Sometimes, it takes a death to remember the living. So it is with Samir Chanda’s sudden death last week. Obituaries highlighted his achievements, with a special mention of his work in Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar, Dil Se.., Guru and Raavanan/Raavan. Some articles bemoaned the anonymity that governs the contributions of production designers like Chanda, who create the world within which movie plots unfold, but who often don’t get recognized for it.
The truth is that at least in recent years, greater attention has been paid to the processes that go into making a film. The spotlight has swung beyond the star’s shoulder to cinematographers, art directors, costume designers and sound recordists. In comparison, you will be hard-pressed to find a proper interview with film technicians from the past. Sudhendhu Roy created the definite Indian aesthetic for several landmark movies. He imagined rural India in Bandini, captured working-class Mumbai in Bluffmaster and created Bond-inspired fantasy spaces in the original Don. Yet, it’s difficult to find a decent interview with Roy or a discussion on how his work influenced the way the movies were received.
It isn’t that journalists and writers haven’t tried. Writing about popular cinema has caught on, and it’s only a matter of time before star biographies and books about landmark movies give way to accounts of behind-the-scenes players. But researchers will find this tough. History can only be as good as the available material. Indians in general don’t write things down and don’t file away anecdotes in their memory bank. They’re slippery on dates and hazy on details. Or they will indulge in the great Indian sin of self-aggrandizement.
Jerry Pinto, the author of a wonderful new Penguin anthology, The Greatest Show on Earth, said that you can dig for the past only when you have the right tools at hand—and you know you will find something valuable. “I believe that we all hold firmly to the myth that this material must be somewhere,” Pinto said. “It isn’t. It isn’t because no one in Bollywood writes anything down. Not the script, not the storyboard, not anything.” The magazine or newspaper feature story can be a good starting point for a dialogue, but many of the technicians working in Hindi cinema don’t make things easy. Few cinematographers, for instance, can intelligibly tell you why they shot what they did. It all depends on the script, they will say. Not too many production designers are articulate enough to express their approach to the sets they created. We followed the director’s instructions, is their explanation. Few people hold on to their anecdotes, probably because they feel that nobody cares to listen.
Gritty: Wasiq Khan is the art director of That?Girl in?Yellow?Boots.
Among the art directors working today, the creations of Sabu Cyril and Wasiq Khan deserve greater attention. Cyril is a master of the make-believe, while Khan is the go-to man for gritty realism for directors like Anurag Kashyap. Khan’s contributions to Kashyap’s upcoming That Girl in Yellow Boots (releasing on 2 September) are on a par with the director and actors of that movie, as is the lovely work by cinematographer Rajeev Ravi. Not many films being made in Mumbai these days merit a second look, but for the ones that do, it would be nice if somebody maintained a diary or took notes—or at least remained alert.
Nandini Ramnath is the film critic of Time Out Mumbai (www.timeoutmumbai.net).
Write to Nandini at email@example.com