Rajkummar Rao’s transformation into a 300-year-old character in Raabta is almost unrecognizable. The credit of which goes to Zuby Johal and her team from Dirty Hands Studio. The artist has in the past worked on films like Gangs of Wasseypur 1 & 2, Finding Fanny, Raaz 3, Trapped and more. Films are however fillers for Johal who has her hands full with hypperrealistic mannequins created for a number of museums across the country.

In a freewheeling and highly informative chat, Zuby Johal gives us an insight into the world of prosthetic makeup – from the materials used, to the time invested, the challenges faced by the artists to the changing mentality of the industry and more.

Zuby Johal and Rajiv Subba

Zuby Johal and Rajiv Subba

How did your foray into prosthetic makeup happen? How did it all begin?

My partner Rajiv (Subba) and I graduated from NID, Ahmedabad. During our placements, an alumnus, Amardeep Behl who has a company named Design Habit came to us and showed us the work of Ron Mueck, the Father of Hyperrealism. He does fabulous work with silicone. Amardeep asked us if we could achieve something similar for the Sadhu Vaswani museum in Pune. He wanted that someone who comes in to the museum be transported to the time when Sadhu Vaswani was alive. Rajiv is a sculpture, and we work with various materials and know how to make moulds etc. But we had not worked with silicone at the time. However, the technique to a certain extent remains the same.  We were open to trying it out and believed that we could achieve at least 90% of it.

So we called for the material from USA as it is not available here in India. Luckily, the museum got delayed by a year, and we got that time for some trial and error to understand things. We have not studied prosthetics from any school as such; it was more of researching on YouTube, watching videos, reading about it and experimentation. Ultimately, we made 19 mannequins for the museum. Since we had achieved this, Rajiv and I started discussing as to where all could we use our experience. We felt that movies could be a good area.

During that time, a colleague of ours was working with Anurag Kashyap. So we went to meet Anurag who is undoubtedly one of the most fabulous people in the industry. I would say that he’s our mentor. Because the moment we walked in, we had carried just one sample head with us, and he immediately gave us the scripts of both Gangs of Wasseypur 1 & 2! He asked us to read the script and tell him the prosthetics we could create.

And we did do a lot of work on both the films but the Censor Board cut out a lot. We had some cut fingers, some accident scenes, Richa Chadha’s pregnant belly, Ramadhir Singh’s cut head and so on. Gangs of Wasseypur was our first film, but it didn’t release for about two years after we had done it! And it was getting very difficult to sustain because you need a lot of people to work on something like this. There’s someone for hair grafting, someone for mould work, sculpting, it’s a long procedure! So I called Anurag and asked him what do we do since the movie hadn’t released. He suggested that we approach a few production houses and show them the work we did for Gangs of Wasseypur; he was very understanding. Then we approached Mahesh Bhatt and Mukesh Bhatt, got Raaz 3 followed by Finding Fanny, Badlapur and so on.

Hyperrealistic silicone cut head of Ramadhir Singh played by Tigmanshu Dhulia in Gangs of Wasseypur

Movies are like fillers for us. We’re doing a lot of other work too. We make hypperrealistic mannequins for museums. We’ve done the Sadhu Vaswani museum in Pune, Shaurya Smarak in Bhopal, D.S. Group Museum in Noida, we’ve recently also done a museum in Amritsar based on Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s life.

We also have another company that works only on glass installations. So, we consider ourselves more of industrial designers. And we’ve always wanted to educate people in India, to teach people here instead of outsourcing the work from abroad. Initially, when I started in around 2008, people were only using latex. We’re the pioneers who actually got silicone here and started working with it.

Now, people have started accepting that Indian people can also do well though it’s still very challenging. We have also collaborated with a team in LA who had approached us. Our partner Logan has done films like Fan, Kapoor and Sons etc. and he heard my name in a lot of places, so he connected with us to collaborate. The one thing I told him was that I could collaborate only if he would come down and teach our people here. They come with a lot experience and have a lineage since they have been working with silicone for a long time. That experience helps. They are also manufacturing their own materials, so the materials are easily accessible and reasonable for them while we have to pay a bomb for custom duty.

My main objective of getting into Bollywood was to open up the arena of prosthetics, which is so beautiful, for more people

Do you’ll work only with silicone or other materials as well?

Silicone comes in various grades. For prosthetics, you need to transform the person entirely, take for example Rajkummar Rao in Raabta, so you need breathable silicone. The silicone used for mannequins is different, while the one used on people is different. If you need to simply age a person, wrinkle him a little, that’s a different material. So it depends on the design brief from the client. Silicone is available in semi flexible, very flexible and other variants. One needs to understand what is happening to the person or prop in the movie and then decide the kind of material to be used.

When a project comes to you, what is the process that you’ll follow to get the prosthetics in place?

The first thing that I do is to read the script. I need to know what is happening to the person who is getting the prosthetics, or if it’s a prop, what is it being used for. We read the script and discuss everything in detail with the client. Then it goes to the production that closes the budget.

For Raabta, they wanted Rajkummar (Rao) to look 300 years old. They gave us the script, which is when one understands the actor’s role in the movie and you accordingly give your inputs as the prosthetic artist; what you think the look should be. You then hear the director’s vision and come to a mutual consensus. Sometimes, the director might have something in his mind, and you might have something better. So we work back and forth.

We also need to know where the actor is shooting geographically, the time needed to get the character ready, the lighting is very important, does the character interact with water, how many times does the prosthetic need to be removed, etc. Everything is discussed and then the brief is formulated.

One needs to understand what is happening to the person or prop in the movie and then decide the kind of material to be used

Raabta has two parts to it – contemporary and ancient. What did your research for the characters entail? Did you have any references?

We were asked to transform Rajkummar into a very old guy, so we watched a lot of movies like 300, old period films etc. We gathered some references and spoke to Dino (Dinesh Vijan, Director) to understand what he had in mind.

Dino initially wanted Rajkummar to have long dreadlocks. But at the last minute, when we went to Mauritius and were getting Rajkummar ready, we realized that the dreadlocks weren’t working because the face wasn’t visible. Immediately, we took a call to remove the dreadlocks. So one needs to keep improvising even on set.

Also, while developing the prosthetics you need to be very accurate. For instance, we need to know the exact skin tone expected for the character. Dino was very clear that he wanted the skin tone to match Rajkummar’s real skin tone.

We then started researching what happens to the person when he gets really old. A person’s skull remains the same, but the skin begins to sag. Now, one knows how a 100-year-old person looks, but no one knows how a 300-year-old person will look! So, you take a few assumptions and use Photoshop to understand where the prosthetics can be placed and accordingly create the look. That helps in creating the image that you have in your head, which should ultimately match with what the director has in mind.

The biggest problem for any prosthetic artist in India is the supporting material

As a prosthetic artist, what are the challenges you encounter?

The biggest problem for any prosthetic artist in India is the supporting material. For instance, if I were to order silicone now, I’d have to wait for a month for it to deliver, even on express delivery. Silicone has a flammable aspect to it because of which you need a lot of paperwork to get it to India. We also pay heavy custom duties.

So, as Indians, though we’re very good with skills and our work, the materials are not available to us. You can’t even invest and stock the materials because they have a short life. That’s a big complication.

Otherwise, we’re getting more work, people are understanding the material and opening up to more realism coming into the script and are listening to prosthetic artists now, as compared to 2008-09 when people were just understanding what prosthetics were all about.

Also, people need to understand that prosthetic artists are not makeup artists. I do makeup only on my prosthetics; I’ll make the wig etc. But I do not work on normal makeup or take up normal characters. In India, we need to have the division that prosthetic artists do not come under makeup artists. It is a different segment. There should be a separate department for prosthetics, even for awards, there needs to be a separate category for prosthetics altogether.

Lastly, people should be more open to prosthetics. They should be ready to pay the amount that is needed for good prosthetics. If you need good quality, you need to give good money and time! Time is the biggest challenge for us. There are people who come to me and ask if I can give them a body in one week. How is that even possible? The prosthetics are not machine made or it’s not like wood or a stone sculpture. Silicone needs time to dry, you need to model it, make a mould, cast it, take it out, then you paint it, graft it, graft the beard, etc. It takes a lot of time. For me, it’s important that I do minimum movies but I give in my best.

Another challenge is that make up artists are very old school, they feel that we (prosthetic artists) are taking their jobs. So they have a tendency to hide things, whereas I believe in sharing knowledge and teaching people. That’s why I make it a point to regularly go to FTII and teach kids because they are going to enter the industry and they should know what prosthetics is all about. My main objective of getting into Bollywood was to open up the arena of prosthetics, which is so beautiful, for more people.