for the characters to live in. Parul Sondh is here, sharing her experience of working as the Production Designer for Titli.
How did you come on-board?
It was quite sudden. I got a call from Atul (Mongia) and met both him and Kanu the next day. They had only seen my photography work at that point. After the initial conversation, I was asked to read the script, which I did and after another meeting with them, I was on board.
What was the visual that came to your mind when you first read the script of Titli and what was the brief you received from the director?
Not one, there were many. Titli’s screenplay is so fantastic, that as you read, you imagine the kind of environment you could build. The screenplay is deliciously dark and claustrophobic!
There was no brief as such, but Kanu definitely wanted the space design to get all the sub textual inferences out. He was very clear that he didn’t want it to look art directed and ‘setty’. Apart from the crew script sessions, we had numerous creative sessions and conversations throughout our prep time wherein I understood the characters more, their back stories, where they are coming from, their desires, ambitions or perversions, if any. All this information helped me detail out the design. We almost lived these characters, the story and built a visual scape from and around it.
Can you tell us about the locations where the film was shoot?
We had several locations all over NCR from under construction malls to realtor’s office, to two wedding set ups, Neelu, Sangeeta, Prince’s house, hand breaking scene set up – a road converted into a dump alley, police station and several others.
However, the main location was Titli’s house and a lot of work went into making it look so neglected yet lived in.
From the very beginning, we all were very clear that Titli’s House was the main action property and had to be special. During our recce, we went all over East and West Delhi, in many localities and must have visited some 50 or more odd houses till we found one in Sangam Vihar –a happy pink house that we deconstructed to suit our specifics.
For me, Titli’s house was a strong reference point in the screenplay to base my design on. It represented the grim dark reality difficult to let go off.
I had to create an atmosphere of claustrophobia, patriarchal tension through the structure and elements around. There had to be a sense of unease in the environment, a sense of broken dreams and no escape. A mental maze of sorts, spatially translated.
A major portion of the existing house was rebuilt – the front portion of the house was completely broken down to restructure the entrance (into a narrow mazy corridor) and build an outer room. Half of the courtyard was walled to reduce the space. The two inner rooms were broken down into a tiny one room without any natural light source. On the terrace as well, a half finished room was created.
So there was a lot of construction. I was given the house for almost a month. After the construction got over, I must have spent a fortnight or so, texturizing it. That was fun! I experimented a lot with tonality and textures. I was working with a couple of fantastic painters and we tried a whole lot of different techniques till we got it right.
During our recce, I had picked up a whole lot of details that I incorporated into the design. Most of the houses we went to, the walls had been painted without scraping the old paint off, so you could see patches of the older paint peeking out – a reference to the layered history of the family.
In terms of practicals, we used a lot of tube lights to give that clinical disjointed feel, a harsher environment. Overall, Titli’s house is a veiled reality of the family and their interaction with the existential elements around them.
Can you tell us something about the props used in the film and from where did you source them?
In terms of interior styling, I played around with the elements specific to the section of socio economic background the family came from. I used a lot of flex adverts and product boxes (appliances/household items) in set dressing, almost as an irony – a distinct mark of economic reality and their aspirations related to it. Nothing had been moved, everything just got stacked every year. The set design is strewn with clues about their past, present, hopes, and interests etc. – most noticeable is maybe the broken little pink chair (the daughter’s maybe) stacked in the corner with other products or the broken pram mesh covering other broken things etc. Though it’s mostly a masculine space, there is a layer of femininity as well – in the sewing machine, in the tin boxes placed in the kitchen etc., even in the fabric or plastic sheets used- geometric combined with floral.
Most of the product boxes and appliances have been sourced from raddi shops in and around Sangam Vihar. Other set props have been bought and aged. We borrowed a few smaller props and utensils, from the people around as well, who were a great help.
For the production design of the film, did you have a colour palette in mind?
Titli has a pink green colour palette juxtaposed with the cement grey world of developing India. Though blue, yellow cream, and pink are the colors mostly associated with that particular social class, we decided to go with a combination of pink and green. Once the primary colours were decided, I made a palette board with colour breaks like maroon, purple, blue, olive etc. and we maintained it throughout the film from art to costumes. In fact, Fabeha (Khan) has done a fabulous job with costume colors and I feel everything comes out so much more because of this collaboration.
What were the most challenging and favourite part of designing this film?
The most challenging part was by far getting things done in Delhi. Not being a film city, I know things would be difficult, but the extent I wasn’t prepared for. It was quite a nightmare but I am glad, that I managed to pull it off with a small team and an even tinier budget.
The favorite part of designing the film was the creative process itself. I loved it! And Kanu happens to be one of the very few filmmakers in Mumbai who actually understand what production design can bring to a story. Contrary to the popular belief, production design is not just about building sets, but creating a space, unique to the story, that aids the process of storytelling and includes color/ texture design, character space design and detailing etc. as well. So for me, that was fantastic.
I thoroughly enjoyed everything, from making detailed lists to scrounging the markets with my assistant (Susanna Chacko). I remember doing a sort of collecting exercise with her one afternoon in CP and Paharganj, wherein we went to all these obscure shops, photo studios, mobile repair shops to get all kind of flexes for set dressing, that I really wanted to use but had no budget to get so many printed! It was lovely.
Do you have a process through which you design the sets?
I love visual documentation and am constantly photographing, documenting and creating a sort of spatial database that I refer to a lot, while researching for a project or designing one – sometimes for inspiration or for details or to just create a story in my head.
The three main elements that I play around with are color, texture and geometry. I feel the combination of these three elements create a strong visual language and can be used fantastically to translate a narrative spatially.
My design process is research and observation based but is also quite organic. I don’t have a set procedure. After the initial round of meetings and the first recce, I read up on things related to the narrative, go through photo essays, refer to my photographs or collect more information, doodle, have conversations with the director, get back stories, understand where the narrative is coming from, list the kind of locations that could work or not. Everything flows till I get down to making detailed boards per character space that includes color, texture, furniture, fabric, props, practicals etc. This is when am very clear as to what kind of environment I am going to create and sets the visual feel of the project.
Also, different projects have a different process. For e.g. television commercials have short timelines and everything is pretty laid out for you in terms of art and design. Once in a while, you come across a TVC project that is exciting and not just a copy paste job, but cinematic and fun, requires research and a detailed design process. I look forward to those!
While developing the set, how important it is to know about the character?
For narrative projects, it is of utmost importance to me. I strongly feel production design is about creating a space in relation to the narrative that is primarily run by the characters in it. That’s when the space becomes relatable to the story being told.
Any tips for young production designers?
No tips really. I feel it’s a personal process and everyone has their own unique way of looking at things and creating them. But yes, being on time and observant definitely helps!
Can you share something about your future ventures?
I recently designed a beautiful short film, Bouddi, set in 1960s’ Calcutta. Other than that, am mostly doing television commercials and focusing on my visual art project on the suburban architecture of Bombay.