We are at the Dome arena inside National Sports Club of India, Worli. The massive auditorium is silent but for our echoing footsteps. Then, the arena doors open to a 4,000sqft, 360-degree surround set. The scene houses four life-sized huts, a water fountain with a lion’s bust, a well, two bridges, numerous trees, a tavern and a bakery. In the background runs a 30ft grey wall signifying the boundary of the village.
There’s a dim yellow light, which suddenly goes out. A deep rumble erupts, and a 40ft archway appears out of nowhere. Its façade is lined with fairy lights; flags adorn its spires. The design is inspired by the Baroque era, which allows for dramatic shadows. Under the archway stands a castle, complete with red velvet curtains, marble staircases and bronze figurines lined along the balcony. The village, mysteriously, is nowhere to be seen.
“The castle stays hidden behind the village. When a scene requires the castle, we roll the village off stage, and back out when needed,” says set designer Varsha Jain. The castle and the village are the settings for Disney India’s Beauty and the Beast, the musical that’s now in its second season.
Jain, a veteran in the set design industry in India, has created sets for large-scale, open-air awards shows such as the Filmfare Awards and reality shows like Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa. How different was designing a fairy-tale theatre set? “The first big factor was the scale of this project. And it’s a Disney production. So, we had to work within a set framework of fantasy, magic, grandeur and, of course, practicality,” says Jain.
Interestingly, this isn’t Jain’s first experience with Beauty and the Beast. She worked on the original Broadway production in New York as an intern in 2000, and had a fair idea of the elements she would need. “But there was a difference: Broadway theatre is in a permanent space. You have to work within those dimensions. Here, I was given an entire arena to utilise. The possibilities were endless,” she says.
And so, with a 12-member team, and a 200-labourer work army, Jain designed the sets over six months. Ahead of the performance, she would only have four days to assemble it all. “The set was designed in a way that it could be assembled easily. The castle archway, for instance, is made by putting together 108 separately designed pieces,” shares Jain.
After its first season in Mumbai (in November 2015), the musical travelled to Delhi. “Everything was ferried to the capital in 72 carrier trucks. Thankfully, nothing was damaged in transit,” says Jain.
Attention to detail
Despite the scale, the nuances of each element are remarkable. For instance, the roof of Belle’s house is mounted with a windmill and giant telescope, because her father is a scientist who keeps experimenting with gadgets, explains Jain.
Similarly, the castle archway houses an emblem for the Beast’s kingdom: a winged rose with swords behind it. “The wings are an ode to the fairy who curses the prince; we chose a rose because it’s a symbol of time through the story; and swords signify bravery,” says Jain.
What’s most impressive, however, is the use of technology. To add depth to the set, LED screens are installed as the stage backdrop. The images projected on these screens were first hand-painted by Jain, and then worked on by animators.
So how does it feel when it is torn down, given the effort put into assembling it? “The only respite is that it is not discarded. We’re in our second season. Hopefully we’ll be back for a third,” says Jain.
Disney India’s Beauty and the Beast will be staged on May 21 and May 22, 7.30pm
Where: Dome at NSCI, Lala Lajpartrai Marg, Worli
Call: 2493 8813
Price: Rs 1,500 onward on bookmyshow.com/plays