A graphic designer by training, Ranjit Singh studied Film and T.V production in Delhi before moving to Mumbai for work. He started off as an A.D before going on to work in the area of art direction and production design. After assisting on various projects including Qissa, Jalpari and War Chhod Na Yaar, he has handled independent assignments with Gattu, Dilliwali Zaalim Girlfriend and now Masaan. In a freewheeling conversation with MAM, Ranjit Singh takes us through his journey with Masaan and many other things.
It is a very interesting story. Neeraj and I had been neighbors for a long time, but did not know about it. We were introduced through a common friend and we decided to catch up and discuss the film. So when I called him on the decided date and asked him where to reach, he mentioned the name of the building that I stay in. There was a huge silence. I told him that I had been staying there all along and both of us burst out laughing. Right since that day, it was a great journey.
Before working on Masaan, you had done films like Qissa and Gattu (in the capacity of art director). How helpful was that?
Very much. It helped me understand a lot of things. See, this film is set in Banaras and it is not an easy place to shoot. So, my experience helped me in understanding what he wanted and how he wanted it. Just like this film, my earlier movies i.e Qissa and Gattu were also very real and gritty. There was nothing larger than life or glossy. So, it was all good.
Did Banaras make your job difficult? What were the challenges?
The moment I came on board, I started reading a lot about Banaras. I have stayed in Mumbai all along. So, I had to understand the place first. Neeraj helped me a lot. He gave me a lot of material on Banaras, the people of Banaras etc. almost 50 % of my research was done by Neeraj.
How much time was on preparation? Did you get to spend enough time in Banaras?
We did not have a lot of time to prepare. We just had 2 weeks. Right from recce to research happened in a span of 2 weeks leading upto the shoot of the film. We spent day and night looking around, speaking to people.
It took some time to get used to the way people worked I Banaras. It was a cultural shift. For instance, Banaras shuts down very quickly. After 7 pm, the whole city is deserted. They go home. That is it. So, you had work as per their work cycle.
We understand that there are a lot of exterior shots in the film. Banaras, being a tourist destination, attracts a lot of crowd. How was the experience to shoot in such an environment?
See, my job is to deal with people. Thankfully, everyone in Banaras was more than willing to help. So, despite the character of the city, my job was made easier because of the kind of help I got from the local people. Yes, it was crowded, but it is not like you cannot work there.
The ghats, for instance, are very beautiful. During pre-production, we spent some time there. So, we knew the kind of crowd and activities that would happen at a given point of time. We shot accordingly. I liked it. I loved it in fact.
No. I did not want it that way. I did not want to re-create any film.
Crematorium is the focal point of the film. Obviously, you had to create sets for those parts of the film, as you could not have shot there. Do take us through that.
It was a very difficult set up. We created it ground-up. The place where we were supposed to build the set was very dirty. The actual crematorium itself was quite a sight to see. At any given point in time, there are about 30 to 50 bodies being cremated. The sight and smell is a lot to take in. You are just not used to it. It is a very overwhelming sight. The first couple of days were very difficult. Standing next to the crematorium felt as if you are standing inside a microwave oven. Then you also need to deal with the smoke. A couple of local people we had hired were of great help. Considering all this, I wonder how Neeraj spent so much time here. Hats off to him.
Since, you could not change anything while shooting outdoor; did you feel the need to bring in your own essence while shooting indoors? How did you approach it?
Banaras has a lot of different zones. It is a mix of locals, tourists, shanties, houses, apartments etc. We picked elements from across Banaras and used it. We worked on a uniform color theme for the movie. I took special interest in the way a house would look and feel. The utensils they use, the clothes they wear. It is a mix of history and modern Banaras.
Banaras is a riot of colors. How did you manage maintaining a single color theme?
Ranjit: It is impossible to do it when you are shooting outdoors. You can only control it when you are shooting indoors. We worked within the requirement of the story. We shot in a ghat where there was not a lot happening. So, we started working there. The wood was specifically brought in from north. 100 tonnes of wood was brought in. So, we had huge piles of wood in the set. Since, you cannot shoot in an actual ghat, we had to create everything. We needed a controlled environment.
Did you use a green screen in the movie?
No, not at all. Everything was built and shot in actual locations. We made use of abandoned houses, shot inside mandirs. We came across some crazy things.
When cleaning up one mandir, I came across a spider that was as huge as your palm. That was quite creepy and even made my team members edgy. Also, there was so much work that we had to do a lot of grunt work ourselves. Neeraj and I slogged it out there. We were constantly complaining of back pains.
What was your say in deciding the look of the film? Apart from the film, you also need to work in tandem with the costume designer. Tell us about it.
Before we left for Banaras, Shruti and I had our own mood boards. So, we just had to exchange notes. We were all on the same page.
Who is your inspiration? Are you influenced by another production designer’s work?
I have worked with Angelica Monika Bhowmick. She is my guru. She was production designer in films like Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye and Bodyguard. I have learnt my trade from her. She was the one who pushed me to work harder. I love her work. In fact while I was working with her on Bodyguard and suddenly had to pull out just before the shoot began due to a back problem, I happened to land my first independent assignment-Gattu just when I was recovering. Rajan Khosa had checked up with Angelica about me and one thing led to another.
You have worked in the heartland in places like Roorkee for Gattu and Benaras for Masaan, with directors like Rajan Khosa and Neeraj Ghaywan. How have the 2 experiences been in contrast?
I enjoyed working on both the projects actually. In some ways there is a similarity between Rajan and Neeraj, both of them know what they really want from me. But with Neeraj the comfort level is a lot more as we are from a similar ag, while Rajan of course is a lot more senior.
Where does Ranjit Singh go from here? What next?
Ranjit: I just finished work on my first television series. I finished working on a massive hospital set. So, that is something new. I hope to keep doing good work from here on.
We at MAM wish Ranjit Singh and the entire team of Masaan all the very best for the release (July 24th).