A deserted ship presents endless possibilities for horror – a maze of dark corridors to navigate, cramped rooms that could seal shut at unfortunate moments and the risk of drowning or electrocution that could spring from the smallest leak. In Bhoot: The Haunted Ship, Vicky Kaushal plays an investigating officer who must contend with all of these, plus a ghost lurking aboard the Sea Bird, a fictional ship that washes ashore Juhu beach.
Production designer Aditya Kanwar, who’s worked in the industry since 2006 and whose credits include films such as Udaan (2010), Lootera (2013) and Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019), says it took him and his four-member team around four months to build the four-storey-high sets. He spoke about the challenges of crafting a ship from scratch and transforming it into an eerie ghost vessel in just two days:
‘Far scarier than what it would look like in real life’
“The story is based on the cargo ship MV Wisdom, which was stranded on Juhu beach in 2011. Director Bhanu Pratap Singh’s brief was: Imagine that ship is haunted and it’s been going around the world and getting beached at various cities and it’s been a dead ship for 15-20 years. What would happen to a ship that is crewless and travelling around the oceans? How would it age? We kept the interiors as real as possible, but made the corridors a bit longer and added depth to make it eerie. We had to age it and make it look far scarier than what it would look like in real life.
When you’re recreating a ship for film, you don’t want to be so off the mark that anyone who’s been on a cargo ship or has worked on it thinks that this is all wrong. We went to Alang in Gujarat on a recce and looked at a couple of ships there. Then Bhanu and I figured the layout. We drew it on paper, then I designed it on 3D software. Then we figured with the action, VFX, camera and lighting teams what they required and then I designed it again.
Ships usually have four to five floors just above the deck. Right on top is the captain’s control room. We built an almost-four-storey set with two corridors for the ship. Along one corridor, there was the crew quarters. We made the captain’s quarters. We built another large set, which was the belly of the ship where the climax of the film takes place. All these sets were at a studio in Powai.
When you’re building sets on top of each other, the support has to be strong enough. You have to always keep safety in mind because hundreds of crew members are going to be in there. It’s a horror film so it’s going to be dark, you have to keep the area cordoned off, keep fire regulations in check.
You see the ship when it’s working, in flashbacks, and then later as a dead ship. The challenging part was ageing the ship within two days. We had to make it look like the sea had corroded it over 20 or 30 years. Corrosion doesn’t break things in half, it weathers things down, pipes start bending.
We looked up a lot of ships that had sunk, ships that had stalled in the ocean for a long time, just to get a sense of how metal reacts. The really bad and dilapidated ones were areas that had direct contact with seawater. With metal, the corrosion starts from under the paint. Ships are always painted with oil paint so that’s what we used. We’d spray paint remover so the paint would react to it and start bubbling and burning.
We used a lot of sawdust and powder to create fungus and rust on the walls. We used food colouring and coffee to make the water look like it was mixed with rust. Because it’s a ship and we wanted to show dripping water, we ended up making tiny holes all along the ceiling and walls. We connected them to saline drips, the ones that doctors use. We kept those bags outside the sets and would turn them on slowly so water would trickle down the walls inside.
We had to build the set in such a way that it would hold water. We had a filtration system to reuse the water. It would be filtered overnight and then last us the next two or three days. The entire crew was in about eight inches of water so you can’t have any electrical wiring around. So all our cabling was overhead. Our climax had a 100 people walking around in water so even a small mishap could’ve been deadly.”