Those who have watched Just Ek Minute, one of the first game shows on satellite television in India in the early ’90s, will remember Omung Kumar as its energetic host. He would barely pause to breathe, running from one end of the stage at the studio to interacting with the contestant and then to the other end with the live audience. An advertising professional then, Omung has since moved on to become one of the more well-known art directors in TV and film, and is now ready to release his directorial debut, Mary Kom. However, his wife Vanita says that little has changed in the two decades since. “He has the same energy, and his need to be on his toes while at work is what has made him pursue different careers,” says Vanita, a production designer, who also owns the lifestyle store Bioscopewali.
At the Mumbai office of Bluelotus Productions, the art and production design company owned by the couple, they are seated on their individual desks placed in the same room. The décor of the room reflects their style — the couple is best known for their larger-than-life art and production design for films such as Black and Saawariya. Behind them a number of carnival masks in vibrant hues adorn the wall.
Their art, explains the couple, stems from their shared love for the opera, theatre and everything grand. Vanita has been a collaborator on each project that he has worked on. “On Just Ek Minute, she was the one who wrote and designed the games and sat on the tarafa to keep the scores,” says Omung. While the show, which was also the first set Omung designed, became a turning point in the couple’s career, the first-time director believes it was perhaps a natural course his life took.
The 46-year-old grew up watching his mother perform puppetry. The arts were encouraged in the house and he was also part of TV shows such as Khel Khilone as a child. “But it took someone else to point out that I should direct. And five years ago, I decided it was time,” Omung recounts.
In search of a woman-centric biopic “that no actor could refuse”, the director asked his screenwriter friend Saiwyn Quadras to help, who suggested Mary Kom’s name. One winter morning in 2011 — two years before her Olympic win — the couple, along with Quadras, flew out to Manipur to meet Kom. “We had only seen her in boxing gear, so when she turned up in a pair of tights teamed with a slit skirt, tee and bumblebee glasses, we were taken by surprise,” says Vanita, with a laugh.
While the Kumars were hooked to Kom’s story, a lack of facilities had forced them to shoot in Manali and Dharamsala. Vanita took on the responsibility for both production design and art, replicating Kom’s world in Manipur. “We sourced almost everything movable from Manipur, such as fabrics, stools, chatais down to the matchboxes. When Kom saw the scenes where we have shown Priyanka Chopra in her husband’s Onler house, she leaped up and said she wasn’t aware they had shot in her home. “We had also replicated the arrangement of medals and accompanying newspaper cuttings in the shoot location,” says Vanita.
The toughest and also the most exciting part of setting up the shoot, they say, was creating the gym where Kom had trained. The team found an old shed in Mira Road and when Vanita saw it, she knew she had the perfect spot to recreate the filthy but functional gym. So they let the leakages be, put up equipment made using tyres, bamboo and boxing gloves and added cobwebs and broken mirrors for a distressed feel. It gave a sense of claustrophobia but also depicted the lives of sportspersons from Manipur.
They recreated Kom’s world but you also hear Chopra — who trained to box like Kom — mouthing fictionalised lofty dialogues and punching multiple times for impact. Says Omung, “Her story is key — this woman from a small town in Manipur fought all odds to become a five-times world boxing champion. The film is meant to inspire people and the creative liberties taken can only do good.”