Winning Awards for Barfi was quite Unbelievable: Rajat Poddar
“If you have a limited budget and you need very exclusive visuals, then that does not mean that your wings are clipped to think of it,” says award winning production designer Rajat Poddar while talking about his sense and style of working. In an exclusive chat with Pandolin, this maestro of visualization tells us about the creative approach, he adopted for his widely acclaimed film Barfi and the recently released blockbuster Grand Masti. Also he talks about the working rapport he shares with Anurag Basu and the role of Mukesh Bhatt in the course of his career.
How would you define the role of a Production Designer v/s an Art Director?
I believe from what I have understood and observed is that a production designer is a person who is designated the work of visualization of the film. The visuals that are required in a movie and the appropriate scenes for every part of the film has to be visualized and suggested by the production designer and then accordingly executed by the art director. So an art director is the person who is in charge of the execution of the look while the production designer is the visualizer. Now if I have visualized a certain kind of visual for a certain scene, be it a snow-capped hilltop, a barren landscape or a run-down industrial factory, it’s the art director’s job to find and execute it. He also decides whether to shoot in a real location or to build and design the set and finally get it approved by the director and me.
How do you take into consideration the budgetary constraints for any film without compromising on its creative essence?
In any film industry, there are various films of different scales, sizes and budgets, so obviously the requirements of one film will not fit in to the other. Every film has its own budget, based on which you have to think, visualize and design the look for it. If you have a limited budget and you need very exclusive visuals, then that does not mean that your wings are clipped to think of it. You can still do it but may be in a very small, closer or some indicative way. For example, I did a small budget film called Gangster, in which the boy was a gangster who was traveling worldwide. Now being a small film, we did not have the budget to go to twenty countries and shoot. The major part of his life was shot in Korea but before that we showed him traveling from one place to another. Now there was a shot of him in Mauritius that we cheated. It was basically a phone call sequence for which we created a small set of visuals resembling Mauritius using those coconut hatch roofs and hammock. Also, we created a blue water body since Mauritius water is absolute blue. So even though it was a very close and small shot yet one could easily make out that it was Mauritius. Other wise if we had more budget, we could have taken wider shots of him moving in the streets of Mauritius but since we had a small budget, this is how we did it.
Although you have been a production designer for films for a long time, working on Barfi and winning an award for the film, was that challenging and intimidating for you?
Yes, it was actually quite unbelievable because in the beginning I never thought that we are going in for all this or something like this is going to happen. Sometimes I feel that it’s the project that makes or breaks overall. Working as a team, right from the sets, the photography, the look, the story, the characters and the costumes, everything came together for this film. It was an amazing experience but while we were doing it, we did not have any idea that this is where it’s going to land up.
Basically, we spent some time brainstorming in the beginning. I don’t know from where this idea came and to whom that this man would live in a hill station like Darjeeling. I think it came from a group discussion that let us put Barfi in a hill station. And then later he moves towards Calcutta. So now when you visualize your actor after understanding it completely, you start procuring references, do recce and explore the background of the character accordingly. Now, Barfi is a poor guy whose father used to be a driver and was quite aged. Now, probably when he was young, in those days, he bought a cheap land and made a house but its not supposed to be a sophisticated house. So, that’s how the approach started.
It could have been a plastic shanty also but in order to make it look good, beautiful yet poor, we distributed the house in many portions. Therefore, you will never see a big hall, kitchen or bedroom in the house. From the camera point of view, there were different spaces, so in one single shot you could see a compartment, which was a kitchen and then another compartment, which was a little play area. Also, the house had several layers to it because it was situated on a hill slope, which is actually how Darjeeling is. That’s how Barfi’s locality and house came into our mind and we started designing it.
Later on, the story moves to Calcutta and the only thing that came to our mind first was the Howrah Bridge. That is the first thought, which probably comes into every filmmaker’s mind that where should we situate the story. Luckily, we found a location very near to the bridge and just did about four days of shooting in Calcutta, which were mainly the roof portions. Then, we matched that to all the interiors and exteriors of the house set created in Mumbai. That was shot on Chroma where we inserted a plate of Howrah Bridge behind the windows, which we had created in the studios and that’s how the whole visualization came out. I think, basically it is very important to be clear of the situation, the place where the character belongs and the character has to be.
Did you look at some inspiration to style it visually and how did you match with the artistic sensibilities of Anurag Basu?
I would not exactly call it inspiration because it was totally a grungy look that we created for Barfi. All the houses, the ageing, the bricks that were exposed, all these elements were too Indian that you will find this only in third-world countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Though, the look created was purely Indian yet I would like to add that we use to watch couple of foreign films, for example, there was a French film called, Black Cat,White Cat and another Korean film from which we took references for the photography and the color scheme. However, primarily the designs were all Indian and completely original.
Anurag and I have been working together since our TV days from 1992, hence we understand each other very well. We don’t think differently. Though, he was very greedy about the story and used to improvise a lot, we finally managed it with a bit of re-shooting for the film. There were many things that used to happen abruptly and on very short notice because while we were shooting, suddenly he would come up with a good idea and say, lets make this. Now since, we didn’t have enough time to make those things, we would work all night and that’s how we finished a lot of things. Other than that, everything functioned very smoothly.
What factors did you have to consider for the design of Grand Masti? Was there any conscious effort to keep the look similar to its prequel?
Keeping in view the kind of film it is, the designing has to be very light. It just had to be very nice, colorful and full of fun, hence all the houses have lot of loud colors and modern designs. It’s all very modern throughout but when the story moves into the college, the feel becomes very old-world like. And that’s the reason why we selected the college as an old building, which is basically a palace in Baroda. Another reason for it is, the principal of the college who is shown very old fashioned and portrayed as the villain of the film. Though the college is an old structure yet when our modern characters arrive there, they live in tents, which are again the urbane tents and not those shamiana sorts. So, basically, the boys belong to the modern school and the principal belongs to the old school and this is what we have tried to maintain in the concept. The look is completely different from its prequel because it’s a new setup and story altogether.
How was your collaboration with Indra Kumar and what was his vision for this film?
There is lot of respect from our side for Induji because he has been there for many years and given some superbly great hits. So, automatically we have great deal of respect for him. The only thing, which works against you, is that sometimes when he comes up with an idea, which you don’t like, you feel a little hesitant to refuse to it. However, we used to get along slowly and repeatedly tried to make him understand and then he would accept and agree to the modern sensibilities.
Induji, is one guy who does not want to get into other people’s zone, so he just had this idea in his mind that lets give a modern colorful comical look to the film and that’s what his brief was. Now there are three different characters, hence three different houses and offices in the film and all had to be designed separately. Moreover, all of them should look different to each other but all in modern lines. Our major challenge was to make all the houses look different as if it were designed by different designers. That was one aspect we kept in mind while doing it.
What level of preparation and pre-planning went into the initial phases of designing Grand Masti? How much of the locations are real and how much are created by you?
Primarily, we had a lot of reference banks, so we showed Induji a couple of designs, out of which we figured what are the kinds of things that he liked visually. Then based on that, we designed the sets. Most of the locations in the film have been created inside the studios where we made all the bedrooms and the offices. Only the huge college was a real location in Baroda.
What do you enjoy the most during the whole film production- the initial sourcing or the actual part of being on the sets?
I think what I enjoy the most is when the set is completed or in its final stage because designing is something else. I don’t like planning at all. I know, it’s the most important part of my job, to design and to execute but I like it when it’s near completion because that’s when you see the results.
I think it would take some time to get over the train that I made for Barfi. It was very special because it was not just a showpiece but there were action sequences shot on it. So, it had to move and was created as an exact replica of Darjeeling train. It was taken to so many places, first in the film city, then to Chandivali and this whole thing became quite funny. It was almost unbelievable but we just started doing it and completed it. Though we did it, but had we been in some other country or if somebody from Hollywood was hired to create it, they would need a prep of six months for their research and engineering.
We went to Darjeeling but it didn’t work out. It was too expensive and you don’t get train in the night. Also, the train would move only to few places and did not have enough speed that we required for the sequences. Besides, there were too many people. Out of 10 days that we were supposed to shoot in Darjeeling, we could shoot only three days and rest everything was done in the studios of Mumbai. So when the train went flop, we came back and just started making it and it happened finally.
The train was completely a fake thing crafted out of plywood, foam boards and similar kind of stuff. It was just given a look of the train while all the carriages and the compartments were made completely dummy. We had made iron trolleys to put under the trains with auto rickshaw tires so that they would run on the roads. The train was powered by two engines, one was a Maruti 800 which was put in the front and the other one was a mini Tata truck engine that was put into the last compartment of the train. These were the two engines that used to drive it forward and reverse. The Maruti engine belonged to Anurag as initially we were planning to buy it but then Anurag’s car was lying in a warehouse, so we ended up using that.
Can you please share your experience working with Vishesh films starting from your first movie “Saaya” till “Aashiqui 2”? What made this association last so long according to you?
I am really grateful to Mukesh ji and Bhatt saab that they have been a constant support to me in this industry. It’s because of them that I have been in regular practice of executing and designing films. When Anurag got a chance to work with Mukesh ji, he had taken me to him and since Saaya, I have been constantly working with them. It was a fantastic experience for me as Mukesh ji is extremely budget conscious, which I consider a very good thing. This gives us limitation and also liberty to create any kind of design, which is required in the film but with a limited budget. So when we work with bigger budget films, it becomes easier since we have been used to working with budget constraints. We are also able to do wonders and that’s why other people also like our work because we do things in small budgets. So, this is the trait we learned from Mukesh ji.
I think, its our honesty and hard work and also Mukesh ji’s goodness that worked in our favor. Though I am sure there must be plenty of people who are willing to work with them but I think its their goodness that they don’t believe in changing their technicians and just keep working with people, with whom they gelled up once. Also I feel that if as a production designer or art director, you are constantly working with one production house, you get completely well-versed with their ways of executing, their economic body functioning, their accounting system, their suppliers, their godowns and all the material which can be recycled or reused. And I guess this is one of the important things of having a fixed production unit like us.
Kindly tell us about your future projects and the directors you are working with.
I am currently working on a film called Gunday, which is a Yashraj production and we are shooting its last schedule in Raniganj. Most probably, my next project will be Super Nani that is again for Induji.