In the opening credits of Matthew Weiner’s show Mad Men, a silhouette of a man in a suit walks into an office and puts his briefcase down. The world around him disintegrates and he’s seen in freefall, plummeting past skyscrapers whose facades show images from vintage advertisements. As Mad Men gathered critical and popular acclaim over the course of its seven seasons, the ‘falling man’ — who, at the very last moment, pivots from crashing to the ground to lounging with a cigarette dangling from his hands — remained a constant and became iconic (even while generating some controversy for evoking a harrowing image from the terror attack of 9/11). Years after the show ended, the credits would surface in conversations that director Hansal Mehta had with Jishnu Chatterjee, who designed the title sequence for Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story, and the recently-released Scam 2003: The Telgi Files.
Chatterjee’s career as a designer has neatly coincided with the streaming boom. He started out as a designer on Netflix’s Leila and broke out with Hansal Mehta’s Scam 1992. Aided by an unforgettable theme composed by Achint Thakkar, the show’s opening credits were strikingly artistic. Chatterjee said he’d been aiming to bring a comic book aesthetic to Harshad Mehta’s financial world while also invoking the falling man from Mad Men.
“I think the best compliment anyone can pay today is to remember specific things from your title design, given the rate at which we’re watching things, and how surrounded we are by so much,” said Chatterjee. Breaking down the colour scheme of his title design from Scam 1992, he said they focused on green because it’s the colour of “gain” at the stock exchange. The title design also found ways to incorporate the hand-movements of jobbers on the trading floor.
In a deluge of content these days, the title design or credits sequence can be an important element that cues a viewer into the tone of the show or film. Take, for example, the closing credits of Raj & DK’s Guns & Gulaabs by visual designer Aarushi Jain, who found innovative ways to use Nineties’ memorabilia to list the names of the cast and crew. For late actor Satish Kaushik, the name appears on a calendar and there’s more to it than a hat-tip to Mr. India (1987). Jain said, “The Satish Kaushik Calendar reference is actually a three-way. It is a lost Nineties’ memory, it is of course a tribute to his beloved Mr. India character, and it speaks to his character in the show tyrranised by a looming deadline. So when everything fits, it feels right and not forced.” Gulshan Devaiah’s name appears on the display of a PCO, referring to a running gag in the show. Rajkummar Rao’s name comes with an illustration of a Campa Cola bottle because, according to Jain, a cold drink bottle is one of the top-most indicators of a newly-liberalised nation.
Distracting the viewer from the “skip” button means utilising a range of artistic approaches. Chatterjee opted for animation for Scam while Jain went for live-action shots, showing objects that took the viewer on a nostalgia trip to the Nineties. The opening credits of The Hunt for Veerappan uses a mix of archival footage and trippy animation along with the rousing “Poda”, composed by Selva and Jhanu. Nikon Basu from Glitchborn, the studio that produced the title design for The Hunt for Veerappan, said the song helped them crack the “mood”. “The defining moment came with the design of the concluding image – soldiers venturing into the dark, foggy forest. This became the anchor, setting both the mood and tone for the rest of the narrative,” said Basu.
While films have occasionally had fun opening credits — think of the opening credits of Zoya Akhtar’s Luck By Chance (2009) or Shimit Amin’s Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (2009) – they’re terrific short films by themselves — it’s the advent of streaming that brought in a rich design element to these sequences. “Platforms like Netflix have indeed demonstrated a discerning appreciation for the art and craft of motion design. Recognizing that well-designed credits can enhance viewer immersion and set the tone for the content, they invest in elevating this aspect of production,” said Basu. He hopes that the “tier-two platforms” and the theatrical releases will soon recognise the distinction between generic graphics and truly impactful, artistic animation. On streaming platforms, the titles become a crucial part of the film or show’s marketing and also offer the viewer a necessary breather that acts as a break, but doesn’t pull the audience out of the show’s world if one is binge watching a clutch of episodes.
Jain said directors Raj & DK emboldened her to go out and shoot the closing credits of Guns & Gulaabs. This involved doing the recce and art direction as well as shooting the frames needed for the closing credits, which Jain did with two crew members. She spent hours walking around older parts of cities, searching for typographic inspiration to create multiple iterations of each slide. “There’s a whole lot of hardcore Photoshop too. There’s at least a 100 layers on each of those files. Then I put it together, added motion where needed and synced it to music,” said Jain. She also drew from the placement of logos for brands like Gold Spot, Campa Cola and Camlin. “This sequence removes names and goes right down to the experience of it. So, the focus, subconsciously, shifts from the pencil box being Camlin, to the memory of being a school kid, sharpening your pencil,” said Jain.
Jain, Chatterjee and Basu all emphasised that “good” design can be labour intensive. It takes a lot of ‘jamming’ with the directors and showrunners, and several iterations to come up with the visual language for the title design. For Chatterjee, there was the additional pressure of having the credits of Scam 2003 compared with those of Scam 1992. To distinguish one from the other, he leaned into the differing arcs of Harshad Mehta and Abdul Karim Telgi. “Mehta was this braggadocious man, putting on a show, and someone who wanted to be seen. But Telgi liked operating from the shadows. The overall journey is similar – the rise and fall of an individual – but the specifics of their journey are so different,” he said, going on to point out that in the opening credits, Telgi’s shown in the shadows until the spotlight falls on him, and ushers his downfall.
Basu said the visual language of a film/show’s title design can often be dictated by the budget of a show. Animation is an expensive process. “Bespoke animation, whether 2D or 3D, is labour-intensive, demanding specialised skills, software, and time, thus requiring a larger budget,” said Basu. Chatterjee said that for him, title design is practically a short film, following the beats of a three-act structure of storytelling. “I don’t think films/shows are an island anymore, packaging has become much more important,” he said. “Most filmmakers I’ve worked with today look at title sequences as the masthead of their show. They bring so much insight into the process, which idea to communicate, and how to refine it. It’s a truly collaborative process.”