One of Samir Chanda’s last projects in Hindi before his untimely death was Delhi 6, 2009.

He is just not the most well-known art turned production designer in Bollywood but is on the wishlist of Bollywood’s biggest makers. He is on first-name basis with Shyam Benegal, Mani Rathnam and most in between. There is hardly a filmmaker he has not worked with and not one Indian award that he has not won. He is a Calcutta boy, who passed from art school, landed more by accident than by design in Mumbai and found himself in the film industry. He has also designed a special Production & Art Design Course at Film Camp and Television Institute of India at Pune. Yet SAMIR CHANDA’s heart lies in doing as much Bengali cinema as he can. His first Bengali directorial venture Ekti Nadir Golpo (Story of a River) awaits release and he has just finished doing the art design for the fictional Lalan biopic, Gautam Ghose’s Moner Manush. Chanda talks to Sayandeb Chowdhury about his films, graduating from art to production designing and why he keeps coming back to Bengali cinema. 

[Chanda, only in his mid-fifties, died of a massive heart attack within months after this interview. In Mumbai. He was duly mourned by the film fraternity.]

How would you define your career as an art director and production designer? 

I studied art in Calcutta and was very much into theatre and fine arts. Actually, I found myself in the Mumbai film industry quite by accident. In my initial years, I worked under Mr Nitish Roy, the noted art designer. You can say that I have come into my own in the last ten years. 

You have worked with whom we call the masters of Hindi cinema as well as the exciting new brigade which is making its mark in Bollywood

I am fortunate to work with Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Subhash Ghai, Mani Rathnam, Ketan Mehta as well as Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Mrinal Sen, Gautam Ghose. As for the younger ones, I have almost grown up and am friends with most of them. So when they took to filmmaking as a profession after hovering around for a few years here and there, I was almost condescending. But you bet, they have, in front of my eyes, turned into such exciting new talent. 

You are very close to Shyam Benegal.

I sincerely would like to believe that he is blind without me. He depends on me so much during making his films; he makes me feel almost pampered. I have been with his unit for many years now and there I virtually look after everything, even things like transfer of tapes and dates etc. 

You have turned into a production designer from an art director, apparently at the behest of Mr Benegal. 

Yes. It was during the shooting of his train docu-feature Yatra that I had to take up additional roles of a costume designer and assistant editor apart from being the art director. It was a work that was based entirely on the train and each day a new set of characters would embark and disembark bringing in and clinging to their mannerisms, characters, customs and clothing. I worked on each and every aspect of the set and costumes and what you call the ambience. I stayed on the train for two full months. I was just married. So Mr Benegal said, why don’t you hop on to the bandwagon, literally, and enjoy your honeymoon too? I don’t know what sort of honeymoon it was but Yatra gave me a huge perspective.    

Then you took it up seriously? 

I think I did my job well enough to have Mr Benegal suggest that I do this regularly. So I started calling myself a production designer who looks after a significant share of the film — costumes, dresses, décor, interior, furniture. And believe me, if it’s a niche film in which the director gives whole lot of attention to the ambience, having one person do the production design helps. Among the major films I have done this way are GuruDelhi 6Rang De BasantiRaavanOmkara etc.  

Does it give you a better grip on your art? 

Of course. I can keep a keen eye on various parts of the film. For example, for Delhi 6, I worked on the film from the day the script was finished and we spent hours deliberating on where to build the set. We did miniatures, models of entire city areas and tried to fit in the setting of the film. But it did not work. Then I called one of Rakesh’s key unit members and asked her to send me photos of places which have some resemblance to Delhi’s Chandni Chowk where the film was set. Finally, we zeroed in on a village near Jaipur and we created the entire set, complete with coolers, hangers, open balconies, wire meshes and the typically half-burnt, brick-finished, open-roofed houses and those jalebiwalasmilkwallahs, sweetwallahs etc who made makeup Old Delhi. We pasted the Jama Masjid and Red Fort to the scenery and bingo, we had Chandni Chowk! Could you make out if it was a set? The film gave me a host of awards (chuckles).  

Among the greats you have worked with who would you want to make special mention of? 

It is difficult to name. That they work with me, that they have find me suitable time and again make me feel humble and proud at the same time. But I must mention Mani Rathnam. I was in Vizag on a holiday when Bombay had released. It was a one-and-half decade ago. I lied to a hall manager that I was an assistant in his team to get an entry into a houseful theatre to watch the film. It was in Tamil. We were seven of us, all Bengalis. And we watched rapt. At the end of the film, I rued to my wife that here was a man and here was a movie and had I ever been part of it it would have been a prized experience. Cut to the sets of Mr Benegal’s Sardari Begum. I was as usual busy with two hundred aspects of the film when my phone rings and the other side it was Suhasini Mani Rathnam. She said that Mani wants to meet me. I went to Chennai and we hit it off. He wanted me to do Iruvar. Think of it! I am a Bengali who grew up in Calcutta and was now working in Mumbai and now I have to do a film that is Tamil (as well as Malayali) to the core. I could not make a mistake. I would have been lynched. But Iruvar happened and since I have been an integral part of Mani Rathnam’s films. But Mani is a very hard taskmaster. He pushes you and pushes you until the end. 

What about Vishal Bharadwaj? 

Yes, I must mention Vishal. You know Vishal is that rare talent who never makes you feel that he is working. I have not seen anyone working out a scene from just another session of gossip and adda. Mani and others need a lot of time, atmosphere and concentration and they bar people from their territory when they work on the scenes. Vishal just goes about it as he goes about chatting. He is quite a character and indeed a very talented maker of cinema.  

How was your experience working for Moner Manush

Gautam is a fine filmmaker and I have worked with him in all of his recent films. Moner Manush was different from his recent films to the extent that Moner Manush is in some ways a period film and the period, given Gautam’s eye for detail, had to be flawless. We created the entire ambience of 19th-century Kushtia in the forest of Tilpata. We planned to shoot in Tangail but the shoot got cancelled because the crowd became unmanageable. We had to move further into the forest and shoot at an old bungalow. It was hard but very rewarding. And the way the film has shaped up, it should do very well.

You seem to be coming back to Bengali cinema? Bengal has produced some of the best art directors. Is there a better school to learn art designing than from the masters like Ray or Ghatak? For me, coming back means a great opportunity to put to use in my own language what I have learnt all these years in Mumbai.