Don ka intezar toh gyarah mulkon ki police kar rahi hai lekin ... Don ko pakadna mushkil hi nahin namumkin hai!’ So went the iconic line in the Shah Rukh Khan remake of the popular 1978 film, Don. However slim the chances of the police from 11 nations catching Bollywood’s coolest don, there is nothing that is namumkin for an enterprising art designer.
Whether it is conjuring up a fantastical train for The Darjeeling Limited, a telegraph office in Goa for The Bourne Supremacy, Shah Rukh’s getaway plane in Don or even a picture-perfect storm for West is West, Aradhana Seth has created them all. The artist and production designer, daughter of Justice Leila Seth and sister of author Vikram Seth, is out with Spacemates, a show of installation art, on at Delhi’s Instituto Italiano di Cultura till February 28. Seth discussed her show, the nuances of production design and Matt Damon’s charm over chicken steak and chai at Delhi’s CMYK Book Café. Excerpts from the interview.
What was it like to grow up as the daughter of India’s first woman chief justice and the sister of a literary superstar?
Actually, when I was growing up, my mother was a barrister and my brothers were in school. My father [Prem Nath Seth] studied footwear design in England and worked with Bata for many years. In the early Sixties, we stayed in Digha in Bihar on the grounds of a shoe factory. We grew up with a lot of discussion in the house. My mother liked Western classical music, dad liked Indian classical. We discussed a lot of things at the dining table, where sometimes, dad would place shoes designed by him! We were debating, writing and formulating ideas about the world and ourselves. But we would also do normal things children do, like run after rabbits. Vikram may have been a star of the literary world but to me he was like any other older brother. He read a lot, played the flute and was always very bright.
When did you first realise you had a geographical imagination?
It first developed as a kid when I was playing hide and seek. I grew up in Patna and Kolkata where there was no television and people were always playing monopoly or scrabble or hide and seek or dark room. Finding a space to hide as a kid helped me develop a sense of layout. As a kid I would walk into the house and try and begin rearranging the furniture in my head. Move the chairs here and put a long table there etc. In my imagination I tried to arrange colours and developed the first sense of cinema in me.
What is the toughest part of being a production designer?
The part where an action hero unleashes destruction, smashing vehicles and sets that you have created with so much love. You want to cry and keep some distance. The four houses we built for The Bourne Supremacy were bulldozed and so did the one we created for West is West where Om Puri and his family stayed. That really is heart-breaking.
What is Spacemates about?
It is the result of my collaboration with Italian artist Andrea Anastasio. In the exhibition space, paintings of household objects look at the viewer while the sculptures are made out of manipulated daily life objects. The jugalbandi happened since Andrea and I are similar in our ways of seeing, especially in relation to objects. To both of us, they signify memory and longing.
What was it like working with Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass?
Paul is an instinctual director who understands how a small canvas can flow into the big. His genre till The Bourne Supremacy had been bigger independent films like Bloody Sunday [which depicted the 1972 shootings of Northern Irish anti-internment activists by British soldiers]. We were going to build this house in Goa. We designed and built four houses in Goa for The Bourne Supremacy. The houses were in Palolim and we took part of a bridge in Nerul and we recreated an STD booth and telegraph office in Panjim. We were told to make it into a telegraph office by tomorrow. The house had to have flywalls. We had to put structural beams so that the walls could fly and you could take the cameras in. Matt [Damon] endeared himself to the crew and me. At the end of the shoot, we made portraits of him and Franka Potente. The one with Matt has an Enfield Bullet in the backdrop. I gifted it to him since it reminded him of the time he shot in India. He took great care to remove the wrapping paper. He said his mom was a hippie who never threw it away. After the whole shoot had come to an end, at the post-production editing stage, the studio executives called me to Los Angeles for four days to shoot at six locations. We had a corner of Goa, a bit of Rome, Langley, Moscow and remake and match for the edit.
The fondest memory from your movies?
With a surgeon’s precision: A still from Don, where Aradhana Seth created a futuristic operation theatre.
A research trip for Deepa Mehta’s Water, for which we stayed at the Ganges View hotel on the Assi Ghat in Benares. We were accompanied by Vikramaditya Motwane, who was her assistant director and Anurag Kashyap, who was doing the Hindi script. In Benares, Anurag’s parents came to see him and the manner in which he touched their feet was really touching. On the plane back, Anurag read out the script to us. She made it happen...
West is West: For the 2011 comedy film, a sequel to East is East, we created a sandstorm without using special effects. Bags of multani mitti and sand were poured through a sieve. Then we got huge storm fans and people poured sand into them.
The Darjeeling Limited: Director Wes Anderson and Adrien Brody were obsessive about getting the look of the film right, down to the train engine, the dining car and the second class compartment. We had to create a luxurious locomotive royalty would love to ride in. We even painted Starry Night, a 50 X 10 ft mural of elephants, on the dining car’s ceiling. Don:
The operation theatre from where Boman Irani shifts Shah Rukh was all chrome and glass. We even equipped it with a 12-screen monitor for the neurosurgeon. From HT Brunch, February 24
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