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Interview American Hindi

More than the slums, the West is attracted by our stories: Production designer Ravi Srivastava

The Love Sonia (2018) production designer, who was an art director on Slumdog Millionaire (2008), refutes the perception that the West is more interested in India’s dark underbelly.

Ravi Srivastava

Mayur Lookhar

A filmmaker comes upon a great story. He envisions his characters in a certain environment. That environment may no longer exist. Or maybe it never did. Or maybe it does, but shooting there is not possible. That environment has to then be recreated elsewhere in a manner matching the director's vision. That is where the production designer comes in. S/he needs to create the world that the writer and director have imagined for the story and its characters.

As Indian cinema veers more towards realism, it is paramount that certain stories are matched by authentic-looking sets. While the epic period dramas and magnum opuses require lavish, larger-than-life sets, a production designer's mettle is tested when s/he has to literally dig in the mud.

Ravi Srivastava is one such. He has made a living creating worlds that are not pretty, which expose the dark underbelly of a city. He assisted Slumdog Millionaire (2008) production designer Mark Digby. Since then, he has worked on Academy award-nominated films such as Life Of Pi (2012) and Lion (2016).

The Allahabad-born Srivastava started off as a painter before destiny brought him to films. His latest, Tabrez Noorani’s Love Sonia (2018), has been much appreciated for its production design, the sets mirroring the seedy brothels of Mumbai.

We met Srivastava at a coffee shop in Mumbai recently. The man wasn’t sure about the meeting as he had to do a recce for his next project. As our luck would have it, Srivastava’s meeting scheduled for the evening got cancelled and Cinestaan.com could catch up with him for his first media interview.

Srivastava comes across as a soft-spoken person, a man of few and measured words. Through the next 40 minutes, he shared his Love Sonia journey, his remarkable foray into films, how he couldn’t take up Nitin Desai’s Jodhaa Akbar (2008), his special gift for filmmaker Ang Lee, and more. Excerpts:

Kehte hain heera paane ke liye koyle ki khan mein jaana padta hai [They say you have to descend into coalmines to find diamonds], but for Love Sonia, you guys had to visit this dark hell called a brothel.

We visited a lot of brothels in and around Mumbai and also a place called Budhwar Peth in Pune.

I worked on Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012). The set that was made was pretty close to GB Road [Delhi's red-light district]. Tabrez Noorani had told me about the story idea, the script [of Love Sonia] then. So, it was constantly in our mind to visit such places and see what actual brothels are like.

It was a long process. I have involved myself for two and a half years doing such research.

But when you visited these places, did you tell the pimps and sex workers that you were there to do a recce for a film? Or did you have to be discreet?

In most places, it had to be done discreetly. We went in like customers.

Once inside, and in the room with the girls, you guys must have asked questions. Didn't they get suspicious?

For me, the visual appeal was more important. We watched the place keenly. Most of these places had a temple inside. Even the filthiest brothel had one. For them, it is a very sacred place.

I assume you couldn’t take cameras inside or shoot from your mobiles. I saw this behind-the-scenes video of building the brothel, where I saw the director and producer outside Grant Road. If you guys couldn’t shoot inside, how tough was it to do the sets based on inputs gathered in just a few hours?

We spent mostly 15 minutes during a visit, but we have visited the brothels over a span of time. I know the reality. You visit these places to authenticate the vision that you have. You go to a place and then you have a vision, Thereafter, you do references through the internet — watching videos of places like Bangladesh, Thailand. You try to get in a frame which can fit into your movie.

Tabrez Noorani wanted authenticity, but what are the major challenges in helping a director achieve his dream?

The biggest challenge for us was that we were given an enclosed space at Essel Studios [in Mumbai]. The set had boundaries and walls. We had to shoot in a restricted place. That becomes a little tough.

In my vision, I wanted Tabrez to take one shot in which you take a journey, [capture] different levels in the brothel. That was the biggest challenge. The rooms of Rashmi [Freida Pinto] and Sonia [Mrunal Thakur] had to be close. With the amount of money we had, it was always a challenge.

So, how much money were you allocated for this film? 

Our budget was around Rs60 lakh for the complete film. That included shots [sequences] from Los Angeles, Hong Kong.

How long did it take to build the set? 

 A shot of the corridor of the brothel in Love Sonia (2018)

We built it up in 23 days. It was quick. The people that work for you are your assets. So it is not just the amalgamation of my vision. Many of my boys must have gone to these brothels in their lifespan. So, it is a combination of their vision too as they add their own elements. We had 40 guys from the art department who worked on the sets.

What was the experience of working for a filmmaker like Noorani? 

Ravi Srivastava with director Tabrez Noorani

Tabrez is a guy who saw during Slumdog Millionaire (2008) that this guy has potential. For me, it was a gesture of giving back what he gave me. After Slumdog Millionaire, he gave me a project called Bollywood Hero [2009 TV series where Noorani was the line producer] where I worked as art director. He is a fabulous human being. He respects good qualities in a human being which often are forgotten today.

Growing up watching Hindi films, we were used to the credit for an art director. The term production designer is a new one for someone like me. I don’t know when it came into being. 

The difference between a production designer and an art director is that a production designer is one who gives vision to the film. So, he designs the film. An art director is a person who executes his [production designer’s] vision. The term came into being courtesy Nitin Desai. He had been abroad, where he saw this more heavy term, production designer. We are good at copying the West in many ways.

So, today is an art director called a production designer?

No, they like themselves to be called production designer, but I don’t take that, for most of them don’t know the difference between an art director and a production designer.

What struck me about the brothel in Love Sonia was the dingy rooms, where you had these see-through thin curtains. This, perhaps, was more reminiscent of the dirty brothels of Kamathipura. 

The brothel is a combination of a whole lot of places — Kamathipura, Budhwar Peth and the upper section that you will find in Bangladesh. Prostitution is more restricted in Bangladesh. It is more crowded, filthier. Bangladesh has too many poor. There is no middle class, just the upper and the lower classes. We tried to bring in elements which were more universal, rather than restricted to one place.

Films like Love Sonia also depend upon atmospherics. A production designer can do his best, but for the atmosphere to come out as a character unto itself, it is important for the DoP [director of photography] to capture the location creatively. The scene where Sonia enters the brothel for the first time and is shocked by what she sees through thin curtains, what did you make of the work of Lukasz Bielan?

I think Lukasz was fabulous. He sweated a lot. We had dingy sets. We didn’t have air-conditioning because of production issues. Each day, Bielan would bring three shirts. There were air-conditioners but they weren’t effective with the way the set was built. So, it was tough. When you break up space and make cabins, it gets claustrophobic.

The technical team can do its job, but if the artistes don’t play their parts well, doesn’t that disappoint you? Fortunately, the artistes in this film were outstanding. What did you make of the Love Sonia cast?

To be honest, I don’t judge. I firmly believe that every department has to do its work. A lot of filmmaking is about destiny. The girls [Mrunal Thakur, Rhea Sisodiya] were fabulous. Manoj Bajpayee was too good. I had a little tussle with him. I had seen Aligarh (2016) a few days back. That was a brilliant film. He brought a certain calmness to his character there. I went to him and praised this thairaav [calmness]. He got a little pissed off, asking why just this film, haven't you seen me in other films? When I met him in London for the premiere, that is when we got along well.

You worked on films like Lion (2016) and, earlier, Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012). What was the experience of working with someone like her? 

Mira Nair

With Nair, it was an amazing experience. I really gelled with her. She is a difficult director to work with. She is a little strict. It’s not easy to handle her. But I think she was great with me.

We built a tea cafe set near GB Road and it was in an Islamic/Arabic school in Chandni Chowk. We had to build that set in such a way that it looked like Pakistan. It was so authentic that after we finished shooting, Delhi municipal officials were stunned how a building was erected and came to demolish it. So, that was a great sense of achievement, that they actually thought an [illegal] building had been put up there. When Mira came to the sets, she came running to me and hugged me, saying, "Great job, Ravi."

You are credited as art director India on Life Of Pi.  So I guess you worked on the portions that were shot in India. Can you talk about your work there? 

Yes, the initial portion, when Irrfan’s character is a kid, was shot in India. Besides, a lot of things were made here and sent to Taiwan. The French house, where Pi Patel’s (Irrfan Khan's) family stayed, we did the complete propping; the tables and the chairs were sourced from here. The tiger cages were built and shipped to Taiwan.

Any participatory anecdote with Ang Lee to share? Did you even meet?

This was a very difficult film to make. The script, I believe, had been floated to at least six or seven big directors. All of them refused. To show a journey of 275 days or whatever on a boat with three characters, it needs a lot of courage to put your hand into such a script. 

I gifted Ang Lee a door made of wood. It had a handle which had a brass lion on it, and there was a nameplate having Life Of Pi written on it. Then I asked him to peep inside the keyhole. Inside, I had put a light and [a replica of] his Oscar trophy. He really liked it and has taken it to his New York office. [This was much like the scene where young Pi Patel peeps through the door and sees the beautiful young tiger.]

Can you talk about your background? How did you start your career? 

I was an artist [painter]. I did a lot of solo exhibitions. I did this for around 10 years. Thereafter, I switched to interiors. I started from a small town, Allahabad. This was around 1996. I left my studies [BCom] and became a painter. It was a tough decision. My father was an engineer, and he wanted me to be an engineer or doctor. I was the only son. It was a great shock for him.

Actors come to the film industry with the dream of emulating their idols. However, for a production designer, what would attract him to films? Is it just destiny?

I never even dreamt that one day I would be doing films in Mumbai. One of my friends left his MBA and got into the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. He told me why don't you come here and see what happens? So, I spent around six months at the FTII with these friends. I got exposed to world cinema. I did two diploma films.

My life changed when this Frenchwoman, Emma Pucci, she was art director on The Forest (2009), was looking for an assistant. Someone recommended my name thinking it is not a great project and I would do it just for the sake of it. Deepa Motwani, who was the line producer on that film, liked my work. She introduced me to Nitin Desai, who was doing Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar (2008). He asked me to join him on the project. Unfortunately, for some reason, I couldn’t take it up.

Did you fear that having missed such an opportunity, you would struggle to get work in Hindi films? 

I have faced many failures. My journey has been about falling and rising. For me, there was no looking back. I came to Mumbai at the age of 32. So, I had almost crossed the age when you build your career. I had no choice and left things to the almighty. I did The Forest, then nothing happened, as I had no work in Mumbai for six months.

Then came Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Somebody hired me. I won’t name him, but this person was found incompetent in his work, so he got sidelined and I got promoted to art director. I told my production designer [Mark Digby] that because he [the first art director] hired me, you need to take his permission before giving me the opportunity. The gentleman gave his consent and only then did I get on board.

I am sure nobody then imagined how big Slumdog Millionaire would turn out to be. What memories do you have from the making of that film? 

An iconic scene from Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Nobody on the project, even the production company, dreamt that this would turn out be such a big film. That is why I say it is all about destiny.

Slumdog was a very tough film to do. We were shooting in the shittiest places in the world. The toilet that you see was one single toilet. We made seven in that area [Dharavi]. We shot in about 147 locations. Most of the locations that you saw are sets. [Director] Danny Boyle wanted more and more from everyone, including the children. It was a great learning experience.

As a production designer, what do you have to say to those critics who say the West only wants to see India's dirty underbelly?

I wouldn’t say it is about the dark underbelly, but this is something they don’t get to see back home. They haven’t seen slums, they don’t even see so many people. It’s more about the visual frame. In the West, the emotional content is zero, or near to nil. The struggle with relationships. But here, the emotional content, the colours, ah.... it’s a warm country. More than our slums, the West is attracted by our stories.

You have largely worked on international projects. Are you keen to do mainstream Hindi films?

I have done Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017). I have done Kaamyaab (unreleased). Then I have recently done Mental Hai Kya (2019). I want to work with good people, do good stories. I loved the script of Qarib Qarib Singlle (2018). For me the people, the story are more important than the scale of the project.

When we call in foreign technicians, we feel proud. As an Indian, I am called for a foreign film, that is what excites me. I did a film with Michael Winterbottom, The Wedding Guest (2018), which has gone to the Toronto International Film Festival. I am the production designer.

Given their high budgets and technical advances, isn’t there more scope for a production designer in the West? 

The fight is different. There the problem is that they have fewer people. In Los Angeles, you will probably find just 15 production designers who do commercials. To my knowledge, in Mumbai, there will be around 500 people vying for the same job. Out here, it is all about survival. People from architecture are now coming into filmmaking. They [the West] have a vision, because they have the time, they don’t have the concept of survival.

I don't want to compare with the West, but in India, has the remuneration improved for people in production design, the art department? 

I think it has. People who are doing good work are getting paid accordingly. The trouble, though, is that day by day budgets are getting tighter. It is a tough fight. You have to earn it. 

How would you describe your journey so far?

I think it has been beautiful. I think I have been blessed by the almighty. And also the people that are working with me, they all had good vision. For me, my team is everything.