Nitin Chandrakant Desai, prominent art director and production designer who primarily worked in Hindi and Marathi films, died by suicide at ND Studio, which he founded, on August 2, 2023. Desai was prolific and worked on numerous iconic films with various directors with diverse aesthetic sensibilities, as well as different genres during the course of his career. For art direction, he received four national awards for Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar (2000), Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), Lagaan (2001), and Devdas (2002) which showed his dexterity in adapting to films with a maximalist aesthetic, as well as those with a character-driven aesthetic. Desai, an alumnus of J.J. School of Art and L.S. Raheja School of Arts, also dabbled in other aspects of filmmaking and had worked as actor, producer and director.
Iconic Films in Bollywood and Beyond
To give a sense of his imprint on both Bollywood and internationally, here is a list of just a few of his projects: Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Khamoshi (1996), Maachis (1996), Dr. Babasahed Ambedkar, Lagaan, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (2015), Munnabhai M.B.B.S (2003), Salaam Bombay (1988), Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996)and Slumdog Millionaire (2008). He frequently collaborated with Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Ashutosh Gowariker, Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Mira Nair.
His debut film as an art director was a 1993 film by Adhikari Brothers’ called Bhookamp, but it was 1942: A love story, set in Darjeeling, and directed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra, that catapulted him into fame for his work. For his work in Devdas, Desai won a National Award (he won four in the course of his career) and was also honoured by the Art Directors Guild. Panipat (2019), directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, also one of his frequent collaborators, was Desai’s last project as an art director.
He also collaborated with Jane Campion, the revered filmmaker from New Zealand, for the Kate Winslet starring Holy Smoke (1999). The film features Winslet as Ruth, a woman who visits India, finds herself utterly charmed, and decides to live here.
Desai’s most famous international project was Danny Boyle’s Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire, for which he built two sets, including one that replicated the popular tv reality game show Kaun Banega Crorepati. Desai was the first designer to create a hydraulic set, and Boyle was inspired to use a similar set in addition to another set built by Desai to reflect the interiors of the Taj Mahal in the film.
The art director had been several times to Universal Studios in Los Angeles, when his daughter was studying filmmaking in the city. He recalled feeling a sense of disappointment, which paved the way for the desire to build a similar experience for cinema consuming audiences in India: “What I realised is, they were showing all the sets and created each section – Batman was shot here, Back to the Future here.” He founded ND Studios in 2005, in Karjat, hoping it would be a similar draw. The studio has become a popular tourist destination and people can visit some of the opulent sets Desai created for films like Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar and Sooraj Barjatya’s Prem Ratan Dhan Payo.
However, ND Studios would also prove to be a massive financial strain and since January 2020, Desai struggled with repayments on high-value loans taken between 2016 and 2018. In July this year, the bankruptcy court admitted an insolvency petition against Desai’s company. According to an order issued by the Mumbai bench of the National Company Law Tribunal, the total default amount was Rs. 252 crore as of June 30, 2022.
Desai’s Work As Producer, Actor and Director
Desai directed a Marathi film called Hello Jai Hind (2011), in which he also acted. The film is about a man grappling with the consequences of being self-righteous. He also directed the Marathi film Ajintha (2012), about a British soldier who falls in love with a tribal woman while on a quest to replicate the murals in the Ajanta caves. As an actor, he worked in both television and film, notably starring in two Marathi films: Hello Jai Hind and Balgandharva.
His first project as a film producer was the devotional film, Desh Devi Maa Ashapura (2003). Among his other works are Marathi biopic Balgandharva (2011) and Marathi reality TV show Marathi Paul Padte Pudhe, which provides a platform for younger people to display a diverse range of talent along the lines of India’s Got Talent.
With a gift for imagining worlds that aligned seamlessly with the sensibilities of all the directors he worked with, Desai conjured a visual language that was gorgeous and brought to life an wondrous idea of India that is unapologetically and fantastically beautiful.