The face of fascism is hairy, has sharp teeth and a disturbing affinity for human flesh. In writer-director Dibakar Banerjee‘s Ghost Stories short, society is overrun by several such creatures who have ‘evolved’ from human beings. When an unnamed government employee (Sukant Goel) finds himself caught in their crosshairs, he must adhere to a strict set of rules to stay alive. Worst of all, to truly blend in, he must eat what they eat.
Gulshan Devaiah plays the Alpha, a creature who has succumbed to his animal instincts, so much so that he devours his own daughter. The role involved watching hours of footage of animals hunting, shaving his ankles and spending 14 hours a day inside the ‘claustrophobic’ bodysuit. “We decided from the beginning that we weren’t going to use CG because we had very limited time. Dirty Hands Studio and I decided that this was going to be the best piece of prosthetic design that India had ever seen,” says Banerjee. He, Devaiah and Zuby Johal of Dirty Hands Studio in Bangalore spoke about bringing this compelling creature to life.
Dibakar: There was a brief that I gave myself – as people start eating people in that world, there is an evolutionary change that happens incredibly fast. Millions of years of evolution is compressed into a few weeks. As they start eating people, they begin evolving towards hunting and eating once again, physically. So their running muscles become very powerful. Since their sight is also evolving, they lose it for the first few weeks or days. Their sight becomes more attuned to movement rather than static. Humans can see static very well and movement not so well. A lion or hyena or a predator are less adept at seeing static objects, but their eyesight becomes very sharp when these objects move. That’s the rule of ‘hilte hai to dikhte hai’ – the creatures can’t see you if you freeze. Because their eyesight is weak, their sense of smell becomes acute. Their teeth evolve to adapt to a carnivorous diet. The neck is thrust forward, the nose becomes a snout. The jawline becomes massive and hairy.
The evolution also depends on what kind of a human being you were before you started morphing. Alpha is the guy who started this, so he is the most evolved. The alpha was made nice and hairy because in my mind, he was always cool. I find him quite sexy. He’s stylish, in an animal way. I find that leaders, even when they’re bloodthirsty killers, have something that attracts the masses. It’s a sense of power, a sense of style, the way they dress. They’re always personable, well-spoken. They’re very watchable. The demagogues and ideological predators in our society are rather stylish.
Gulshan: The character’s name was ‘Rhea ke Papa’ though it’s never mentioned. He’s the leader of the pack, the alpha and is the most evolved. He’s the first to transform. Through the film, the creatures have very poor vision but by the end you see that his is improving. From out-of-focus, it goes slightly into focus. So the creatures are also evolving. They progressively get more intelligent.
Dibakar narrated it to me when he was still in the process of writing it. He basically took about two hours to tell me what was essentially a half-an-hour-long story. He was very clear that he wanted an actor and not a stunt performer.
Gulshan: I watched lots of videos of animals eating and even just being. Dibakar’s team would send me videos of lions hunting down and eating zebras. I have cats at home and for 15 days, I would just observe how they moved and what sort of expressions they had. Animals are not as expressive as human beings. They go from being expressionless to snarling and growling. The transitions are very abrupt. As actors or human beings, we tend to exaggerate our versions of what these animals are like.
We did workshops to understand how to really mimic animal movements, how to tone it down because there’s always an inclination to do more when you’re in costume. I had a stunt double called Giles D’Souza. He’s a physical trainer who specializes in animal movements. I trained with him and a stunt team for 12 days to learn quadruped running and jumping – how to run and walk on all fours, how to jump onto a table and off a table and land on your hands first and not your feet, like animals – especially cats – do. That’s quite hard, even for the trainers, because your shoulder joints aren’t built like that. The hip joints and the thighs are much stronger and can take that load. It was quite a physical performance.
We shot for seven days. Dibakar would keep saying, ‘I need a gunslinger’s walk’ The physical work helps you to realize a lot about the character.
Zuby: Dibakar said it had to be a ‘creature’ that was half-human and half-animal. It was an ambiguous brief. He was also clear that it was not a zombie, it was a creature. His brief for the teeth was that they should be a mixture of a hyena’s, a dog’s and a lion’s. So we studied those. An illustrator sat with him and and interpreted his thoughts. We’d sit and tweak it, see if he liked it.
We’ve been making silicon suits since 2008 but this is the first time in India that someone has created a foam latex bodysuit. You can’t get latex down to India in liquid format because it’s classified as a hazardous material. It can burn easily so it’s not safe on a plane or ship. But once you mix part A and part B, it solidifies. Foam latex is similar to your mattress material, but thinner. It’s very flexible. We knew that Dibakar was going to be shooting in very harsh conditions. The actor would need to jump and perform stunts so the suit needed to be lightweight. That’s why we thought of latex.
We first made a human-like mould out of fibre, based on Gulshan’s proportions. Then we added clay and sculpted on top of it so it began looking like a monster. Since you need to pour latex inside the moulds to get a cast, we sent them to prosthetics artist Logan Long in Utah.
The casts were sent back here, where we painted the bodysuit and grafted the hair onto it. The hair is a combination of six natural hair colours that have been dyed and mixed together. Dibakar left the colour of the creatures up to us. Since we wanted to show that it’s the men who’ve turned into monsters, we matched the fur to the actors’ skin tone.
The teeth were made of lacquer. There’s a scene in which he has to pull the meat and eat it. It was a challenge to ensure that the teeth didn’t fall off. We made a clip-on system so it would stay in place.
Gulshan: Wearing the suit was extremely claustrophobic, like you’re locked inside a small cabinet. I would use all my facial muscles to get my nose to twitch, because the prosthetics do not really move with your skin. All the micro-movements that animals do are absolutely not possible with the prosthetics. I had to practise that and we didn’t have much time because the suits had to come from the US. I got mine a day before the shoot.
It takes four hours to put on the suit because it’s in various pieces. You’re not supposed to wear it for more than four hours but eventually, I would be in it for 14 hours because the rains would not let us shoot. So I would wait and just sweat buckets. It would take an hour-and-a-half to get out of it. It was a gargantuan effort to pee. It weighed around 10kg. You have to shave your ankles and wrists because the hair gets pulled when you try to take it off.
Dibakar: By the time we designed it, we realized it looked like many other monsters that many other people have done. The disadvantage of not doing CGI and doing a suit is that the human form limits you in certain ways. But we were okay with that.