“Zoya & I have worked together before and we have a fantastic working relationship… we are totally on the same wavelength, often thinking of and expressing the same ideas at exactly the same moment!” says Production Designer Suzanne Caplan Merwanji on her working relationship with filmmaker Zoya Akhtar. In an email interview, Suzanne spoke about their latest collaboration Gully Boy, how production design contributes to storytelling, why it was important to stand apart from how Mumbai slums are usually depicted and why shooting in Dharavi was essential.

What’s the brief Zoya Akhtar gave you for Gully Boy?

Having heard the story from Zoya I was really excited to do Gully Boy. I particularly liked that it was the story of a Muslim protagonist & gave me the opportunity to create an environment that would be pictorially different from the usual images of slums in Mumbai. Once I read the script, Zoya & I sat together and discussed how the design could serve the story, which is essentially the job of the Production Designer. There are times, of course, when design choices are made to create a strong obvious ‘style’ but I didn’t feel that this was the correct course to follow for Gully Boy as it needed to look “real”.

Colour is one of the most important tools of a designer as it sets the mood, describes emotional graphs and storylines in a film, so that is one of the first things that I like to think about. There is a strong palette in Gully Boy inspired by one particular photograph that I saw on the internet & it will be interesting to see whether people who watch it actually notice it. Simultaneously, we started discussing the sets & locations, taking into account the practical strategies of shooting a film with big actors in potentially difficult locations. Firstly we had photographs taken of most of the slums in the city & then scouted them, but Dharavi was always our favourite from the very beginning. It is probably the oldest slum, the most-dense, has an extraordinary combination of people from different communities and economic stratas and most importantly, geographically it is in the heart of Mumbai. Dharavi is also surrounded by everything that the average slum-dweller aspires to, for themselves & their children, so this makes it all the more relevant & poignant as the main location for Murad’s world and telling his story. It is a character in itself.

Once Zoya & I started really moving around Mumbai we were constantly discussing in the car as to what ‘our’ city would look like. After reading the script, I became very interested in how we could emphasise the circumscribed nature of Murad’s life…trapped by tradition, family and the lack of means to escape. We decided to pretty much eliminate open skies and even the sea/coastline of the city. I haven’t watched the completed film yet so for me, finally seeing how these sorts of decisions have contributed to the overall feel of the film remain a mystery!

How much of the film was shot in real locations as against shot on set?

We didn’t go into any studios for this film; it was all shot on locations but mostly sets within real locations. Apart from some of the driving scenes, we dressed, partially or wholly constructed what we needed within real structures. Hardly anything was left ‘untouched” and we had almost 60 locations in all. I don’t want to reveal what was actually a built set or a set within a location before the release of the film as it will be much more interesting to see what the audience feels and notices.

How did you go about understanding and researching this world?

There are 3 main worlds in the film: the world of Murad’s life in the slum and its surroundings, the world of rap & then the world outside of his reality with the rich and more privileged Mumbai. The first world was easy to do as it is all there to see and explore and we made many trips to slums to research & photograph what the exteriors and interiors actually look like. Then there is the rap world of the slums & this is also accessible – there are small studios where local rappers record, small clubs where they perform and we went to many to get the flavour of it all.

Rap is of course originally from the streets/ghettos of the US & it is fundamentally a means of expression against inequality & injustice. Indian rap is obviously influenced by this culture and honestly, it’s hard to clearly extricate the two worlds. The Indian scene has adopted similar structures using rap battles, informal contests, colourful language, styles of dress and has then adapted it all in their own ways to suit their own reality. Then once the film moves into the world of a richer Mumbai, it is naturally more westernised and reflects a more global entitled style of living that bears no similarity to the 2 worlds mentioned above. This disparity is something that we live with every day here in India.

Did you have any references that served as a good starting point for you?

We watched many international films & of course, 8 Mile is probably the most iconic one and am sure there will be comparisons made but after watching it once, I left it behind. The fact that both films revolve around rap is really the only similarity. In terms of look and story Gully Boy is very different. For me it was always about where and how our characters would live, work, practice, record, perform etc within the context of Mumbai. I never reference from Bollywood but instead, prefer to look at all sorts of things, not only films but also the work of artists and photographers from all over the world for colour themes and mood. Once this is done we make an initial mood board presentation for the director and then go from there.

What are you hoping the audience sees and recognises of your work when they watch the film?

Let’s wait and see! I suspect that many people will wonder what has actually been designed. I guess that would be the biggest compliment that we could get! Personally, I will look at how the Art Department has impacted the overall feel and mood of the piece & whether our design decisions served their purpose.

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