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March 23, 1999


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Set and match

Sharmishta Roy. Click for bigger pic!
Thump! Thump! The hammer keeps a deafening rhythm going, and with each strike, the nail bites deeper into the quivering plywood. Watching it, you have little time to register Sharmishta Roy's arrival. She apologises for making you wait for over an hour but you shake you head to say it's all right while blinking at the bangs.

There's a low ringing in our ears but Sharmishta appears quite unfazed by the noise; years of lingering in the carpenter zone have given her inner ears like a rhino's back. And so she goes about unmindful of that disorienting staccato beat, helping some people to find the right curtains for a hospital set or finding out just how best a painting can be used on a set.

Sharmishta is working on M F Husain's film Gajagamini. The sets are huge and very different from what she has been doing so far. Her last film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was the biggest hit of 1998. She was acknowledged for her use of vibrant colour, her recreation of the teen scene and, later, for Kajol's grand house. Art directors are no longer the backroom people they were.

For those who would expect a woman set designer to look like Hulk Hogan in skirts, Sharmishta, 34, is a petite lady who proves that plenty of energy can be packed in a pretty small unit. She has just dealt with a vegetable sandwich and a glass of hot Bournvita that her canteen man had forced on her. But that's enough to keep her going. It may be easier to feel full of bounce when you are being featured prominently everywhere, from glossy magazines to award functions.

Sharmishta has bagged the Filmfare award for art direction twice in a row. And already she begun collecting more than her fair share of critics. Carpers claim her sets are so vibrant, they are unreal. But it was just that slickness which Bollywood films lacked.

"We are creating fantasy," she says. And if there is a tiny cloud on her horizon, it is that she was no't nominated for the Lux Zee Cine Award this year. A frown crinkles the bit between the brows. "I find it strange that I don't get a nomination for the biggest hit of the year." And then she adds resignedly. "I guess everyone has a certain criteria by which they judge..."

Art director/movie director (Saudagar, Upahar) Sudhendu Roy's youngest daughter, she probably didn't find it too hard getting the right break. But the difficulty lay in stepping out of her father's shadow. And she did it in style with Yash Chopra'sDilwale Dulhaniya De Jayenge.

She has this tendency to get bored easily, which, in her trade, is a boon. So for the house in Prakash Jha's Mrityudand she recreated a heritage house after visiting one a cinematographer told her about.

'Buddhi' -- as she is nicknamed in the Roy home -- is quite used to wild location hunts or searching in odd places for fabrics like curtains, bedsheets, even napkin rings. For a person who led a laidback life and didn't know what career she would finally take up, she has become a workaholic. Her day starts at 0800 hours and sometimes ends at 0300 hours. It leaves her little time to socialise, but she thinks since her friends understand this, they are worth having.

One of M F Husain's paintings for Gajagamini
Sharmishta Roy tells
Sharmila Taliculam about the pleasures and pangs of being an female art director in a male world.

What sets are you working on now?

This set is for M F Husain's Gajagamini. The designs and the paintings are by him; I am converting his paintings into sets. I am just giving it a 3D form, that's all.

Is it very difficult to convert paintings into sets?

No, it's not. At first, I was quite doubtful about this film. I tried every trick in the book to avoid it. But now I am very happy that I am. I'm learning a lot. It's a different kind of a set. I don't think it's going to be easy to do this kind of a film again. It's very exciting.

How do you find this film? What is your opinion of it?

It's an absolutely surreal kind of a film. I am working through his [Husain's] mind, which works differently. It's quite fascinating. This film is about the strength of women. It's set in a different era and against a different background. He also depicts it differently.

It's different because it's not really a commercial film. There is some kind of a reference point. It's his visual after all...

Could you elaborate on that?

What I am doing is transforming his paintings into sets. So he decides the colour schemes and architecture. That's the whole idea of being involved in a project like this. If I had known that first, I wouldn't have dreamt of refusing it. I think this is fabulous. I know that I'm not going to get a chance like this again... probably. I mean, how many people would make films like this.

The film is so different. He is very different from others. He sees things in visuals all the time; he isn't so dominated by what the hero says, as in other films. When the film is ready, it's going to be a visual delight. I have heard the music and I think that is fabulous too.

What kind of films do you accept?

If the film is not too set-oriented -- and here I am not talking of just putting up sets -- it should be at least be ambience-oriented. And that is dependent upon the director. It has to be important to him what the film looks like. That would make me decide too whether I should take up the job.

It could look like anything. Good or bad is decided by what I do. Upmarket and downmarket is decided by what the director wants. For me to take it up, the film should have a definite character, in terms of personality and characters.

Click for bigger pic!
How many directors have been involved in your decision-making on the kind of sets the film should have?

Most directors have. That's why I select them too. If I thought they weren't involved, then I wouldn't have taken up their films at all. Actually, the whole team should be involved. There is a joint effort by the choreographer, the cinematographer, the costume designer... That way it's more exciting working.

It's not only the director who is involved, it's everyone. And I think that shows in the final product. It's a brainstorming session that goes on with everybody contributing. It doesn't happen at random. A group effort is necessary.

You read the script before accepting a film?

Yes, I demand the script before I start work. So I know what the director wants.

How do you know that?

I know how the director wants the character to be depicted from the script. And then I can add something new to that, in terms of props, colour, maybe in terms of the kind of house they live in.

That also, to a great extent, is decided by the director. But there are certain technicalities and details that a director may not be able to foresee. That's what an art director should do for him. It's kind of breathing life into what the director has visualised.

One could help build the character. It can be done through costumes or lighting. The art director designs specifically for that.

You use a lot of vibrant colours in your films. Why is that?

The kind of films I have been doing so far has been very yuppie. Vibrant colours suit that kind of a set-up. I'm sure that when I do different kind of films, ones that are more realistic, I will use suitable colours. The films I've been working on these days have been a little larger than life.

The colours I use are not traditionally Indian colours. Like, the colours are very different in Rajasthan. Look at what I'm wearing today. It's a very Indian colour. It depends on how you accessorise everything. You could use rust and make it look Indian and you can also make the same colour look extremely European. It depends on the entire set-up. The right colours in Rajasthan are bright pink, bright green, which I don't use on my sets. Because I haven't had cause to use them so far.

I use colours that are more Western. I think, because the entire ambience calls for that. It's not just the colours that give the film it's final look -- it's the furniture, the architectural designs... The films I have worked on so far have been like that. It suggests that the trend of films is changing. We are deliberately projecting an image that isn't Indian.

A still from Mrityudand. Click for bigger pic!
What about KKHH? You did use a lot of pinks and greens and vibrant colours?

That was the director's decision. The sets were not for Indian colours and so were the costumes. So it's one person's thinking involved in this. Karan (Johar) made it very clear that he wanted a very bright, youthful film. A colourful film. It worked for the kind of film he made. But, it's not as if this is the kind of look I use in every film I do.

Does it happen often that you are dissatisfied with a film because you thought the sets were not proper or the colour schemes wrong?

It happens very often. But the director's vision is most important. Because he is seeing the film, the characters, the personalities, in totality. And one must respect that. Unless one is so certain about what one is doing, one should always talk to the director and try and make him see things differently. Yeah, it happens very often. The director may not agree with what I am saying...

He has a definite idea as to what the character is. That is why he's directing the film. He has a clearer vision than I do. However, if I feel that the film is jumping between upmarket and then downmarket imagery, or if it is looking out of character, then I put my foot down. I think a film should have a consistent look.

There are rich people, there are poor people, there are eccentric people and there are normal people in the film. And every ambience should suit that character. But sometimes it happens that you are watching a film and it begins to get jarring in terms of sets and clothes. It doesn't work at all.

'It's not a bad idea to get bored of what you are doing': The Sharmishta Roy interview, continued

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