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Interview Hindi

Rita Ghosh: Manto has changed my vision completely

Ghosh, production designer on two of this year’s period films Raid and Manto, speaks about recreating the 1940s and the 1980s for the big screen.

Sonal Pandya

From a court in post-Partition Lahore to an income-tax office in 1980s Lucknow, production designer Rita Ghosh has worked on two very different worlds and time periods in the films Manto and Raid.

We spoke to Ghosh on telephone during a production break on Raid (2018) director Raj Kumar Gupta's next film, India’s Most Wanted (2019), to find out how she and her team made the past come alive on screen.

Ghosh began her career as an art director with Prakash Jha’s Raajneeti (2010). She graduated in fine arts from the Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) in Baroda and did her post-graduation in production design from the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune.

Ghosh started work on Manto two years ago after meeting writer-director Nandita Das through executive producer Sanjeev Nair to discuss the project. "She went through my profile and we spent some time together discussing the script and how I am looking at things and her vision basically, how she wanted the film [to come together],” Ghosh said.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui in and as Manto

Manto is the first period film Ghosh has worked upon and there was much that she had to tackle once she had her assistant, art director and other team members in place. "As it is a period film, you need elaborate research," she explained. "And not only is it your research, you have to go through all the other processes also [as] VFX is also involved, especially in period films. [There are] lots of clean-ups and things like that whenever you are doing exterior shots and all.

“We started working together, VFX and costume team and everybody. [Nandita Das] wanted everybody there whenever we were taking any crucial decisions. Everybody should be aware what is going on for the colour palette, even the smallest thing in VFX, or whatever it is. As a team member, everybody should be aware of what is happening."

The collaborative filmmaking on Manto, from day one, ensured that all departments were aligned on the look and treatment of the film. "She is that kind of person who believes in teamwork, everybody should be present and aware of what is happening, and these are the constraints we have and how to overcome those things,” Ghosh said of the actress-filmmaker.

Of course, the pre-production required them to undertake extensive research on every little thing on the film to recreate that period look. Their first course of action was to look at any available photographs and videos, and, luckily, Life magazine proved to be an excellent resource.

Life had covered [India] extensively. Then [Das] knew a lot of people from Lahore as well and connected me with those people. She asked them to share their family photographs and albums. It was small things that you don’t probably get in research. And she met Manto’s daughters also. So whatever discussion she had with them, she shared with us,” Ghosh remembered.

Das also shared an important instruction with her team about remaking the past: it wasn’t just the Bombay of yore, it was how Sa'adat Hasan Manto saw it.

Siddiqui and Rasika Dugal in a scene from Manto

"If you look at period films, you think it has to be decorative, basically beautification of the frame, but with her vision, it was a little different," Ghosh said. "It’s not like our idea of how we see Bombay. When you talk about old Bombay, immediately you start seeing trams and vehicles, a big production value shot. But her vision was different. Her vision is that we are seeing it through Manto. We shouldn’t be doing things just to beautify the frame.

"It just goes with the story. There are times when you see a frame, it’s empty with nothing much there on the wall and less clutter. Sometimes it’s minimal and basically [it becomes] a believable world of Manto."

Thankfully, Ghosh and her team had enough time on hand to look for and hunt down the items they would need to create the 1940s and 1950s on set. The film was shot at over 70 locations and they did an extensive reconnaissance from Ludhiana and Chandigarh in Punjab to Delhi before zeroing in on locations in Gujarat for certain scenes.

For instance, a scene in which Manto boards a ship to Pakistan was recreated in Gujarat with help from the art and VFX departments. "That we did at a container yard in Ahmedabad because we couldn’t do it at the Bombay dockyards," Ghosh explained. "That’s the fun part actually."

The team was able to take on the challenge of the ship scene thanks to to the elaborate planning during pre-production. Both the art and VFX departments worked hand-in-hand to make sure the modern world and the past do not collide.

"You have to create the [physical environment] behind the character, around 10-12 feet, and the rest, like the cleaning part, can be done in VFX," she explained. "[Say] if you see a modern building behind which you don’t want, you [remove it]. It’s very crucial to do it, frame by frame you do it. For a dockyard scene, we had elaborate frame-to-frame depth design. Like this is the shot we are taking, that’s storyboard and everything."

Ghosh's set illustration on Manto (Photo courtesy: Rita Ghosh)
The Lahore film office set (Photo courtesy: Rita Ghosh)

Ghosh’s team had several of Manto’s sequences drawn out on storyboard because it helped to clear the larger picture for the filmmaking team. Of course, they still faced challenges acquiring certain items from the 1940s and 1950s. Slowly but surely, bit by bit, the team managed to put together the great writer's world.

"Creating the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s is manageable, but when you are working on the 1940s and the 1950s, those are crucial because there is less documentation," Ghosh explained. "When you start looking for things, then you see that you don’t have enough material. That way Nandita knew a lot of people from Bombay itself, from the newspapers like The Times of India or the film archives or anything. The old film posters, we were not getting those posters and a few film archives helped us. They have shared their pictures in whatever way.”

After Manto, Ghosh moved to a different decade, the 1980s, with Raj Kumar Gupta’s Raid (2018), starring Ajay Devgn.

“I think Manto has changed a lot of things now,” she laughed. “When I’m doing modern films, I feel that there are so many things I’m missing, and I feel like doing more period films. It was a great opportunity in my initial career because I hadn’t done a period film before. I think it has changed my vision completely and I’m in love with all the old stuff now. Suddenly to shift from Art Deco furniture to [Raid], it has a great impact.”

Of course it wasn’t easier recreating the 1980s, but Ghosh relished the challenge. "That is the best part about filmmaking, no matter how many films you have done, whenever you take up a new project, it seems like you have not done enough and you are completely new to the field and that is what probably keeps you going, to do some more work. I think that goes for every film, nothing seems easy, but after you are done with the film it feels like okay, I managed, but while doing it… now for me, talking about Manto is easier,” Ghosh said.

A large portion of Raid is set in the enormous mansion of fictitious Uttar Pradesh politician Rameshwar Singh (Saurabh Shukla), in which is hidden money, gold ornaments, and more. The set for the mansion was also a creation of art and real world.

“We found a place, a location, but the location was not working for us," said Ghosh, "because the things were not there, so creating that whole space was difficult. Then we took up [another] location and thought of designing according to our requirement. That’s called location designing. You take up a location and make changes and camouflage things with your real location and your set in such a way that it seems like it’s been there always.”

In the eight years that Ghosh has been working as production designer, the process of working on set and beyond has got easier, she said. “Things have changed so much because of [things like] WhatsApp, if you use it in a wiser way, because sometimes you send your assistant because you are not able to go there and then they click pictures. Sharing becomes easier with the digital medium, it helps a lot. It speeds up [the process], otherwise I don’t think a film like Manto or these [other] films would have been possible to do six months or a year ago. Now, because of accessibility and because people are more aware of filmmaking, so in a way it helps us also,” she explained.

Ghosh's detailed work on Manto (2018) has not gone without notice. More projects, maybe even some period films, are lined up for her. But she modestly attributes it all to Nandita Das's faith in her. “It’s all because of Nandita, because she believed in my work,” she said.