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Interview Bengali

Art direction isn't simple anymore, directors challenge us with difficult scripts: Tanmoy Chakraborty

The art director shares some fascinating stories from his career and the challenges that have helped him to grow as an artiste.

Photo: Habitat Film Festival

Roushni Sarkar

Art director Tanmoy Chakraborty’s work has not been confined to the Bengali film industry. In the past 20 years, Chakraborty has worked on Hindi films like Shyam Benegal’s Hari Bhari (2000) and Sujoy Ghosh’s Te3n (2016) and also gained an international reputation with Mira Nair’s The Namesake (2007), Claire McCarthy’s The Waiting City (2009) and others.

In Bengali cinema, Chakraborty's work on Goynar Baksho (2013), Meghe Dhaka Tara (2013) and Amazon Obhijaan (2017) are the most remarkable.

Chakraborty made his way into the film industry after topping his class in the Government Art College. The humble artiste thanks his family for bearing with his days of unemployment at the beginning of his career and now of his absence due his extremely busy schedule.

Tanmoy Chakraborty is not only keen on doing better work with changing times, but is also interested in the improvement in the art of production design. In an exclusive conversation with Cinestaan.com, he shared some fascinating stories from his career and the challenges that helped him to grow as an artiste. Excerpts:

Did you always want to be an art director in the film industry?

Not really. I was into group theatre and had the dream of becoming a director or actor one day. Then I studied in the Government Art College and got the certificate. I used it to start working with an art director to pave my way into the industry. [Production designer and art director] Goutam Basu gave me the chance to explore the industry and I started to learn and gather experiences. I consider him my first guru.

When I first set foot on [a film] set, I could sense that I needed to start learning the work of production design. It was quite fascinating to see how from pieces of cardboard or thermocol a house or piece of furniture could be constructed in a way that it appears real on screen. That urge to learn made me stay in the industry. However, soon, because of the lack of opportunities, I had to leave the industry and I concentrated on my personal creations.

Time changed as I got a call from Ramoji Film City [in Hyderabad] to work for a Bengali channel they were launching in 1997. That was a big opportunity for me and for the first time, I saw some huge canvasses there. I was sent back to Kolkata as they launched ETV Bangla and I worked for it for a long time.

I started getting offers from the Bengali film industry from 2003.

Who were the other art directors who influenced you and made you stay in the business?

I had made a trip to Mumbai, when I was concentrating on my own creations, taking a break from the industry. I had looked for art directors, including Sumit Basu, Samir Chanda and Ajit Patnaik. Ajit discouraged me and I had to return to Kolkata, but in Ramoji, I got the opportunity to work with many stalwarts of production designing, including Chanda, Nitin Chandrakant Desai and Sharmishta Roy.

Samir-da was always encouraging and said his door was always open for me. He recommended me to many directors and I will always be grateful to him. He was the one to introduce me to Mira Nair.

So tell us about the experience of working with Mira Nair on The Namesake.

Two assistants of hers from Mumbai had come to Kolkata to meet me before she finalized me for the project. They wanted my CV and wanted to know whether I had worked on any Hindi film before. I met them between works so I had no documents with me. However, they gave me the script and the next time when I met them, I went with the entire production design with me. They were quite amazed to see me doing so much work despite not having been finalized for the film. I was in a miserable financial condition then and so it was a big opportunity for me as they really appreciated my effort on the script.

Kal Penn, Irrfan Khan and Tabu in a scene from The Namesake

I mostly remember the warm reception I received from her [Nair] on the first day and consider it a greater recognition than any award. I went to her office without formal clothes. When I reached there, she came down and asked me to wait for some time as she was finalizing the cast. I was quite nervous as I saw stalwarts going in and coming out of her office, fearing the same fate for myself.

However, to the contrary, when she called me in, she told me she had a limited budget and needed my full support in working in 35 locations in Kolkata in 12 days altogether. I was shocked initially but assured her of my utmost dedication. She was quite satisfied with me as I took her to the locations and she handed me the script before leaving Kolkata. She confirmed me for the project.

Her confirmation was quite unreal for me as I remember there was a time when I was watching her Kama Sutra: A Tale Of Love (1996) with my friend. My friend had asked me when I would be able to do a work of such grandeur. I could only aspire then, for work of such a huge scale was hardly attempted.

You also worked on Te3n with Sujoy Ghosh.

I got selected for production designing for Te3n by Ribhu Dasgupta and Sujoy Ghosh. It was a dream-come-true situation for me as I had always admired Amitabh Bachchan as god since childhood. Not only did I get to work with him but he also appreciated my work on the set.

I remember one date clearly in this regard: 27 December 2015. I had both Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan on two floors of my workplace. I don’t know how many art directors have had this kind of fortune, but it was a big deal for me.

What are your most significant works in Bengali cinema?

Before Aparna Sen signed me for Goynar Baksho (2013), she was not much aware of my work. I went to her through a recommendation. In 2012, I got a call from Shrikant Mohta, who asked me to go to Rina-di’s [Aparna Sen's] place. It was a wonderful experience altogether and that film fetched me many awards. I am very grateful to my team for successfully putting up the work within a tight schedule of one month. The house was created out of five locations.

Kamaleswar Mukherjee’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (2013) is another film close to my heart. He recorded the entire script and then called the entire team to listen to it. I listened to it thoroughly and during the interval told him that it was getting heavy on me and I could not listen to more on that day. I wanted to process what I had heard till then and discuss with him about it. Thus, we started the production design of the film. Till now, I find people talking about that work and taking references from the set design.

Recently, I have done some interesting work in Guptodhoner Sondhane (2018) and Durgeshgorer Guptodhon (2019). We hardly get films in which there is scope for proper art direction. Primarily, we design normal sets of households and all but hardly get the opportunity to create an entire set which I could do in these films. Limitation of budget is another reason for the lack of opportunities.

Which was your most challenging work?

We had to create a set underwater in Kamaleswar Mukherjee’s Amazon Obhijaan. We had to submerge the set of an entire ship with hydraulic cranes in a 21-foot swimming pool four times as it was not submerging properly. The call time was 6 in the morning and we could finally get done with the entire process only at 5:30 am. It was an interesting experience for me.

Chakraborty (centre) with Kamaleswar Mukherjee (with walkie-talkie) during the making of Amazon Obhijaan

The person who shot the underwater sequences told me that when human beings are under water, the skin becomes like that of fish. He advised me not to keep any sharp lines on the set as that could wound the skin. It was a learning experience for me.

Also, I had made a 70 foot bridge that was turned into a 200 foot bridge through graphics. It was my first architectural work that involved physics to a great extent. My experience enabled me to create the bridge with a lot of practical knowledge. I had to be careful so that the bridge did not cause any harm to the animals and the artistes.

I am hoping these works will be analysed and discussed later by people.

Do you think the recognition technicians get in this industry is enough?

This is entirely a personal matter. However, I would say that art directors still don’t receive the recognition that directors or cinematographers do. I would not entirely blame the industry for that. I think we should be more educated in this regard. I always emphasize on considering the mistakes and rectifying them when I work with my team. I feel more educated technicians can change the scenario of recognition.

On the other hand, I would like to say that producers and directors are investing more thoughts in art direction these days. Art direction now is not only about set designing but also about lending shades to the related characters and circumstances. Art direction is not simple any more, directors these days are coming up with various challenging scripts.

What is the basic pattern of your work?

I am more able to grasp a concept when someone reads it out to me, rather than reading it myself. It is a habit since childhood. The visuals form better in my mind then. Therefore, I always make it a point to be present at the script-reading sessions and then discuss my vision with various references from real life.

Normally, I take shots of real locations and change them on PhotoShop according to the demand of the script. The design then reaches all the departments and they update me with necessary changes. It also helps to cut down work on the sets.

See, we don’t have guidance books for art direction. The government of West Bengal is attempting to establish an institution in this regard and I am on the advisory committee. I am hoping we can engage students in a similar process through discussion and debate.