Article Hindi

From 1942: A Love Story to Devdas: The designs of Nitin Desai

The lauded art director's filmography includes some of the best and most expensive movies made in the last three decades.

Sonal Pandya

With four National awards and three Filmfare wins, Nitin Chandrakant Desai has firmly established himself as the leading art director and production designer in Hindi cinema. He is the go-to man when it comes to designing a set with over 170 films, 250 advertisements, and 100 TV shows to his credit.

A native of Mumbai, Desai studied photography at the Sir JJ Institute of Applied Art. He took up an apprenticeship under art director Nitish Roy on Govind Nihalani’s Tamas (1987) and worked on the historical drama, Chanakya, that aired on Doordarshan's National channel in the early 1990s.

Lagaan (2001)

Desai has worked on several films that have gone on to be selected as India’s entry to the Oscars, including Devdas (2002) and the Marathi film Harishchandrachi Factory (2009). He was also instrumental in production design for the last two Indian films to get an Oscar nomination: Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Lagaan (2001).

While most of his honours have come for the period films he has worked on, Desai has designed the sets for just as many contemporary films like Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. (2003) and the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Desai was the one who created the original set for the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Kaun Banega Crorepati, in 2000. He was asked to recreate the set for Danny Boyle’s film starring Dev Patel and Anil Kapoor.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Desai began his cinematic career with Vidhu Vinod Chopra on his landmark film, Parinda (1989). He worked again with Chopra on 1942: A Love Story (1993) and set the bar very high with his work on the film, creating parts of Dalhousie, Himachal Pradesh, as it must have been in the last few years of the British Raj, in Mumbai’s Film City.

In an interview with the website, Desai recalled the arduous task of building the set from scratch: “To want Himachal to be created in Mumbai is next to impossible," he said. "But in Mumbai, we went to Film City, which has a lake and this is where we decided to build the sets. Many people told Vinod it's a wrong decision to give a newcomer like Nitin Desai a chance to build a set worth Rs80 lakh.”

1942: A Love Story (1993)

Desai proved all the naysayers wrong with his first Filmfare award for Best Art Direction for 1942: A Love Story. After that, he never looked back, working on an array of international and Indian projects.

Desai is a collaborative artist. In an another interview, he had stated the importance of a film unit working as a team. “As production designer, I am involved right from the scripting and pre-production. Even the cinematographer and costume designer work in tandem with me, not exclusively as separate departments. Every prop, curtain, dress, even elements of the backdrop are modified to fit the look that the director and I have visualised.”

Devdas (2002)

Desai shares a special relationship with the directors whose films he works on, especially Sanjay Leela Bhansali, for whom he has made iconic (and expensive) sets which are remembered even today for Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) and Devdas (2002). "Bhansali often gets flak for his elaborate and expensive sets," Desai told The Hindu newspaper in another interview. "I had to be sure that he got his money's worth as it was the most expensive set made in the history of Indian cinema.”

In 2011, Desai released his biography, Adhunik Yugancha Vishvakarma, marking 25 years in films. He wrote the book hoping to inspire others to take up his profession.

In the same interview with The Hindu, he reasoned, “Art directors get very little recognition and have to work through all odds. Earlier, there was no paperwork and when art directors signed a project there was no surety that they would be paid at the end of the project. It was all based on trust. Things have changed now. That's where my biography fits in. I hope young budding artisans read the book, understand the challenges, and work their way through all the odds.”

A set from Nitin Desai's ND Studios

Of late, Desai's all-purpose film studio, ND Studios, located at Karjat, about 90km away from Mumbai, has kept him busy, as have his home productions for regional cinema and television. Desai has produced shows like Chittod Ki Rani Padmini Ka Johur (2009) and Marathi films like Balgandharva (2011). Superhit films like Kick (2014) and Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (2015) have all shot sequences at ND Studios.