Interview Hindi

Like to do character-based films more than massive Bhansali-type sets: Tumhari Sulu production designer Dhara Jain


Jain discusses her experience of working on films like Tumhari Sulu, Bombay Velvet and others, revealing some tricks of the trade in creating the spirit of a space on screen.

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

Suparna Thombare

Whether it is the radio station or the apartment that Vidya Balan and Manav Kaul's characters live in, Tumhari Sulu has very real settings that draw you into the story of a Mumbai housewife-turned-late-night RJ.

The look, feel and experience of Tumhari Sulu was created by production designer Dhara Jain, who has previously worked in different capacities on films like Rock On 2 (2016), Bombay Velvet (2015), Lootera (2013), Talaash (2012) and Don 2 (2011).

A window designer from a retail background who chanced upon a career as set decorator and, later, production designer for films and commercials, Jain has graduated from making one window a month during her retail days to around 100 windows in just one film. 

Tumhari Sulu review: Vidya Balan's tour de force lights up this wonderful, heartwarming film

A graduate of the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), Dhara Jain stumbled upon set design when she was mistakenly interviewed for the position of costume designer by MTV and hired in the art direction team of the company after her product work impressed them.

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Jain also runs a blog where she shares behind-the-scenes images of her commercials and films. "The settings, spaces and images that we create should serve as the film's backdrop and help develop its narrative and therefore support the character identities," she writes in her blog. 

In an exclusive conversation with Cinestaan.com, Jain discussed what a production designer and set decorator’s job entails and how her contribution is crucial in creating an experience for the actors on set and for the audience when it watches the end result.

Vidya Balan's very arrival lights up the sets: Tumhari Sulu director Suresh Triveni

She also spoke about her experience of working on films like Tumhari Sulu and Bombay Velvet, revealing some tricks of the trade in creating the spirit of a space on screen. Excerpts:

You worked as set decorator on several films before turning production designer. Not many people understand what these jobs entail.

Everyone confuses the art director with the production designer. This is the angst I have. People understand what a direction team is, camera team is, we always forget what the art team is.

We are almost always the first team to come on board because we are designing the looks with just the director. Costume comes much later. I get damn irritated when they [the costume team] get all the limelight. They are the foreground, we are the background. Our actors are foreground and no doubt they are important, but you cannot negate or neglect what the background settings and space are, and we create the look. 

So which aspects are handled by the set decorator?

Basically the production designer has two hands — art director and set decorator. If you see, internationally the set decorator goes on stage with the production designer to take awards.

The set decorator designs with the production designer. Art director is a technical part of the design team, responsible for the execution of the construction, drawing plans and a lot of logistics which are build related. They are also the people who get the carpenters and other artisans.

Production designer is responsible for conceptualizing and sourcing, so set decorators do the look — the fabrics, colours, etc.

You worked on Bombay Velvet as the assistant production designer. How was the experience of creating those massive sets?

It’s a dream for any art person to work on a period film, to work with that director [Anurag Kashyap] and production designer Sonal Sawant and the team that we had. And because Anurag’s characters are so strong, I mean the way he treats his characters, and it's a 1960s film, so it was one dream come true.

I spent two years on Bombay Velvet. We started with research. In India we don’t have any support system for research because we don’t organize data well. The design process we used really changed how we look at things. We built 13 buildings [on sets in Sri Lanka], we did the art décor of Bombay and the Victorian architecture.

We dug and blogs helped a lot. Getting information from renowned newspapers was also difficult, like they wouldn’t allow us to take colour photocopies of old issues. We have data, manpower and intelligence in abundance, but we don’t share.

It is one film that is closest to us as a team. Everything, even with the smallest montages, so much effort was put in for it to look true to its time. I can’t say which was my favourite part of the set — the club, the dressing room, Rosie’s apartment, John’s house, or any other. 

We always ask stars who are at the forefront of a film, when a film doesn’t work, how they feel. How does the team and the crew cope with a failure so big?

We were all devastated. I couldn’t take up a film for three years after Bombay Velvet flopped. It’s nothing really to do with your work. You are as attached to everything you do. We get cut off really fast. DoP [director of photography], art department get cut off, but the actors and the director, they live through all the media bit. It is part and parcel of the job.

Bombay Velvet was an extremely well-designed film. We got nominated. Sonal Sawant got nominated for almost every award, but we didn’t win an award. Ram-leela [Goliyon Ki Raasleela: Ram-leela] did. [We didn't win] because the film didn’t work, but that’s not okay because it was a better-designed film.

Actually, I am sorry, I am not even comparing the two. But in the real sense, it was really well-designed. You take out old newspapers and the articles support that everything was true to the times — the materials, the fabric, everything. I mean, you took creative liberties like Anushka’s room had a little madness of the character to it. But we were true to the times when it comes to the research. So yes, it was a bummer [that the film didn’t work]. No one watched it. It is so upsetting.

But it is part and parcel of the game. There are lots of times when we build sets, it's lit up, and then we have to break it immediately. There are a lot of ads that we do, which could be among your best works, but it doesn’t come out because of things like the marketing team of the brand didn’t do the right research or something. 

So you didn’t do a film for three years. That's a long time.

Yes, I did ads in that time. There is a difference between the ad world and the film world. Ads get done in 10-12 days maximum. With ads I may be working for 12 hours a day and then it's done; I can take a break.

But when you are working on a film, you are working those 14 hours every day. There are different protocols, timelines, schedules, people you have to handle — everything increases manifold. You don’t have any other life beyond making that film. You cut off from the world. That is why it is very difficult. I got married and immediately started working on Bombay Velvet, so my husband says I want end credit. 

Was Tumhari Sulu a lighter experience than Bombay Velvet then?

You read the script and that is what runs around in your head and everything in my head changes. You look at everything from that perspective. So nothing is less easy or easier.

Every day is a different experience. Each time I am walking into your [the actor’s] character’s shoes and doing that. Say, for example, Sulu lighting an agarbatti [incense stick] in her home, this is what we discuss, that she would be the kind of person who would light an incense stick.

You are playing around with the senses as well. You can say it's an experience designed. So as designers we have to create an experience for the actor to make him or her feel like they belong. And also for the audience. 

How much of a director do you have to be, since you really need to get into the director’s mind?

You have to get the director’s vision.There are a lot of things he will tell you and then you improvise too. In Tumhari Sulu, the director told me that for the son, we will put a cricket bat in the room. Then I would be like, but how much will you see it? He said, ‘When I was a kid I used to have a ball hanging in a sock,' and so I asked my friends about what they did too. So you add your personal experiences to the directors brief.

So once a director approaches you, how much time do you have to prepare before you begin shooting?

Tumhari Sulu was about two months. But for the house [of Sulochana and Ashok Dubey, Vidya Balan and Manav Kaul's characters] we had only four days.

The apartment was dilapidated. We had to change many windows and doors. We had to repaint it. We were also making furniture, which is not just bought from somewhere and placed there. We had to also build stuff inside the house.

A lot of thought goes into it. We didn’t just walk into this one house, we saw about 1,500 houses, understood the logistics of it, made so many different plans and then you compromise because something is more expensive than the other. 

Also Radio Wow [the radio station that Sulochana works at] is a bigger space. It requires more time and money. And it is also not like I can go to the market and pick up a Rs500 cupboard. That required the money even though it was the smaller part of the film. Since we had a locked budget we had to let go of a house because we needed X amount of money to be put here [in the radio station set].

So we had just two months. But I had a very good team. There was Jyoti and Shayra, my set decorators, and we worked with interns. I had a lot of interns on this film.

You spoke about the challenges of working on a small-budget film. What are the challenges of working on a big-budget film?

The money is never enough. I never buy into this big-budget, small-budget thing. Whether I am working on Bombay Velvet or Tumhari Sulu, we are trying to save.

The logistics don’t change for us, only teams increase, responsibilities increase. The money that I handled in Tumhari Sulu as a production designer is far less than what I handled as a set decorator in any of my films. So for big-budget films the responsibilities are getting divided among more people so you need that money. The schedules are bigger.

Bombay Velvet had an over 100 days' schedule. Sulu was just 42. Even Don 2 (2011) was 111 days. I am shooting for Gully Boy right now and the schedule is 72 days.

With the art department, we want to maximize everything. There [in a big-budget film] we are mostly building everything, here [in a small-budget film] we are getting half-constructed spaces or sponsors. Our look and feel doesn’t change.

So it doesn’t matter if it's a big-budget film or a small-budget film because every film is budgeted for that certain look and feel. Mostly, most of the money in a big-budget film goes to the actors, it is not really coming to these various technical departments.

Lootera (2013) was an atmospheric film. You worked on Sonakshi Sinha’s winter home in the film. How did you go about creating that world?

We built the house at Darjeeling, but it collapsed because there was extra snowfall. So we rebuilt the house here in Mumbai and got fake snow. It was a very gloomy part of the film. Even though it is a period film and you have to get your props correct, it was a fairly easier design to do than a Bombay Velvet.

Some of those Darjeeling houses look like they used to years ago even now. But yes, you have to still be accurate about props like fishing rods, cameras and other stuff. Many people from the Bombay Velvet era are still alive and it was a sensitive topic too.

So carrying a serious real-life subject versus a love story, it changes the way we have to design it. You can’t take any liberties in a film like Bombay Velvet. 

You are working on Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy next. What is that experience turning out to be like?

I have worked with Zoya Akhtar before on a short film. I am a set decorator on her film now because I really, really wanted to work with production designer Sussane Merwanji. For me, she is the one who really revolutionized production design in India. She was the one who worked on Dil Chahta Hai (2001).

Lot of people tell me that your film as a production designer is just releasing and why do you want to go work as a set decorator. It’s my greed to work with her.

My job becomes five times more difficult than what I just did. I was never aspirational about making very big films. I don’t want to do a Sanjay Leela Bhansali-type massive set. I like characters more. I like to understand what this person will do and that’s my greed. So I want to do set decoration or production design for films that are more character-based than scale-based.

The learning never stops. It will be a massive slum set for Gully Boy and we will need to make it look as real as possible. It’s the only Zoya film so far which is gareeb (laughs). It’s a very different story. 

How has your experience been so far working with radically different filmmakers like Farhan Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Suresh Triveni and others?

Every production house works in a different way. I worked with Farhan on Don 2. He is a very different filmmaker. The approaches are a little different. Excel works in a very international format. The directors are generally very busy because they have so much to do. Like Farhan is also a singer and an actor. Zoya has so many other commitments and all.

I worked on Madly (2016) [an international production in which six filmmakers from six countries directed a love story each] with Anurag Kashyap as production designer, that was a different experience too.

Every director has a palate. I have only worked with directors who are heavy on character development. I never wanted to build a big set, not that I haven’t, like we did for Don 2 with the massive vault and for Bombay Velvet with those 13 real-life buildings.

But scale is not my turn-on, I don’t relate to it. Some of the big art directors may not even be thinking so much about the characters as we do. 

What’s the most exciting aspect of your work?

I want to do different things every day. There are fresh middle-class houses, Delhi middle-class houses, prostitutes' houses which I worked on for Talaash (2012). So for that we had to study how brothels work and how people in those brothels live. So it's very interesting to understand the characters.

It’s the narrative that you want to build further from what’s written. It is extremely important to go to real-life locations, because I don’t know how they live there. I didn’t know how a radio office looks like or works. 

So how did you create the radio station office in the film?

We went to Red FM where Malishka works. Like for the studio, it is generally soundproof, but we wanted Sulu to have a view of the whole office from where she is sitting inside the studio. So you take some liberties.

But in a logical sense, we used every acoustic panelling, the glass we used was soundproof. We did all the padding. That’s not actually what you will see at a radio station. They won’t see the whole office; they are actually cocooned.

Most of the film is sync sound so you have to do things like carpet the whole floor and make it acoustically perfect, especially since we were shooting in an empty building so there is an echo. So when Sahoo sir [sound designer and recordist Subhash Sahoo] walked in he got a heart attack. He was like, what are you doing? I said I will put glass everywhere and we will carpet certain areas. So wherever there was extra dialogue, we carpeted the area because it absorbs [the sound]. Then we put foam and lot of intense panelling inside our partitions. We also had mattresses and sheets to contain the sound within. 

Many details go into designing the smallest things... 

It’s so strange my parents still don’t know what I do! It’s so silly, but my mom will ask me ‘itna kyun ghoom rahi ho ek coffee ke mug ke liye? [Why are you hunting so much for a mug?]’ I am like, it's very important — what kind of glass it is, is it white? But wait, the cameraman doesn’t like white. How big is it? Do we use a straw? If we use a straw, should it bend or stay straight? What kind of a character is drinking from it? Is he or she filmsy and will he drop the cup? If so, then I have to get four of the same kind? The level that we think to!

Should there be a tissue in the scene or not? Should it have a handle because how should she hold it? Should it be earthy or modern? Should it be transparent, made of glass, or paper cup or a takeaway cup? There are so many things you have to think about. People think you are cuckoo (laughs).