“It was absolutely great working with Sanjay Leela Bhansali because once you know him; you see he is a genius filmmaker. He knows, whom he is talking to and where you stand,” says ace production designer Wasiq Khan about the director of his recently released film Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela. In an exclusive interview with Pandolin, this talented craftsman discusses the making of Ram-Leela, the challenges faced and the most memorable set he ever built in his career.

IMG_1795How did your association with Sanjay Leela Bhansali happen and how was the whole experience working with him?

I did a film called Rowdy Rathore with Prabhu Deva and SLB was producing it.  Though he was not directly involved in it but he used to come on the sets and interact with me. After Rowdy Rathore, he called me for Ram-Leela. It was absolutely great working with him because once you know him; you see he is a genius filmmaker. He knows, whom he is talking to and where you stand. Initially, he will kind of test you by asking random questions about old films, English films, their color and texture etc. but once he is assured that he is interacting with a guy, who knows his job, then it gets really easy to work with him.

Sometimes, he would take one shot in 3 to 5 hours, which initially seemed bizarre to me because normally it doesn’t happen. But then you realize that he does it with such perfection and conviction that you also start enjoying the process. For instance, if there are 500 dancers behind the two main characters and in the third or fourth row, there is something wrong with some dancer’s dupatta, he would notice it. He will just stop the shoot, correct it and only after that he will take the shot. So, that much detailing is a part of his vision, which you enjoy after a point of time.

Please explain the director’s vision and the look that he wanted to create for Ram-Leela. What was his brief to you for the same?

The film was obviously supposed to be grand and larger than life since SLB wanted to capture the architecture of Gujarat and its royal havellis. But the major challenge was to make a love story that is an out and out action film also. Unlike SLB’S earlier films, Ram-Leela has got a rustic feel and texture depicting hardcore action with hundreds of people fighting. Besides, the kind of school I come from is very realistic. So to maintain the signature style of SLB i.e. grand sets, big shots, and beautiful costumes plus infuse realism into it was the basic brief given to me. But merging that realism and grandeur was a big challenge and we worked towards it.

IMG_1102Keeping the brief in mind, what was your own perspective and strategy towards the production design of this film?

As I have worked with filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap on the films like Gangs of Wasseypur and Gulaal etc., creating sets for Ram-Leela was entirely different from what I have done previously. However, it worked out pretty well because once you are in sync with the director and his vision, you understand what needs to be done. SLB and I spent a lot of time together and traveled for around 2-3 months while location recce. We discussed lots of drawings and references and after a point; we both were on the same page.

Earlier, we had planned that 50 percent of the film would be shot on the sets and the rest 50 percent on the locations in Gujarat. But then it happened that 90 percent of the film was shot on the sets because there were so many difficulties while shooting action sequences on the real locations. So, we hardly shot for around 10-12 days on the outdoor location and the remaining film was shot on one big set. I kept converting the sets from one lane into another, one house into another, which was difficult but at the same time it was a lot of fun. In every frame of Ram-Leela, you would see some rustic element along with the grand signature style of SLB.

What kind of locations did you use for shooting and how many days it took to complete the movie?

We went to Rajasthan and shot there for 10-12 days. Besides, sets were created in Film city and Reliance. All the interiors were put up in Reliance and one exterior big set in Film city where all the mohallas, streets and markets were shown. We shot for almost 200 days but it was not all in one go. So, we shot for a year actually.

What sort of preparation and planning went into the designing of sets and creating the right ambience for this film?

Ram-Leela is not a period film, as it is set in the present time of Gujarat. So, we went for recce, visited old villages, havellis and explored the streets and lanes of Kutch and Bhuj. I picked up some references from their life style, markets and costumes and then clubbed everything in one big set. So, we got our references for texture and feel by randomly traveling all through Gujarat.

IMG_1011How was your collaboration with the cinematographer Ravi Varman while shooting for Ram-Leela?

Ravi Varman is a dear friend and a great technician, though I worked with him for the first time. He was also there for recce and was involved in every meeting and discussion. For a production designer, it is very important to have a good understanding with a cinematographer because the set is a dead body unless you light it up. Life comes from lighting and its incomplete without a cinematographer.

Can you please share with us any interesting incidents from the film?

We shot a beautiful song called Mohe rang laga de and before shooting we locked everything. We decided to go for ivory costume because it’s a very spiritual and soulful song with melodious chanting. So, once the set was done, I went to Delhi for some personal reason and when I came back, the song was already shot. Then one afternoon, SLB took me to Adlabs to watch the song. While watching, he was very much into it and looking at it very carefully. Suddenly, he made it pause and said that there is something wrong in the frame, something that’s not working in this song. He started asking questions about the set and then eventually I noticed the costume change. It was a pink costume instead of ivory and I had no clue, how did that happen.

I thought, they must have made some discussion, when I was not there, so, I didn’t say anything because the song was already shot. But when SLB kept on saying that there is something wrong with the set, I hinted that this costume might be bothering him. And I knew that once he gets something in his mind, it doesn’t go out easily.  Since nothing could be done about it in post, he finally decided to re-shoot the whole sequence for which the set was made again and everything re-executed. And all this, just because of one costume.

IMG_1037How would you define your overall experience working on this film and in what ways it was different from your previous projects?

The major difference was the liberty and time, which I had while working on Ram-Leela. I never had the opportunity to experiment so much with the amount of time and money I wanted. In my previous projects, I knew that I have this much budget to create something, so I would work around accordingly. But in this case, if I needed two months for one set, I had two months for that. I was free to do anything because I got all the financial support. Though there were challenges and time factors too but everything was available and everybody was accessible at all times.

What has been the most memorable set that you have ever built for any film?

The most memorable set was from the film, Black Friday for which I put a Stock Exchange set that gets blown up in the beginning of the film. I had just started out then, so there are so many emotional reasons attached to it. Though Anurag had said that we don’t have that much budget, time and luxury to make such a set, yet I always felt throughout the shooting that somehow we should make it. He said that we would use some newspaper clippings and voice over to show the blast and then move on to the film but I always wanted to make the set and somehow I convinced him to do so. Thereafter, I made the designs and drawings and went to the producer to convince him. I told him that this whole film is about a Bombay blast, so it can’t begin with a newspaper cutting. He got my point and gave me a limited budget to construct the set. Then I found an old bungalow in Versova, which geographically looked like a stock exchange and that’s how we were finally able to make that set.

Please tell us about your favorite directors and the films on which you enjoyed working.

Now, of course, SLB, because I loved working with him on Ram-Leela. It was a different space and genre for me as I was also exploring things that I couldn’t do before in my life. So, SLB is one of them and then Anand L. Rai, the director of Tanu Weds Manu and Raanjhanaa. He is a very humble and nice guy who is always open to suggestions. Besides, I have good relation with all my directors and had a fun time working with them.

IMG_1116Can you please share little bit about your future film projects?

Right now, I am working on Bhootnath Returns. Also, there is another film titled Gabbar i.e. a remake of a south film and produced by SLB. One more film, I am working on is based on the life of Sarabjeet and Subhash Ghai is producing it.