In an exclusive chat, Production Designer Meenal Agarwal shares what went into creating the look and feel of the recent simple, sweet and small town – set romance, Dum Laga Ke Haisha.

Meenal Agarwal

Meenal Agarwal

What made you accept Dum Laga Ke Haisha?

I had worked on Sharat (Katariya)’s first film, 10ML Love. The script of Dum Laga ke Haisha was nice and fun; quite similar to the Ankhon Dekhi milieu, yet I said yes because of Sharat.

Is the film’s story critical in saying yes or no to a project?

It is important, but not always. The production house is most important for me. Because they can make life hell for you or pleasant. Unfortunately in art you have to deal with money. It can get painful when you don’t get money or support at the right time, especially on low budget films. Then one is running last minute to find things and bargains. Anyway I don’t think of myself as a film person, I think of myself as a film photographer. I don’t think I could survive in a film set which is very aggressive, that would just make me very anxious. Yash Raj Films is a dream team to work with. The people from YRF are always happy. You can’t be like that if it is not a happy atmosphere. They pay less but really look after you.

What brief did director Sharat Katariya give you for the look of Dum…?

He didn’t give me any brief. He gave me a freehand to do my thing. Like me, Sharat is very pro real aesthetics. Even on 10ML Love I did my thing. That’s the thing with these filmmakers, when they hire you they trust you completely, and that complete trust lets a technician flower.

Did you reference any looks for Dum…?

Nowadays a lot of directors get disturbed if I don’t show references. But I feel that if I show you a reference you are going to block yourself. Because I don’t know what I will find when we go sourcing and maybe I may find something which is more exciting than what we talked about. Yes I can show references of what I am making. Also, why would I make something that has been already done? So this whole reference obsession people have – thanks to the internet – is so tiresome. There is the whole reality out there which inspires you and one is anyway looking at stuff all the time.

There is this Chinese philosophy – Wu-Wei, which means being effortless. One’s work becomes effortless after all years of working and it becomes a part of your system. It becomes an instinct. Conceptualising the look of Dum… was very instinctive. One is not trying too hard, it’s just happening and that’s the best way to work. I don’t see any point in referencing because there’s a lot of difference between what you see and what you get. Earlier when I started out I would show references because one is so excited to do different things. But now you know what works and is possible.


How did you conceptualise the production design for the film?

When I got on board Sharat hadn’t finalised the locations. He wanted a place that had slopes and roads that went up and down. He wanted an undulating topography. Manu Warrier, the DOP, is very good with Google. He would find these places where people had shot pictures. And that’s how we locked in Haridwar and Rishikesh.

We went first in November (2013), when it was crowded and very festive. Then we went in January (2014) to prep. It was deserted and so beautiful. Both Haridwar and Rishikesh have overflowing colours so I didn’t want to put too much colour in the houses. The only sequences we have used colour in is during the shaadi and the race sequence.

Most of YRF films’ featuring lower-income group families from small towns tend to be very synthetic and have an overuse of bright and typical colours. In comparison, Dum… looks pretty and real. Comment.

I don’t know why we do that, the synthetic poor projection. Luckily one reason I said yes to Sharat is that he would give me complete freedom to work. I feel that if you don’t age the surroundings and if you don’t make it look like you have been there for a long time then you don’t identify with the character. The audience always feels a bit aloof. The fact that Ankhon Dekhi worked for a lot of people is that the space is so real that you get into their world. Of course, one also doesn’t want to make the spaces depressing, which also depends on the lighting and actors performances.

The place which is Prem (Ayushmann Khurrana)’s house – a guest house – had dirty dark green coloured walls. Four-five guys who sell perfumes on the road in Haridwar lived there. It was quite depressing so we redid the whole place and built a kitchen as there wasn’t one. If you look at European painters or older Indian painters they used textured backdrops, even photographers, they use plain backdrops but they also had dappled backdrops. Ageing objects and spaces adds to the texture and emotions. A man standing in front of a flat wall is really boring. It evokes no emotions at all and is very synthetic.

How did you go about executing the film’s look?

In India there are three-four colours which the lower-middle class use. A certain kind of blue, a certain kind of green, a certain kind of yellow and a certain kind of pink. The DOP and I had long discussions with the director and didn’t lock on our colours till a week before I went to the locations. Eventually we chose a dulled-white grey guest house which was aged for Prem’s house, which is by the Ganga and a temple in the background. We let the house be a dreary space because it is there where he is trapped. There’s also this bluish white they use, which I used a bit. We kept old style flooring. In the kitchen we gave some brass utensils which his grand mom or mom must have got in dowry. The idea behind his house was that they must have been decently well off at some point and lost their money over time because some nalayak generation ate away all the savings.

For Sandhya (Bhumi Pednekar)’s house we found a house owned by a family. We didn’t do much as it was lived in. We gave the walls a creamish yellow colour, which people use because they believe it looks less dirty than white. We showed it better maintained as Sandhya’s family was well off. She is educated, her family is educated and her father has a job. We gave a lot of plastic and melamine objects because they were like the new emerging modern nuclear families of the 90s.

Then there’s the wedding where we used a lot of red. After that the film goes into dull and washed out colours. In this scene everything is red, the bride’s clothes, the pillars, the backdrop, the pillows, carpets, the floor and the backdrop against which the bridegrooms are shot. So I wanted a red ambassador for the shaadi scene. Sharat thought it will be too much but the Chief AD Abbas Raza Khan liked the idea and I was very happy. So I thank Abbas for the red car.


Is there any space you had the most fun creating?

Prem’s shop was the most fun. I was sold on the particular shop (located in Rishikesh). It was an empty shop. However it was small so the DOP said he can’t shoot over there. It was a triangular space and a corner shop so I felt it had dynamics that one wouldn’t get in a square shop. Originally, it had tinted windows with aluminium frame. We changed that. We made arched shape glass panes for the door with ‘welcome’ written on it. We wrote lyrics of Kumar Sanu’s songs on the doors. We filled the shop with audio cassettes. Luckily, there were a few audio stores in Rishikesh from where we sourced cassettes. We got a mix of old and new cassettes. We got labels printed with TDK, Panasonic, Master, Maxell, etc. We also printed fake cassette covers on acrylic sheets. Costume designer, Darshan Jalan, had a friend who owned a video cassette shop who gave us the VHS tapes. The day we were prepping he came and arranged the video cassettes. Then Sharat wanted a new CD plus cassette recorder, the ones that open on the top, which we couldn’t find anywhere. They are extinct. It was such a nightmare. Finally we found a place in Delhi which had a lot of cassette players and cassettes.

There’s a motif that we have used throughout the film from the floor in the shop to rajaai to pillow covers to bed sheets for the suhag raat to dupattas. We tripped on these little things. Also, I am heavily into miniature Indian art. In Jaipur, from where I come, they have a lot of miniature art in the palaces, houses, etc. I had researched a lot on it for Ankhon Dekhi but didn’t use it. Since this was a YRF film I thought we could go that way. When we were in Haridwar for recce we found an old haveli. It had designs on the ceilings, walls, everywhere. An old woman stayed there alone. It was a normal house so I thought of using the designs as it belongs to the region. Indians have lost our sense of beauty. Indian aesthetics now aren’t so great. We had such beautiful art. I thought we should bring it back. We also made a lot of 90s advertisements like Digjam ads, which was a difficult thing and printed B-grade movie posters.

Where did you source the material / props for the film?

Being born in the 70s I have witnessed the 90s while growing up. But for me the 90s of small towns was a grey zone because I had moved to Bombay (Mumbai) by then. In one of the meetings I mentioned faxes were a big thing, the crew laughed out loud. Fax was no way near small towns in the 90s. When you go to these houses in small towns, nothing has changed except for television and a few plastic items here and there. So I was worried about sourcing these things. We didn’t have the budget to carry stuff from here. We took some backup stuff from Yashraj like the carpet for the wedding, fancy georgettes, etc. But I was very stressed as I was going to an unknown territory.

In Bombay we have Chor Bazar where I know I will find furniture and other props. Thankfully, my assistant was from Rishikesh. He found a market for furniture in Dehradun. We also bought stuff from raddiwala (scrap dealer) and sourced from people’s houses.

How many days went into prepping for Dum…?

Mostly two-three months. Every day we would sit, thrash the script and discuss how to shoot the scenes. But I couldn’t do any prep in terms of sourcing, apart from cassettes.

What was the biggest challenge you faced on this film?

None really. Just small things like finding audio cassettes, etc. That’s why I say YRF is a great company to work with. They have a set light department which takes care of all the light connections on the set. We had a guy specially assigned for it. I have never had such a facility on a film before. The street lights in Moh Moh Ke Dhaage song is owned by YRF. They had sent a truck full of street lights, lamp posts, etc. It was such a luxury.