Production designer, Sumit Basu

Award-winning production designer Sumit Basu who holds a degree in Visual and Fine Arts, began his career as an Assistant Art Director under the mentorship of Nitish Roy. In 1991, he started working as a solo art director and since then he has done various television series and big-budget Hindi films such as, Hey Baby, Houseful, Guzaarish, Rockstar, Ferrari Ki Sawari and Cocktail. In a candid chat with Pandolin, this master of arts and aesthetics tells us about his recently released film Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, some of his previous projects, collaboration with the directors and his unique working style.

What were the things you really connected with while doing Bhaag Milkha Bhaag?

The first thing, which attracted me about the film, was the life of Milkha itself. The movie portrays the thirteen eventful years of Milkh’s journey i.e. from 1947 to 1960 and there is so much action happening in his life. The other thing that made me do this movie was its director, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. I was keen to work with him but when he offered me this film, I was busy with some other project. Then he told me to just go through the script and I must say, it was an amazing film on the script level itself. So I took some time from the other films and invested in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. It was a great experience working on this film mainly because of Rakeysh and Cinematographer, Binod Pradhan. Besides, I haven’t done any period film before, so I chose to do this film because of the subject.

What was the brief given to you regarding the film Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and what were the components you incorporated according to it?

Initially, there was a constant back and forth whether we should be shooting on set or on real locations. But I was always adamant on shooting in real locations because on set we could always recreate the structure but never the environment of the place. How can one create the wind and the smell of Punjab while sitting at Film city? We couldn’t have got those local faces and natural ambience of North India in Mumbai. It would have looked like another synthetic film.

Also, we didn’t have that much money to recreate that kind of history so instead of compromising, making sets in Mumbai, I preferred to find real locations and put that money in a correct way. Hence, with the support of my Director and DOP, I did find out some real locations eventually and converted them into that era. In order to achieve the best for this film, we also sourced out help from different areas like defence, locomotive industry of India and railway colonies.

The brief given to me was that the early years of Milkha should be very romantic and colorful. And also because we are hearing this story from somebody else’s perspective, the interpretation was required to add to the visuals. For example, I imagined Milkha’s village as something very new and geographically closest to Pakistan. Since he was from Layallpur, which is Islamabad now, we were trying to locate only the border villages in Punjab. Finally, we found one small village called Raja Ki Gaddi near Ferozpur, which had real mud houses and a river.

Actually, everything that we required was already there. We just added the color scheme we were looking at. I instructed all the villagers to hold their mastered land because recce was done almost three months before the shoot. We planted some plants and bushes with beautiful flowers on them. We build an exterior kitchen in Milkha’s house as the script demanded but otherwise, all those areas have a summer kitchen, which is outside, and a winter kitchen, which is inside. So basically, those village houses have two working kitchens.

For some portions of the village like the Madarsa, we fabricated the structures in Mumbai. I tried consciously that nobody should understand what I have done to make the film look as real as possible.

How did you create mud tracks for the race sequences of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag?

If we look at the history of races, it actually started with a grass track. Later on, it was converted into black cinder track formed by mud, sand and black ash and then into red cinder track made up of brick dust and mud. Now we have synthetic tracks. During Milkha’s era, the starting point and the racetracks, everything was different. What we have shown in the film is a mud track basically. Even today, you will get those cinder tracks at some places in Punjab. We converted those tracks by adding mud and also tried to maintain that change of 8-10 years via our props and apparatus.


Recreation of the train as it was during the partition.

How difficult it was to procure those kinds of props and the particular detailing required for the film?

Based on our research for the film, some things were made, some were ordered and the others we converted. For instance, volleyball or a football in those days was different from what we find today. Also the Olympic committee helped us a lot in getting old footages of Milkha. Besides, there is a museum in India where Milkha has kept all his belongings. So from there we got to see all his medals and recreated them. We made all those props right from the judge’s seat to the final bell.

We built the racetracks, did all the marking but couldn’t find those kinds of stadiums so part of the stadiums were created in CG. We designed those graphics via AutoCAD drawing in 3D and gave the final look of the stadiums to the post-production company. Almost everything in the film including the Melbourne house and Melbourne nightclub sequence was shot in India.

We designed the preliminary look of all those places by segregating the entire film into six iconic images in the form of watercolor paintings. It was a long hectic pre-production process because we had only one and a half month for research work and designing before shooting.

We got a lot of help through Internet also, especially from LIFE magazine as it has an ensemble of iconic Indian images during the partition time. Also, we recreated a train to make it look like it was during the olden days.

What were the major challenges faced by you in your previous films such as Guzaarish, Rockstar and Cocktail?

I was happy doing ad films when I got Guzaarish and I think that was the biggest turning point in my life. What is the demand of a production designer, what I can contribute in a movie, that all I learned from Sanjay Leela Bhansali. It was a great learning experience working with him and I actually stopped taking ad films after that. Bhansali made me understand that not even the sky is the limit and one can go beyond that if one strives to. After Guzaarish, I got Rockstar and there was a drastic change of visuals between those two films. One was set in a space totally imagined and created by us while the other one was hard-core reality. I really enjoyed working on Rockstar, mainly because of my dearest director Imtiaz Ali, great human beings like Anil Mehta and Dilip Subramaniam and a brilliant actor like Ranbir Kapoor.

I had to get local labors from Mehrauli to create a room for Ranbir’s character. We designed everything with real materials. For example, rather than making a plywood wall and show it like a brick one, we used real brick and real raw material.

Similarly, Cocktail also had a realistic kind of background. We did the entire outdoor shoot in real locations in London. Then we came back to Hyderabad and created the set for interiors at Ramoji. Now, since the setting in India is very different from abroad, we purchased all the regular day-to-day stuff such as the quilt and the milk bottles from the typical markets of London itself.

Also I tried to create a sized real location instead of making a set that is bigger than reality. Anil Mehta helped me in that, as he was quite comfortable with the real size. The geography of the house is totally real, whether it’s the staircase or the upper level room.


Since you have worked with various directors in different films, could you please share few instances with them?

Almost all my directors love food. While doing Guzaarish with Sanjay Leela Bhansali, we occasionally ordered food from Goa especially when someone was travelling from there to Mumbai. Next, I worked with Imtiaz Ali in Rockstar and he is the biggest foodie among all my directors. I think he even finalises his locations according to the food. His best food cities are Delhi, Kolkata and Kashmir. During Rockstar, whenever I went to Kolkata, I used to come back with an entire suitcase filled with food and Bengali sweets for the entire film crew. There wasn’t a single dinner I had without Imtiaz Ali during the making of this film. Also, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is another food journey where I spent some beautiful moments with Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. We used to sing almost the entire night whenever there was no shooting scheduled next day.

Which is your favorite phase during the whole film production, the initial sourcing or the actual part of being on the sets?

Its both actually because while I am doing paper work and research, its all done without any emotion as I have to get all the facts right. I cannot play around that initial preparation since that is my basic pickup point for the film. I believe, designing and research forms around 40 percent of the process, and then reaching those places, understanding the environment and recreating the stuff marks the other 60 percent of the whole thing.

During the production, sometimes we even stopped the shoot or forced to retake the shot if some element or color is missing in the scene. Sometimes I create visuals that people will not understand but still enjoy at a subconscious level. For example, in all the romantic segments of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, I have used yellow as the preliminary color. In Milkha’s village, one will see yellow flowers on the tree and mustard yellow fields.  Also one will see marigold behind Sonam’s closeup and a ball carrying a love letter traveling through yellow petals falling on the street. Besides, there is a dyer’s area in the film, which is shown, all yellow and white during the romantic sequences. Actually that dying area was the dumping yard of the railway department.


One interesting thing we did while shooting BMB  was a portion of Shahdra Bridge created by using an engine-rotating table used for locomotives. Then in postproduction, we made the complete Shahdra Bridge.


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