Suzanne Caplan Merwanji has a lean list of credits on the Internet Movie Database page, and one of them is wrong.

No, Merwanji did not create the paintings that were used in the Hollywood comedy The War of the Roses (1989). The 64-year-old production designer has tried to have the information corrected, but to no avail.

The information that is accurate, though, covers some of the best-looking Hindi films over the past 20-odd years. These include Dil Chahta Hai from 2001, Merwanji’s second film as production designer. Farhan Akhtar’s directorial debut was the first project by Excel Entertainment, the company Akhtar set up with Ritesh Sidhwani. Dil Chahta Hai, which is about three friends navigating the highs and lows of love and life, is still remembered for its distinctive look, careful use of colour and fashionable interior spaces that reflect the background and personalities of its characters.

As Merwanji notes, the primary role of production design in cinema is to render fiction believable. “Just because you like something isn’t enough, it has to be appropriate to the story,” she said.

Merwanji’s association with Excel Entertainment continued through Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) and, most recently, Gully Boy. Zoya Akhtar’s acclaimed movie about the rapper Murad from Mumbai’s Dharavi slum was shot on location and on sets dressed to look like the real thing. The February 14 release has been praised for the versimilitude with which it portrays Murad’s world, from his humble home in Dharavi to the streets from which he draws inspiration.

The movie stars Ranveer Singh as Murad and Alia Bhatt as his sweetheart Safeena, and among the production’s achievements was to get the A-listers into Dharavi rather than shooting them on sets elsewhere and filling in the background through visual effects. “Zoya does not like that thing at all,” Merwanji said. Initial discussions involved shooting in slums on the periphery of the city, before sticking to the conviction that if the film had to work, it had to be shot “in the centre of the city”.

Gully Boy (2019).

The Dharavi shoot was preceded by several debates. How to shoot in India’s largest slum, and ask Dharavi’s residents to vacate their homes for the duration of the production? How to ensure silence when Murad walks through the alleyways or dances along with his friend, MC Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi), for a music video?

Most of all, how to faithfully depict the details of Murad’s world – the ramshackle houses and shops nestled close to one another, the electric wires running over and across, the unending human traffic, the sense of higgledy-piggledyness and too many people and objects packed into too little a space?

“We finally decided on a slum set – that was one of the reasons I did the film,” Merwanji said. “Location manager Shiven did the most incredible job of finding a parking lot within the slum. I got really inspired by the location.”

On this patch of land, a set of a slum within the larger slum was built over a six-week period. Among the elements were Murad’s ground-plus-one house and the congested lanes outside and beyond. In all, Merwanji and her team built approximately 130 houses and 12 shops.

The lane outside Murad’s house in Gully Boy. Photo by Ruchit Rajguru.

“It needed to look real,” Merwanji said. “It had to not only work with the story, but also give a different view of the city. We have seen many films set in slums. One of the things that grabbed me was the idea of how circumscribed Murad is by his environment.”

Murad’s sense of entrapment is reinforced through dense, careful detailing. “I used a lot of bars, which foregrounds the sense of being caged,” Merwanji said. “We created a mezzanine in Murad’s house, and opened it out a bit so that you see what is outside. We eliminated the sky as much as possible. We didn’t put in a single shot of the sea.”

Ranveer Singh in Gully Boy. Courtesy Excel Entertainment/Tiger Baby.

Blue, the colour of newness and hope, was dropped from the spectrum of colours used in the production. “Usually, you see blue plastic everywhere, and I think it is hideous,” Merwanji said. “If we had to eliminate blue, we had to be committed to it. I talked to Zoya, and she loved the idea. That’s what I love about her – if she agrees to something, she remains committed to it. So our colour scheme included greens, terracotta, ochres and greys. We had neutral tarpaulin with us at all times to throw over any blue plastic we spotted.”

Safeena’s flat in the film isn’t in Dharavi, but the scaffolding that covers her building in the film was added. The bamboo grid gives Murad an easy entry point into Safeena’s home towards the end of the movie. “As a vehicle, it seemed like the most obvious thing,” Merwanji said.

A more important meeting point for Murad and Safeena is a small bridge in Dharavi. Behind them is a swarm of houses, and to their left and right is trash floating on sludge. “I call it the Romeo and Juliet bridge – it was there in the script,” Merwanji said. The initial idea was to shoot on one of Mumbai’s many overhead railway bridges, but since sync sound was used in Gully Boy, with dialogue being recorded on location, it would have been nearly impossible to control the audio.

“I asked the location guys to look for smaller bridges over the nullahs in Dharavi,” Merwanji said. “They found a tiny bridge. I was over the moon. We painted a few of the houses in the background – we did that everywhere.”

Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt in Gully Boy (2019). Courtesy Excel Entertainment/Tiger Baby.

Gully Boy adheres to what Merwanji calls “geometry” – the movement of Murad across the streets and upwards towards his goal of becoming a successful rapper. “Murad is moving horizontally and vertically, and the locations and the camerawork enhance this feeling,” Merwanji pointed out. “Everything is running in parallel and upwards and downwards. When Murad gets some more freedom, he moves to a slum that is on a hill – he is getting to the top. He has a huge window in his new house, and he sees another life and possibilities ahead.”

For props, Merwanji and her crew bought used items from Chor Bazaar and other flea markets in Mumbai. “We bought second-hand doors, windows, staircases, and recycled patra [tin sheets],” she said. “I love patra, I could put it in anywhere. I don’t see the point of buying something new and aging it. Doing a patina on things isn’t easy. It’s better to buy existing items from people and compensate them with money or fresh replacements.”

The warren of streets where Murad and MC Sher shoot for the video Meri Gully Mein is part of the set, as is the garage belonging to Murad’s friend, Moeen (played by Vijay Varma). However, the mosque where Murad prays is a real one, in Andheri in north Mumbai.

Mere Gully Mein, Gully Boy (2019).

The shoot in Dharavi lasted a little over two weeks, and the production crew worked out of tents built on the periphery of the set and concealed from view by metal sheets. “It was practical for us to have our production base right next door, which could be made to look like a continuation of the slum,” Merwanji said.

Residents were curious but did not bother the crew. “I can’t tell you how incredible and wonderful the people were – first of all, they are so busy, they are getting on with their lives, and nobody interfered with us,” Merwanji said. “Me with my bad Hindi, you can imagine, but people were incredibly kind. I speak khichdi Hindi, and it’s nice to give people some entertainment.”

Merwanji is British, and has been living in India since the 1980s. She picked up her Hindi from conversations with taxi drivers. She has family back home in England, but Mumbai and Goa are home. “I am so used to India – it’s in my veins, in my blood,” Merwanji said. “And the thing with Bombay is, people are here for a reason. They are here to make money, improve their lives. Bombay is a yes-can-do city. This is nowhere else in India.”

Suzanne Caplan Merwanji.

Merwanji first visited India in 1978. Her training is in art history, but when she arrived here, it was to further her interest in textiles.

She briefly worked with a friend in South India who ran a non-profit that helped women weave textiles. Along the way, she met and married Pervez Merwanji, a director of documentaries and the acclaimed feature film Percy.

A rare look at working-class Parsis in Mumbai, Percy was adapted from a story by the writer Cyrus Mistry. It was completed in 1989. Pervez Merwanji died two years later.

In the 1980s, the Merwanjis settled in Colaba in South Mumbai. Suzanne Caplan Merwanji began working in advertising, and assumed a variety of roles. She was a stylist for the advertising company Trikaya, and also worked as a model coordinator and location scout. “I remember never sleeping – there were no phones or computers,” she recalled. “I don’t know how I did it. But it did give me an overall feel of all that was required.”

Through the ’80s and ’90s, Merwanji picked up skills in various departments, including set decoration and costume and wardrobe design. She also worked in a few films. In Percy, she is credited as assistant art director. In Mira Nair’s Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996), she was an assistant set director. She was also a part of the art department on the India schedule of Nair’s revisionist Vanity Fair (2004) and a set decorator on Wes Anderson’s India-set The Darjeeling Limited (2007).

Percy (1989).

The person who is known as the production designer was simply called “art director” in the old days. “Production design is still relatively new, not just in India, but also in the West,” Merwanji pointed out. A great deal of ignorance exists about what production designers actually do on a film set, she added.

“The production designer is responsible for the look of the film,” Merwani explained. “We work with the costume department, for instance, in terms of the colours that need to be used. We are involved with directors from the beginning of the production, including on the choice of locations. The right hand of a production designer is the art direction department, which is responsible for constructing and executing anything that needs to be constructed for a film. That can mean sets constructed in a studio or on location.”

The left hand of the production designer, Merwanji added, is the set decorator, who is sometimes confused for the production designer. “This is a tremendously undervalued job,” Merwanji said. “Unfortunately in India, unless you are the boss, you don’t get kudos or respect for the work you do. The set decorator is responsible for decorating everything, from the interiors of the sets to the exterior locations. I don’t think people realise how many exterior locations are dressed, how many details are added. What do the characters like to surround themselves with? What do they have on their desks, and what sort of a bed do they have? This is like a subtitle to the story, it tells you as much about the film as the script does.”

On Gully Boy, her main crew comprised set decorator Dhara Jain, assistant production designer Bindiya Chhabria,
on-set art director Arvind Ashok Jain, supervising art director Shekhar More and art director Roshan More.

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011), on which Suzanne Caplan Merwanji was production designer.

Merwanji’s list of credits is scanty, and that is deliberate. “I don’t do a lot of feature films – I am very careful and particular about the director and the production company,” she said. “To work on a feature means seven-eight months of your life. The job involves hardship, grit. If you think that it’s going to be glamorous, it’s not the job for you. We are always working ahead, if we don’t have our systems in place, we can’t do the job.”

Among the reasons she decided to take on Dil Chahta Hai was that Farhan Akhtar wanted to make the movie at one go, rather than split the production over several phases. “I have only taken up jobs that I can do in one schedule – it is practical and makes for a better film,” she said.

Dil Chahta Hai needed to look slick, like an “advertising film”. Its characters are affluent and trendy, and live in a Mumbai bubble that is believable as well as aspirational. The production design attempted to match the characters played by Aamir Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Akshaye Khanna and Dimple Kapadia, among others.

“For instance, Aamir is cold in the film, a selfish young man, and his apartment, I hope, reflects that,” Merwanji said. “Colour allows you to say a lot about the characters, which is why Aamir has these blues and greys – a bit cool. Saif is a more simple kind of guy, so we used primary colours. Akshaye comes from an artistic background, and I had observed these apartments in Bombay that had this ethnic, sophisticated style.”

Saif Ali Khan and Akshaye Khanna in Dil Chahta Hai (2001). Courtesy Excel Entertainment.

Merwanji is critical of some aspects of Dil Chahta Hai. “One of the first lessons I learnt is that I was building sets much bigger than I needed to,” she said. “Dimple’s house was too big, and you saw how big it was. Now, I would rather build smaller, put in false ceilings. People think that production design means making huge sets, but that’s not what it is all about. When nobody knows what’s a set and what isn’t, that is the best compliment.”

Also read:

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‘Gully Boy’ music: Four years, 18 songs, 54 collaborators, and an ‘absolutely nuts’ Ranveer Singh