Vijay Krishna Acharya’s Thugs of Hindostan is among the most anticipated releases of the year. The big-budget Yash Raj Films production promises a cinematic spectacle that brings together Bollywood stars Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan on the screen for the first time.

The period drama, which will be released in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu on November 8, is set in 1795 and traces the power struggle between British-backed Firangi Mallah (Khan) and Khudabaksh (Bachchan), a thug who fights the East India Company. The cast includes Katrina Kaif, Fatima Sana Sheikh, Lloyd Owen, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub and Ronit Roy.

To get the look and feel of the period right, a team of designers got down to work nearly three years before the film went into production, production designer Sumit Basu and costume designers Manoshi Nath and Rushi Sharma told Edited excerpts from the interviews.

Sumit Basu: ‘The ship is the biggest part of the film’

“I joined the project in May 2015. It has been two years of complete pre-production work, after which we started filming in June 2017. By that time, we had gone through the script and found many references.

The ship is the biggest part of the script. We started designing the two ships in 2015, after which we made a mock-up for the action team to practise. With the mock-up, we got a clear idea of the size of the ship.

After we locked the design, we outsourced its construction. Very few studios in the world have water facilities. Malta has one of them. We hired Ino Bonello, an art director in Malta.

There were two things about the ship. One was the size, and the other was how it would work in the water. We made the entire ship with the help of structural engineers and ship builders from Malta and took it to the waters. It was a magical moment to see the ship floating.

Thugs of Hindostan (2018).

One thing we were strict about was to not draw references from any movies. We found this ship called El Galeon [a reconstructed Spanish ship, styled on vessels used in the sixteenth century] for reference.

The next set was the cave. We got a cave with a water body next to it. We had a set of a forest, on which we built a village in Thailand. Shooting a song on the Thailand set was difficult. When I was there, working for over a month with local carpenters and the team, the place was filled with scorpions and snakes. So we decided not to shoot the songs there. We recreated a part of the set at Film City [in Mumbai] for the song Vashmalle. The film was shot in Thailand, Malta and Rajasthan.

Building the ship in Thugs of Hindostan.

Our references were from real architecture. We are talking about Awadh, so we researched the architecture used in Awadh. The creative freedom lies in the material, rather than the designing. The background gives a platform to the film. If you start disbelieving the background, then the film will fall apart.

In those days, directors used to tell you what to design. But now, you become a part of the film at the script-writing level. You are in communication with the director and start understanding the world of the film. Everybody is responsible for a film today.”

Manoshi Nath and Rushi Sharma: ‘Believable suspension of fantasy’

“Even though the film has been shot a little over a year, the work was over two-and-a-half years. It was made on international standards. Every shoe and piece of armour has been fabricated in our unit. All of the jewellery has been created by us. There was no question of anything left to chance on the sets. Nothing was last-minute. Every scene was storyboarded and every costume was worn and rehearsed.

Viktor [director Vijay Krishna Acharya] was very specific about the era in which the script was situated. While being true to the era, the world we were creating needed to be a believable suspension of fantasy.

The fantastic thing about that time [1790s] is that commercial photography had not come in. Once our research became strong enough, we took help from Raja Deen Dayal’s photography for the kings he documented. We spoke to scholars and historians. We also referred to the paintings of Emily Eden and Rudolf Swoboda.

The costumes of Thugs of Hindostan.

The first six months were just research. Certain things in the film are historical, about which we could not go wrong. For example, the army and the events that happened in India. For the film to become seamlessly region-less in a way was a challenge. It is easy to do a Rajasthan, Maharashtra or Hyderabad-centric period film. But we had to make our own world, which was fairly neutral in its space.

The biggest challenge was to find the correct army references, for which we went to many museums. A little museum near Jodhpur was where we found the correct fabric and silhouettes for the uniforms. We also checked the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, but we could not get information for this era. Osprey Publishing too had a lot on this subject.

The next stage was talking to renowned publishers who document history, including the India Memory Project and the Alkazi Foundation.

When you do a film entrenched in history, one of the biggest challenges is to figure out the colour palette. Our only references were the art, fabrics and weaves of India. The mural paintings and architecture got us the colour of that time.

There are different worlds in the film, with different elements and economic stratas. In each of these worlds, we had a colour story to tell. The mood of a scene gets registered from the colours in the costumes.

Mr Bachchan’s character in the film, Khudabaksh, is at the grassroots level. He believes in basic honour and self-respect. He is a simple farmer at heart. We kept his fabric earthy with hem, jute, soft linen and cotton muslin. On top of that are the layers of chogas [robes] and jamas [ankle-length coats], which were all handwoven with leather.

The armour is what gives Khudabaksh strength. One interesting thing about his character is that he fights with two swords in the sheath on his back. That is part of the power of his character. These were some of the things we built into the character.

Amitabh Bachchan as Khudabaksh in Thugs of Hindostan. Courtesy Yash Raj Films.
Amitabh Bachchan as Khudabaksh in Thugs of Hindostan. Courtesy Yash Raj Films.

The lovable scamp that is Aamir Khan’s Firangi

When we moved to Bombay, we did a script-writing course. When you write a character-driven script, there are things you need to know about. Like where the character comes from, his social strata, his relationships with his friends and family.

Earlier, costume designers were among the last people to be taken on board when it came to the technical and design departments. But today, we are among the first people who are called. That makes our life so much easier, because we have so much more time to think and design.

We do love glamour, but the glamour has to be justified in the script. The storytelling has become so important, which is why from being a high-fashion glamour-oriented version, costume design has become character-driven.

Aamir Khan’s Firangi in Thugs of Hindostan. Courtesy Yash Raj Films.
Aamir Khan’s Firangi in Thugs of Hindostan. Courtesy Yash Raj Films.

Firangi instinctively attracted us. He is lovable and charming, but at the same time, he is the one who is double-crossing you. He is an Indian, but his name is Firangi. He does not identify himself as an Indian. Except for his dhoti, which is the most Indian part of him, his shirt, the leather tail coat, his mismatched boots, the chatelaine belt and sunglasses are all stolen from other people. One of his shoulders has an epaulette that he has stolen from a soldier. He views the world with his rose-tinted glasses.”

(As told to Sruthi Ganapathy Raman.)