“You should understand your director. You should give him or her what they want and still surprise them,” Sumit Basu deconstructs production designing for a film in the simplest manner. Basu believes it is his understanding with his directors that reflects in all the projects that he has been a part of, in a career spanning more than two decades.
“If Imtiaz Ali is the director, the set will be different and if Victor (Vijay Krishna Acharya) is the director, the same set will be different,” says the designer, who has collaborated with Ali on Rockstar, Highway and Tamasha, and with Acharya on Dhoom 3 and Thugs of Hindostan. In an interview with indianexpress.com, Basu talks about what goes behind creating the universe for a film and explains how a designer should blend in with the sensibilities of his or her director for the set to look tailor-made for the story that the filmmaker wants to tell.
Q. Have there been times when you have found it difficult to understand your director?
No. Even when I was working with Bhansali (Sanjay Leela Bhansali) on Guzaarish, I completely understood his vision. When I was working in Mirzya and Milkha (Bhaag Milkha Bhaag) with Rakyesh Omprakash Mehra, I lived those months with him, almost like a husband-wife. I know the smallest of emotions that Bhansali and Mehra have. Now, I am working with Karan Malhotra (on Shamshera) and I know what kind of visual world he lives in or he likes, his liking or disliking of a colour.
Q. There must be lot of times when your visual construction of a story influenced the director’s vision.
That is the surprise element. The director knows this is his set but still it gives him some kind of new ideas. I want my director, my costume designer, my DOP (director of photography), all of them to be completely free and play with the set. So, maybe I will use colour that is deeper or lighter than the skin tone of my actor or I would use neutral colours if there are blue shades of something in the costume. So, those kinds of things I am continuously looking after.
Q. For Thugs of Hindostan, what was your approach like?
It started with paintings. There’s one painter who came with the British. He documented India through his paintings. So, that’s a huge document. You get the architecture there, the life there, how people moved in the markets. How chaiwala is selling chai. Those are beautiful paintings. Second is architecture which is globally documented. So, that was not a problem. Paintings will give you the vibe, while architecture will give you realism.
Q. The biggest challenge for a period film is to not look similar to other historicals.
So, it’s better to find ships from that era, try to get the designs on internet and through books, and send people to Asiatic, do a small research, not a detailed research because finally, structurally you have to be the architect for that era (only) for the film. So, you take things from here and there. Luckily, we found some replicas of those ships. There are people, who have immense knowledge of ships. So, instead of experiencing everything through your life, take help from such people.
Q. How much time did the research take you?
The pre-production lasted for two years. I joined in May 2015 and the shoot began in June 2017. We locked the ships in the first year itself. In the mock-setting, they (actors) started practising. In the process of making that, you know what size you are going to have. Then you started getting correct people from the world, the expert in rat-line and ropes from Vancouver. We started building the ships in a dry area. Luckily, we found a huge number of carpenters from a boat-makers village in Malta. They are experts in painting the wood. We had a structural engineer because there were so many action scenes and we wanted no injury to happen.
Q. You must be aware of the comparisons with the Pirates of the Caribbean.
For a few years now, I have not watched anything that is connected to that world. This has happened since Mirzya. I have only watched 15 minutes of Game of Thrones. I don’t want my sub-conscious to guide me to some other space. Sub-conscious can be very strong. I haven’t seen Pirates of the Caribbean. I haven’t watched many of those movies. So, I don’t know how they did. A ship is a ship. There are many such things, which would be the same.
Q. Still, were there discussions to make sure it does not look like a Pirates set?
My job was to only control my assistants because they are aware of all these things. So, I had told them, “Don’t get me any reference from a film, even unknowingly.” That’s my instruction on every film. It’s actually fun to sit in that era and create your own world. Architecture is coming from the geographical condition and availability of that area and climatic condition.
If there’s a lot of rain and snow, it has to be a slanted roof. If it is only rain, then it can be a flatter roof. It also depends upon the available material. If you have slate stones, your roof will be of slates. If it’s bamboo and leaves, then your structure will be that. If it’s near the seashores, then you can use coconut leaves. It’s easier to be in that era and create a world than just following things.
Q. How much pressure is on you while designing for a film like Thugs of Hindostan, which relies heavily on its production value?
Pressure is there in the initial stage because when the film goes on floors, you think, “From the last two years what I thought was right for my director, is it really right for him?” When I am working for my director, I want to be a part of his life and I want to understand his vision. People, across the world, are creating sets. They are doing some unbelievable work so, creating a set is not challenging. The challenge is whether you understand your director and whether without the lighting or the characters, the set is saying something to you. If it has that vibe, then you are successful.
My concern is primarily the director, the DOP and costume designer. The scene should be correct. After everything goes fine, there comes this time when you have to run on a rainy day through the main deck and you find the deck is slippery. So, then you have to do something to set that all right. Or like, if my director wants a particular type of sword but the actor finds it heavy to carry. So, those are the things that are challenging.
Q. Is designing a period film easier than a film set in contemporary times?
No. I would say both are similarly challenging. At the end of the day, the audience wants to take home that one image and I need to put that one image in the film. It can happen in a modern-day story or a period film. Futuristic and mythological films are more challenging but modern day and period films have similar challenges, because you want to create an iconic image, like when I did Kaabil, making Hrithik’s (Roshan) room was a challenge. Similarly in this film, of course, there are references to a lost era, but in many parts of the world, that era still exists. The fun is to create an iconic image.
Q. What was your biggest takeaway from the process of Thugs of Hindostan?
I think those two mesmerising and beautiful ships. The first day when I saw them floating it was magical. It was an out-of-the-world experience. That is one memory I’ll cherish throughout of my life.