#BehindTheLens: Production Designer Meghna Gandhi talks about designing for Rocket Boys, Pink, Manmarziyaan, and more!

Sakshi Sharma
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Meghna Gandhi

Were you astonished by the vibe and sets of Rocket Boys? Did Pink's courtroom feel like a real one? Meghna Gandhi spills the beans on production designing for these movies and gives us deets about her work so far.

How often does this happen to you? You're watching something onscreen and feel like being a part of it too? This isn't just about the storyline but it also has something to do with the space in which these actors or characters are interacting. This year's release Rocket Boys on SonyLIV was received very well by the audience because it set the bar too high. And it wasn't just because of its way of narrating the story but also its ability to make us go back in time. And that was only possible because of the incredibly flawless recreation of that era in front of our eyes. Films like Pink and Manmarziyaan with strong storylines worked their charm because the space that they were creating felt real whether it was a courtroom or a three-storied house somewhere in Punjab. So how does a series set in the 40s or courtroom drama or love story in Punjab feel so real? Production designer, Meghna Gandhi dives into all that goes behind creating these fictional worlds and how she got into it all!

Production design is that invisible part of the onscreen world that, if not done well, it can make fiction look very unbelievable. It aids the creation of a fictional world while blending effortlessly into the story so that we don't notice it specifically, but it helps make us travel into that world completely. Without production design, the wall of fiction won't stand on its own. How else would we travel into courtrooms while watching Guilty Minds or into the world of Kota in Kota Factory? Meghna Gandhi dives into practical details of how a fictional world is created, keeping in mind the vision of the director.

Here's what she shared!

While people watch the space and set in which the characters interact, they don’t really know about production design. What is the production design and what does a production designer do?

Production design is mainly designing the whole look of the film. In Bollywood that doesn't extend all the way to lighting and costume as well but we're in sync with every department, so that the overall look of the show is balanced. Even when we're designing a particular show or a set for example in Rocket Boys, we have two main protagonists, Homie and Vikram. And Homie with his entire character sketch had to be kept in a very cold palette which means it’s not just the color, it’s the lighting, it’s the costume, all of it together, till this is not done the way it needs to be in sync it doesn’t come across well.

Also Read: #BehindTheLens: Costume designer, Sheetal Iqbal Sharma talks about the process behind working on films like Gangubai Kathiawadi and more

Like when I’ve tried to give the set a very cold color palette or a muted one, but suddenly you see jarring costumes or skits of light that are very sharp and contradict the overall ambiance in the environment of the particular frame. So it’s essential to have the same tonality running through all departments, and that is what we do. We take three months of prep before we start a show or six months. It's because we sit and discuss every single aspect, every single set, what the color schemes will look like, color palettes of the set and costumes of that particular set, and what the lighting is going to be like so that everything looks well-merged, in totality, it looks like one family.

How did you get into production designing and become a designer?

I started by being a third assistant for a television show many years ago, probably two decades ago. There was a show on ZeeTv called Kitty Party and I was an AD for that show. During the making of that show, I used to do a lot of creative work on set and that is when Poonam Dhillon told me, "you know Meghna I think you’re in the wrong field, you should get into art" and it just sounded very interesting to me. After that, I switched to art direction and I was lucky enough to find a contact with the help of an ex-college friend who was already doing art direction. He connected me with a production designer and I assisted him for a couple of months only. Afterward, I got my own break and started off independently, so the switch wasn’t too much of a hassle for me.

Since then I have been in this business but having said that, I did a small course in filmmaking that covered all aspects of it. But being a creative person came easy to me and what comes easy to you becomes easier to do as well. Then no matter the late working hours or the schedule, everything can be very hectic but if you like something you end up enjoying it!

Talking about Rocket Boys, it's based on an era that we know and don't know as well. But in 8 episodes there is so much in terms of production design like the sets, different locations, scientific machinery, and more. It's heavily dependent on production design, so how did that work out?

Yes, it is and if the production design is wrong you won’t be able to relate to the show. But I feel it's not just production design but even costumes and all, everything overall matters. If costumes are wrong they might not look era-appropriate. If the lighting is wrong somewhere, somehow the way it’s shot, all of it is a combination of a lot of things. So you need to get it right, and like you rightly said, we know a lot about this period also but actually we didn’t have many photo references. We didn’t have much to refer to as study material. In today’s time, we know about Homie’s house where he grew up in Meherangir, it was auctioned a couple of years ago. After which there was a coffee table book of what all was found, the collectibles of Meherangir but that's over a period of another 30 to 40 years. But nobody knew what Meherangir looked like in the 40s and 50s. We had to depend a lot on archived videos from the films division. Whatever little bit we used to get as footage which was like one minute, one minute forty seconds.

How BARC looked or how any of these institutes looked in which Vikram Sarabhai or Homie Baba started, we didn't have a proper idea. So a lot of it was imagination also with the help of whatever photo referencing we got from Vikram Sarabhai’s family. We were lucky enough to actually visit his house in Ahemdabad. We had gone to meet Mallika Sarabhai, she kind off took us around, she showed us a lot of pictures, she took us through their personal albums, where you know we could at least pick up nuances of what it looked like in that time. Little things like what kind of paintings were there in the house, what cushion covers were there in the house, and what materials were usually used in the decor. So she helped us with insights into all these little details and then of course you have to put together all the information you have along with whatever you can create and procure with the given area, city, budgets, all of it like a culmination.

With a lot of locations, a huge timeline is also covered in the series with so many other things, and considering there wasn't much reference to the time period, how did you manage all of that?

With a lot of locations, there were a lot of parties, we were so packed and every time there used to be a party the DOP would be like, okay we need practicals, we need a source of light, and every time to get practicals which were period correct was a big big challenge for us. I mean this we are only talking about season 1, there are 8 more episodes, there’s a season 2 also to this with as many locations and one of the biggest challenges in this show has been getting the lights correct. Getting the practical light, source of light, and the fixtures, to be period correct. So with most things, you have to trust your judgment, and your creativity like okay this looks like it could belong to that period and it’ll go with it and as long as the audience shouldn’t find it to be disturbing. It should blend with the background and shouldn’t interfere with the acting, the dialogues, or anything. For that matter, even in Manmarziyaan, I think one of the things that Anurag Kashyap told me was that you know your sets and your background shouldn’t shout. It should blend so beautifully that the art direction should not be seen at all. So it’s actually quite challenging, for it not to shout. 

You worked with Anurag Kashyap in Manmarziyaan. That film looked so authentic in terms of production design. What was that experience like?

We shot that film in its entirety in Amritsar from start to finish. And one thing my director requested was not to carry anything from Bombay, So if you go to see carefully, even if somebody is eating bhajiyas in a newspaper, that newspaper is also in Punjabi. A lot of time it happens that we take props from Bombay, we take two tempi full of props and furniture from Bombay. But sometimes what happens is, little things that you see around like people in the market, what kind of bags they carry, the shopping bags, and all of it has a huge impact. So everything had to be hardcore local Punjabi from little details like things could be written in Punjabi or Hindi or English but at least the addresses will be correct to everything that we’ve used in that particular film, has been sourced from Amritsar and from the local markets of Amritsar. It was a small town film and everything has been sourced, begged, and borrowed. For instance, I remember in some scenes the dining table even been borrowed, we didn’t have to go to the market to purchase the dining table but we would actually go to the neighboring houses and see if anybody had something that fit our requirement and then they would be kind enough to lend it to us for a day or two days till we would finish shooting and we would return things. So that’s how we’ve literally done Mannmarziyan

That is so interesting but another interesting aspect of the film is that it's shot in a compact space and inside the house which looked like an everyday house. So how was the inside space was created?

Actually, all the houses that you see in the film were all real functional houses. Tapasee’s house in the film is seen a lot because of many chaotic scenes and wedding scenes with the family members are seen in the house in the background, walking around, doing activities. It was a three-story house so apart from our 6 main characters that were shown to be Tapasee’s relatives, baaki ke jo extra log the na, all of them were part of the house like they were part of the household kind of a scenario. The house was picked by our location people, and they did a great job at finding a very traditional one.

A lot of the times it happens that people look for tempo access or if vanity pohoch paayegi ki nahi but here there were no vanities, no tempos, mushkil se cycle pohoch rahi thi vo ghar tak ya auto rickshaw pohoch rahi thi and that was it. So that is how you get the authenticity of a small narrow lane with a small gali-kocche wala ghar. And the owners were also very supportive like a lot of the props and a lot of the decor of the house were theirs. We would actually buy new frames and give it to them and they would give us their old used frames so that it would just look naturally aged, and authentic. For every small thing, we would buy a new thing from the market and give it to the neighbors and they would give us their used ones, whether it was a toran, whether it was curtains, all of this we’ve actually exchanged. We’ve literally given people our new curtains and asked them for their old curtains and we’ve used that. So we’ve worked on that a lot. Even the bartans and all, when you see the kitchen scenes, we went to the chor bazaar and bought all used utensils. We’ve never bought anything fresh and used it in the movie because the shine of it is different as well as the texture.

Coming to your other project, PINK, a courtroom drama, how did the production designing process take place for that film? Because that courtroom looked quite real considering movie courts are quite different from real ones. Did you go to a court for reference?

Pink happened in two parts, one was the shoot in the girl’s house and Mr. Bachchan’s house, and in fact, all of the house interior bits, or rather the entire film except for the courtroom were shot in Delhi. But while we were in Delhi, we did visit a lot of actual police stations, and courtrooms there to recreate them. So how the courtroom looked and how everything else looked, we studied that. Though of course, we’ve taken a little cinematic liberty in actually making the courtroom, the way it’s shown in the film because there was also a reference to this Marathi film called 'Court' which was something our director really liked. He wanted to get that because it looked very real so he told us to get as close as that. And since half of the film was a courtroom drama, we were shooting with 6-7 cameras at the same time. So there was live editing going on and we needed a bigger space to be able to hide those 6-7 cameras and have every angle, having a camera on every actor due to which we had to kind off make the set a little bigger, but otherwise, I think slightly smaller space would’ve looked more appropriate as a courtroom.

Is there any production design work that you have really liked?

Recently I saw Gangubai and I loved it, and only a Sanjay Leela Bhansali can make a place like Kamathipura also look so beautiful. The sets were beautifully aged, everything about it was lovely, the fabrics, the texture, the walls, everything, the props, all of it, so that was something really nice. Coming to the old classics I don't have something specific but sometimes I really would love to know what went into making Mughal-e-Azam. In today’s time, it's so easy to do this, and every SLB film is as good as a Mughal-e-Azam set but at that time how did they achieve that level of production design, how were the workers, how were the actors at that time, it would be very interesting to know. These days we have a lot of shortcuts, a lot of thermacol, a lot of molding, and there is a cheaper alternative for a lot of things but at that time I don’t know how long they actually took to make sets of that scale and that detail. And even classics like Murder on the Orient Express with the trains are something. I would love to do a train coach, I’m very very fascinated about it, it really excites me and intrigues me, especially the old British era trains.

Considering that there is more focus given on production design these days do you think it's a great time to be working as a production designer?

Yes! There is lot of work and that too varied work like there are some production designers who are great at doing larger-than-life kinds of sets. And if we focus on my work, I do more realistic work which is a niche but there is a need for every kind of production designer. There are some who could do great fantasy work, then there are some who could create great, surreal sets. There are actually production designers who specialize in songs, in making sets for songs, dance sequences, then there are people who do mainly shows and events, so I think there is a scope for everybody. Whether it’s television, or now with OTT, there is a lot of work and it’s just up to you, where you fit, and what’s your calling. There are all kinds of shows and all kinds of requirements, varied ones for the kind of sets that the director has in mind, and if you fit the bill then great.

Varied work in production design brings me to you working in advertisements? Is the process different there or the same?

I mainly do ads! Films and web series are just, by the way, kabhi kabhi ho jaata hai otherwise mainly 10 months a year I’m only doing ad films. The work is more or less the same if anything it’s much shorter and quicker. So one ad it practically takes about 10-12 days from your meeting to executing the set to shoot and dismantle. In a month’s time, there are times when I’m doing 4-5 commercials a month and that’s enough. 4-5 commercials a month keep you as busy as it would be while working on a web series or a movie. So this way you get to work on varied things in a month. While doing ads every job is a completely new brief, some are very wacky, some are very over the top, some are very natural, some will be 1980s ka 90s ka look, and then suddenly a modern today’s look so it’s fun. I think ad films are faster and that’s why probably are easier.

You talked about dismantling, does your heart ever break while doing it because this is also something that you have built?

(laughing) There is a very clear understanding that till a set is not dismantled you’re not going to be able to make another set and neither are you going to get paid for it. So until you don’t break it you’re not going to get the money for it. So initially I would feel terrible, arey itna acha hai, why they are breaking it, and they are ruining it, and I would be shattered but now it’s been way too many years for me to have that feeling now. But still, with any set, you feel arey khatam hogaya but then we have photographs, for any good set we have it in our image bank that’s important. 

It's also visually there in the films and series even after you dismantle it. So it's there for eternity, no?

Let me tell you something in most of the cases, except for Mannmarziyan, if I have set up a whole room, only 60 to 70% of it is ever seen, there is always 30-40% of the set that is never exposed and by default, this is what it is. Especially in ads because we make sets just to be sure ki safety run out nahi hoye, so let’s make a safety wall, and obviously, you can’t make a plain safety wall, you prop it up also, you dress it up also but those are just precautionary extensions of the set which are never seen. So Mannmarziyan was the only film jahan camera 360-degree ghumta tha har set pe. And I think it was because of the director, Anurag was always like main kahin bhi ghumaunga camera so the entire house had to be kept ready. There was never oh it’s a 3 storey building so let’s just set up two storey ready, and let’s avoid the rest to save money. He would literally take the camera, enter the house, and shoot wherever he felt like shooting. The two rooms in which the owners lived in, those rooms were the only two rooms we were not allowed to enter so except for those, we have dressed every single room, every single corridor, every single nook and corner of the house. He has shot in a way exposing every single corner of the house. 

Since directors impact production design so much, how was working with Soojit Sircar, Anurag Kashyap and Abhay Pannu?

Oh absolutely excellent! In Pink it was Shoojit da and Anirudh, who is known as Tony da, he is a very chilled-out person and gave us the correct brief so it was no problem at all working with him. Plus this was actually supervised by Shoojit Sircar and I started my career by doing ads with him for the longest time. So Shoojit da has an exceptionally clear understanding. If there's a wall that needs to be propped and he needs only 40% of it or he needs only 45 % of it, he will clearly tell me ye wall kar aur 45% hi karr mein utna hi expose karunga. To date, I’ve not seen a person with more clarity than him and there is a lot of comfort with him since I’ve been working with him the longest and know his style of working for many years now. Abhay, I had worked with him on a Netflix show called Yeh Meri Family, it was a TVF show which came on Netflix for a short while, and it was again a period show, 1990s ka tha, so I know Abhay from that time. So he had seen my work and asked me if I could be a part of Rocket Boys, and things worked out and it was great working with him. He had a tremendous amount of faith and trust in me to leave a lot of decisions to me when it came to research, design, and especially the houses, which there were so many of them, that we had 127 locations in Rocket Boys. So we had to dress 127 locations where each location needs to look different from the other, and a lot of technical sets as well, he’s been extremely supportive in that matter. Anurag Kashyap is one such person who tells the production designer, aap karo..aap jo bhi doge mein shoot karunga uspe. And nobody has told me that before ever! The only thing he told me was if I don’t like something Meghna, I will remove things from the set and I told him sir I hope you don’t have to remove anything from my set, and he never had to remove anything and it was just very smooth for Mannmarziyan.

Talking about directors, is there someone that you look forward to working with?

Sanjay Leela Bhansali (laughs) I don’t know I just sometimes feel that it’s super challenging to be working on an SLB film. It’s definitely not easy, it’s probably years of effort that go into it but yeah I mean it’s a different kind of challenge altogether. So I’ve actually heard a lot about him from my maasi, so I’m a gujju, and when his mom used to host these garba events which my maasi used to be a part of in her youth and she has seen SLB being there, taking care of the decor for those sets and she used to talk to us about her experience of those olden days. And I find it extremely interesting. The scope and the scale of work could be massive and you will have to push your limit to achieve that. 

While you might have enjoyed Meghna Gandhi's work in these projects and many advertisements, she is currently busy working on more ads and preps for Rocket Boys season 2.

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