Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts
Symbiosis International University (Deemed)
This paper explores the role of production design in cinema through concepts laid by Charles Tashiro and David Brisbin. It situates this in the context of Bollywood as a culture industry, as theorised by scholars like Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Madhava Prasad. The paper delves into two films, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) and Devdas (2002), and attempts to find links, if any, between the production design and narratives of the films. The mise en scène analysis reveals that production design plays a crucial role in shaping the narrative of the films, simultaneously rendering Bollywood as an industry through specific visual construction.
Keywords: Production design, Narrative, Bollywood, Culture Industry, Diaspora, Historical films
This research paper aims to critically understand the role of production design in cinema. Production design includes the visual elements that compose a film and, therefore, is an integral part of the same. These visual elements draw the audience into the world it creates, immersing them and guiding them through the film (Soriano, 2021). The arrangement of the various visual elements in a scene that enable in constructing different frames is termed as mise en scène (Bordwell & Thompson, 2008). The paper explores the relationship between production design and mise en scène, building into the idea of spaces in cinema. The organisation of space assists in evoking certain emotions, producing drama. This paper examines these ideas in the context of Bollywood. It attempts to understand the role of production design in shaping cinematic narratives through the mise en scène analysis of two films: Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) and Devdas (2002). In the Indian film setting, the late 1990s and early 2000s were a period that saw the transition from Hindi cinema to an industry called Bollywood (Prasad, 2003). Central to the idea of Bollywood is the logic of spectacle and the pleasure derived from the spectacle. The films chosen for this study emerged during this shift, and are popularly known for the visual aesthetics, the grandeur of their sets, and their production design. The research will allow in understanding how the use of particular visual design in Bollywood produces specific narratives and cultural ideas such as the debates on tradition versus modernity, national identity, idea of spaces and the various affective responses it generates from the audience. To understand these phenomena, I first look at the question of production design in film studies, followed by further discussion on Bollywood.
Understanding Production Design and Narratives
One of the key aspects of understanding production design in films is mise en scène. When analysing a film, the features of the film’s medium, that is, the film’s style, must be taken into consideration. The most known technique in cinema is mise en scène, a French term that translates to “putting into the scene” (Bordwell & Thompson, 2008, p. 112). In the case of narrative films, that is, films that often have a fictional story with a cause-and-effect chain of events (Deguzman, 2022), techniques such as mise en scène function “to advance the cause-effect chain, create parallels, manipulate story-plot relations, or sustain the narration’s flow of information” (Bordwell & Thompson, 2008, p. 111). This understanding of mise en scène that Bordwell & Thompson (2006) refer to pertains to the Classical Hollywood Cinema. Thus, to understand a film in its totality, it is crucial to analyse mise en scène’s functions in terms of their relationship with other techniques that the film uses, the intent behind using certain mise en scène elements, and how these elements vary or develop throughout the narrative. Based on David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s definition, we understand that production design is a part of the larger umbrella that is mise en scène. It is important to note that while mise en scène is a term often used within the discipline of film studies by scholars, production design is a more technical term used by the film industry and filmmakers, referring to the design and the look of the film which is often informed by the larger vision of the director and producer. David Brisbin further elaborates on this in his explanation of what production design stands for.
According to Brisbin, production design encompasses every bodily component visible to the audience of the universe in which a story or narrative is being disclosed (Brisbin, 2013). Production design ensures that every visual element that the camera captures as part of the filmic universe is harmonious with the central arcs of the story. It contributes to the essence of emotions, drama and the overall structure of the story. Brisbin’s understanding of production design ties in with Charles Tashiro’s argument that the visual design of a film encompasses layers of meaning. These meanings are implicit and associated with what the audiences see on the screen- particular objects, how something is displayed. The audience then either connect meanings to the designs they see or extract meanings from them (designs) (Tashiro, 1998). He notes that the production design of a film creates a more lasting impact on the audience as compared to the narrative by stating that “films’ surfaces endure better than their ‘depths’” (Tashiro, 1998, p. 58). The surfaces, organised through design and its elements, captivate the audience. Therefore, based on Brisbin and Tashiro’s arguments, we recognise production design as an integral element of a film’s structure and narrative for conveying and interpreting meanings.
Commenting on production design as a narrative tool, Vincent LoBrutto (2002) emphasises on elements such as colour scheme, texture, architecture, and space to bring alive the filmic narrative. The construction of spaces that the characters inhabit within the story becomes paramount in contextualizing the narrative for the audiences (LoBrutto, 2002). Spaces become essential for establishing meanings in films, adding value by emotionally connecting to the audience (Arısoy & Gökmen, 2021). In cinema, the spaces are not merely physical but also carry a social, historical, and cultural context. The experiences of characters within the film and the relationships that emerge always correspond to a space, lending it certain meanings. Thus, as Tashiro (1998) posits, cinema uses space to create specific latent, predetermined meanings which relate to the film and its characters. This paper further explores this relationship between space and cinema in the cultural context of India.
Cinema Through Spaces: Hindi Cinema and Bollywood
Stephen Teo argues that films produce narrative melodrama through spaces. Specifically in the context of Hindi cinema, he takes examples from films by Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor to show the various ways in which spaces are utilised in conveying emotions. In the song Na Aankhon Mein Aansoo from the film Aag (1948), the individual spaces in which the three characters move lead them to a personal self-discovery, tied to the song (Teo, 2013). The song Jaane Kya Tune Kahi in Guru Dutt’s Pyasa (1957) inadvertently establishes a romantic relationship between the protagonists, which is also reflected in the spatial arrangement of the song. The camera tracks Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman) through narrow, dark alleys to wide parks littered with columns, providing a contrast to the emptiness of the alley (Teo, 2013). As seen in Teo’s analysis, spaces are about the visual composition of characters in relation to the environment. Focussing on the frame’s construction produces specific narrative themes and emotions that carry the film forward.
Naveen Mishra, focusing on Bollywood movies, delves into the idea of spaces and cinema in the form of landscapes. Conventionally, the landscape is viewed as a spectacle producing an aesthetic and carrying a beauty that pleases the senses, providing a comforting visual appeal (Mishra, 2018). However, the narratives, cultural meanings, and symbols are also embedded in the landscape (Arler & Mellqvist, 2015). Mishra notes that romantic sequences between protagonists, especially in songs, are often shown in foreign landscapes. These sequences produce an exotic image of the West, heightening the visual and emotional experience of the audience. The images of the West carry meanings such as independence and uninterrupted love. Romance cannot bloom under conservative values, and thus, has to be set in a foreign land with ‘modern’ ideals (Mishra, 2018). Furthermore, he argues that films use landscapes as a spectacle which is central to Bollywood. Bollywood’s charm lies in its ability to make an everyday event into a larger-than-life spectacle that is passed as reality. The spectacle of the landscape is created by Bollywood by associating the scenic, aesthetic visualscape with themes such as aspirations, dreams, imaginations by heightening the visual experience for the audience (Mishra, 2018). While Teo’s argument describes spaces in Hindi cinema, Mishra focuses specifically on Bollywood films. Thus, it becomes important to understand how Bollywood is different from Hindi cinema.
Meanings of Bollywood/ What is Bollywood
Production design as a formal element becomes a key feature in distinguishing between Hindi cinema and Bollywood. Madhava Prasad (2003) mentions that Hindi cinema represented a realistic portrayal of society, especially with the middle films that emerged in the 1970s. The middle films, as posited by scholars, were films “marked by consistent political and social ordinariness” (Sinha, 2019, p. 1). These films had stories of urban middle-class people presented through simple, non-glamorous aesthetics. This style was in contrast to the popular films being produced during the same period, which, while rooted in social realities, were larger than life in their narrative tendencies. Prasad argues that Bollywood makes it possible for these different tendencies to come together, developing stories around both modernity and tradition. Additionally, Bollywood employs stylistically grander techniques and visuals to depict the narrative tendency of representing reality (Prasad, 2003). Along with the formal transformations, there is an idea of cultural identity that these new narratives produce, one which is linked with the Indian diaspora and the NRI as the facilitator of the Indian identity.
Bollywood through its specific narratives and stylistic choices was able to attract the Indian diaspora, something Hindi Cinema had failed to do. Bollywood takes the tendencies of Hindi cinema and intensifies them (Rajadhyaksha, 2003). Bollywood is further explored as an industrial shift, a rising culture industry that no longer comprises of just the films it produces, but a “range of distribution and consumption activities from websites to music cassettes, from cable to radio” (Rajadhyaksha, 2003, p. 27). Similar to Prasad, Rajadhyaksha argues that the Indian diasporic audience is central to the early Bollywood films that emerged during the period (the late 1990s to early 2000s). Bollywood relies on narratives that cater to this diaspora. It produces a global ‘Indian’ culture industry with the diasporic Indians as its central figures (Rajadhyaksha, 2003). Thus, Bollywood produces a nostalgia that ties in with a sense of nationalism and Indian identity on a global stage.
Jigna Desai and Rajinder Dudrah argue that following the transition towards Bollywood, the industry also became characterised as a “musical genre with fixed form” (Desai & Dudrah, 2008, p. 11). In most Bollywood films, the song and dance sequences take place in the realm of fantasy and imagination that breaks away from the film’s narrative, as pointed out by Mishra (2018). The logic of spectacle that the early cinema was also interested in comes to the forefront through these sequences. The production design becomes central for the films to deliver the impact of this spectacular and melodramatic effect which assaults the senses of the audience (Dudrah & Desai, 2008). Along with the notion of the spectacle, a shift takes place in the common narratives and stories of the films. From the 1990s, the narratives of these films were stripped off of the conflict and trauma of popular Hindi cinema. Instead, they focussed on the romantic stories where the central concern of film becomes fulfilling the romance between the leads (Dudrah & Desai, 2008). This shift in the formal narrative elements accompanied with the change in stylistic design becomes a turning point for Bollywood films.
The arguments of Teo and Mishra bring out the difference in the way space is used and manipulated in Hindi cinema and Bollywood. Hindi cinema uses space as a device to build the narrative, albeit using it economically. It facilitates in contextualising the characters and reflecting their relationships. Whereas with Bollywood, there is sufficient emphasis on space and landscape for them to be considered characters unto themselves. With globalisation entering the narrative, the landscape and space become essential for producing meanings and ideas, especially linked with nostalgia. It is the spaces and landscapes of the hometown, the mother land that connects the audience with their roots in a fast evolving, modern space. The play on nostalgia became important as the films that emerged post-liberalisation (1990 onwards) started targeting the Indian diasporic audience, predominantly in the western nations. The question of identity became prominent within the diaspora, who were searching for a sense of belongingness. Thus, the Bollywood films that were now being produced targeted the Indian diaspora, constructing an Indian national identity (Bandyopadhyay, 2008). There is a negotiation between tradition and modernity, which reflects the new India and informs the identity of the Indian diaspora. Thus, the idea of nostalgia becomes important in the appeal of the emerging post-liberalization Bollywood that represent the ‘homeland’ by juxtaposing the memory of India that these audiences carry, with the image of a new globalised India. There is a noticeable shift in the production system and the focus is given to the creation of spectacles to attract the audience. Therefore, with the focus shifting to grandeur and creating visually pleasing images, the ‘realistic’ spaces seen in Hindi cinema take a backseat. Nitish Roy further elaborates the style of production design in Hindi cinema.
Production Design in Indian Cinema
When looking into production design in Bollywood, it is important to understand the changes that take place from Hindi cinema to Bollywood. Having worked for both Hindi cinema and Bollywood films, Nitish Roy emphasises on the significance of art direction, used synonymously with production design here, as the background of a film that builds and adds to the story and its characters (Rajya Sabha TV, 2016). As Arısoy & Gökmen (2021) argue, the character’s personality is reflected in the minute details that go into designing the set, the space they occupy. Roy mentions that these intricacies were considered insignificant for creating sets during the early years, but he believed otherwise. The role of production and art design is to create an ambience, which also sets the film’s tone. When working on Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983), it was important for Roy to create the house’s ambience wherein the protagonists lived. This was primarily done through the colour schemes and use of property in set design, taking inspiration from actual locations for realistic portrayal. During this period in Hindi cinema, we see a heavy emphasis on realism and its depiction. In talking about the change in production design, Roy concentrates on the cultural change that came about with the emergence of Bollywood. In 1993, Roy took up the project of designing the Ramoji Film City and worked on it for seven years (Rajya Sabha TV, 2016). This builds into the shift that begins to take place during the 1990s. The changes in technology opened new possibilities for production design. The development of studios and film cities for commercial and marketing aspects of the films are the visible changes of the cultural conglomeration that begins with the emergence of Bollywood. This visible shift roots itself in the change of desires within the audience, who now watches films for the sake of their spectacular quality. Thus, films start focussing on this idea of a spectacle which is emphasised through production design.
Roy’s experience with production design finds resonance in the arguments made by other scholars of Bollywood. The shift from Hindi cinema to Bollywood is evident through the new-found opulence in production design that produces a spectacle (Prasad 2003), (Dudrah and Desai, 2008). Another step towards creating a Bollywood aesthetic, was taken through the narratives that were developed during this period. The narrative catered to a diasporic audience and played with the idea of homecoming to produce a sense of nostalgia in them (Rajadhyaksha, 2003). Together, production design and narrative devices create the spectacle that is pertinent to understanding Bollywood and its quintessential aesthetic.
Charles Tashiro (2004) argues that a film is not reflecting but ‘recreating’ a past and thus, the surfaces have to be manipulated to convince the audience of the same. While this approach could lead to inaccurate period details, it creates the impression of a more realistic world. The film’s composition and elements such as lighting, costume, setting, and movement play a significant role in giving the audience the impression that it is a historical event that they are witnessing. Tashiro argues that just as scripts compromise on the historical accuracy to balance the dramatic aspects, being an extension of the script, production design experiments with historical accuracy too. He elaborates on the effect of production design on a film’s tone and visual reception by taking examples of two films based on Henry II, Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968). The two films have distinctly different aesthetics, design styles and visual compositions. While the former uses a vibrant aesthetic style, the latter relies on gritty, darker aesthetics, producing different emotional perceptions of the same historical event (Tashiro, 2004). Films build an image of the past that the people rely on, more strongly than they do on historical or archaeological facts. Therefore, it becomes essential that the scale of production is high or spectacular enough to suspend disbelief but not so assertive as to make audiences aware that they are artificial (Tashiro, 2004). While Tashiro specifically talks of historical films, his argument of films building and changing memories of the past can be applied to Bollywood films as well, even those that may not fall under the historical genre. Bollywood, which largely functions within the logic of spectacle, uses vivid visuals on-screen that stay as an imprint in the memory of the audiences. In keeping with Tashiro’s argument, I look at Devdas through a similar theoretical framework (2002). While the film itself is not based on a historical event, it adapts the well-known novel of the name set in India’s colonial past. Through the film, I wish to address the use of the spectacle in Bollywood. Through Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), I will explore the same logic of the spectacle by contrasting the two films’ historical and modern settings. While contrasting in their genres and settings, the films surface around the same time and thus, address the aesthetics and narratives that govern Bollywood in that period.
To understand the appeal of the films in terms of their visual impact, the following section looks at decoding the chosen films, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) and Devdas (2002) through a mise en scène analysis. Furthermore, it attempts to understand whether these visual cues and design elements assist in producing specific themes supporting the narrative. For brevity, this paper will focus on production design through two themes common in the films: portrayal of social difference such as class or caste and changes in spaces. The former is a dominant theme seen in various films, in Hindi cinema as well as Bollywood, and acts as the primary plot point in them. Thus, exploring its presentation in terms of production design would be interesting. Spatial change, a common observation in the two films, is an avenue to explore the influence of space on narrative and vice versa.
Visual Analysis of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001)
Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, abbreviated as K3G, is a 2001 film directed by Karan Johar. Johar’s success with his previous films brought great anticipation for this film, mainly due to the stellar ensemble cast of leading Bollywood stars. The film broke global box office records as the highest grossing Indian film of the time, and won multiple awards for direction, acting, production design and screenplay, making it one of Bollywood cinema’s popular and landmark films. The production design of the film garnered much praise for its larger-than-life aesthetic, making it essential to understand its relationship with the film’s narrative.
Differences of Class and Social Status
A dominant theme within the film’s narrative is the difference in class and social background of the lead romantic pair. These differences are effectively produced through visual organisation. The opening shot of the film shows a family portrait of the Raichands, which reveals the social status through the costumes, especially of Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan. The deep, rich red and maroon of the saree and the curtain give a sense of royalty, reflecting the affluence of the Raichand family. As the shot transitions to flashback scenes between Nandini (Jaya Bachchan) and Rahul (Shahrukh Khan) in his childhood, the wide staircases, long corridors, castle-esque facade of their house add to the audience’s knowledge about their class status. The audience is introduced to the character of Rohan (Hritik Roshan) in the vastness of a cricket stadium. There is an implicit understanding that he can access such spaces because of his wealth. The huge swathe of open land also reflects his welcoming and easy-going attitude. The room décor of Yash Raichand, the patriarch of the family, comprises a minimal yet extravagant design. The overall layout of the room, accompanied by the colour combination of royal blue and gold, which is commonly associated with a royal and sophisticated attitude, enhances Yash’s commanding position within the space and the narrative. Similar tones of colour and patterns of design follow the Raichand family’s setting throughout the film.
Image 1: Yash Raichand’s room (Credits: Dharma Productions)
Image 2: Raichand house (Credits: Dharma Productions)
This rich, lavish aesthetic of the upper-class Raichands is contrasted by the space of Chandni Chowk, the residence of the female protagonist Anjali (Kajol). Production designer Sharmishta Roy mentions that instead of shooting on location, they decided to completely recreate the area of Chandni Chowk in Mumbai Film City. They did so to project a “hygienic, sanitised and kitschy mohalla with old world charms to woo a nostalgic diasporic audience” (Pal, 2013). The conscious choice to produce a more glamorised image of Chandni Chowk, rather than a realistic and rustic one, is indicative of the ‘nostalgic’ image that the Bollywood films began producing in this period. The film’s concern is not to root itself in realism but within the logic of spectacle as Mishra (2018) had argued. These images reminisce about the Indian home and evoke a sense of nationhood for the diasporic audience to connect with.
In the narrative, the stylistic design of the sets for Chandni Chowk is incongruous with the sets of the Raichand family home. Chandni Chowk’s colours are rooted in earthy tones of light browns, contrasted with the bold yet simple palette of yellow and red that Anjali brings to the screen. The other characters within the mohalla are usually associated with soft pastels. This contrast in the aesthetic of Chandni Chowk and the Raichand mansion is indicative of the traditional versus the modern identity that the diasporic audience deals with. The use of specific shades of colours within the film can be understood through what the palette is trying to highlight. For example, the protagonists are established through the distinctly differentiable colours. Compared to them, the possible conflicting figures and ideas within the plot are presented through colours that strike against the protagonists’ tones, that is Yash’s ideals and his refusal to accept the romantic plot. The mediators or the characters who are crucial in resolving the conflict – Rohan and Pooja (the two protagonists’ siblings) and Daijaan – are presented through soft pastels in the early half of the film.
Image 3: Anjali’s house in Chandni Chowk (Credits: Dharma Productions)
Image 4: Mela of Chandni Chowk (Credits: Dharma Productions)
The class difference between the two lovers as established through the setting and design is first acknowledged by the characters themselves when Rahul and Rohan enter Chandni Chowk in their sports car and Rohan describes the place as ‘tacky’ and ‘down-market’. This sequence marks a significant moment in the narrative as Rahul and Anjali, the primary love interests, meet for the first time. The development of their romantic relationship occurs in the background of Anjali’s modest but warm home environment. Scenes such as their first meeting, the blossoming of their friendship, their ‘date’, the subsequent confession of love, and even their decision to get married, are never in the high-society backdrop of the Raichands. The humble spaces in which their relationship unfurls weaves into Rahul’s character and highlights his distinctly different opinions and beliefs from that of his father, who even refuses to be a part of Rukhsar’s (daughter of Sayeeda i.e., Daijaan) wedding celebration. When Nandini tries to confront him, he replies “Hum wahan kaise jaa sakte hain?” (How can we go there?). Thus, Rahul occupying and being comfortable in a space associated with people from a lower social status than his family, hints at an impending conflict.
The film distinctly divides the narrative in two through another form of spatial discontinuity. The first half establishes the central narrative and introduces the conflict in India, the ‘motherland’. In contrast, the latter half which builds towards the resolution of conflict is set in the ‘foreign’ space of London. The difference in the landscape is established through the mise en scène. The second half begins with shots of landmark places of the city- the London Eye, River Thames, double-decker buses, logos of popular brands. These images establish the Western landscape that the film has now entered. As Rohan comes to London and goes around the city, the sequence is picturised with the song Vande Mataram and shows various elements of ‘Indianness’. There are Indian classical dancers, people wearing the Indian flag, women wearing salwar-kameez, almost as if the film is saying that the West cannot take away the India that resides within the people. This kind of assertion of national pride is later seen in Anjali as well. The logic of producing images associated with India in a foreign landscape is explained by Naveen Mishra’s example of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge. He argues that the imagery of the homeland, with its “sarson ke khet” (mustard fields) and its ancestral house, establishes the idea of homecoming and the nostalgia invoked by tradition, culture and motherland (Mishra, 2018). This emotional evocation is important for the NRI or the diasporic Indian audience.
Image 5: Rohan’s entry in London (Credits: Dharma Productions)
Image 6: Tradition and Modern coming together in London (Credits: Dharma Productions)
The transition to Rahul’s house in London is notable in terms of the aesthetic that it produces. While the house’s exterior and interior resemble typical modern architecture, the scene shows Anjali performing an aarti, indicating that their traditions are still intact. This also complements the patriotic song Saare Jahan se Accha playing in the background. The introduction of Pooja (Kareena Kapoor) is fascinating, because the character of the sweet little girl that the audiences knew from the first half of the film has now undergone a complete makeover. The design of Pooja’s room and her dressing style throughout the latter half of the film has what is now termed as the Y2K aesthetic. The style combines futuristic and retro-edge dressing such as glossy/shiny fabrics, colourful sunglasses, baguette bags, pleated skirts and short-tops (Feiam, n.d.). Pooja’s room can be seen littered with these details. Her wardrobe, the purple lighting in the room and the staircase leading up to it creates the ambience of a modern, ‘trendy’ popular character that she now represents. With both, Pooja’s modern room and Kajol’s temple housed under one roof, the architecture of the house symbolizes the possibility of negotiation and the coexistence of tradition and modernity. This negotiation and the assertion of ‘Indianness’ within a foreign space becomes an important celebration of identity for the diasporic audience (Bandyopadhyay, 2008). The contrast is also representative of the image of a global India, one that has entered the international marketplace and is advancing in various aspects but at the same time, is also rooted in its tradition and culture. Thus, the film simultaneously produces a global image of the nation while also carving a parochial cultural identity for it.
The colour palettes for the characters also change in this setting. Rahul and Anjali who had bright colour costumes while courting each other, their palettes have mellowed to pastels and colder tones such as grey-blue, deep violet and dull browns. Rohan and Pooja have a comparatively lively palette, as they embody the young-love now and are responsible for resolving the conflict within the narrative. These palettes are carried forward throughout, until they come back to India. The only exceptions are seen in the song and dance sequences of You are my Sonia and Bole Chudiyan, done within the logic of spectacle. The two songs emphasise the grandiosity of the Raichand family with deep red colours and shimmery tones. You are my Sonia which is set in a disco creates an up-beat, party atmosphere, whereas Bole Chudiyan showcases a grand Indian style of celebration with bright costumes and set design, bringing in the idea of nostalgia. It once again brings in two distinct cultural practices, of prom in the west and the Indian festival of Karvachauth, portraying a confluence of tradition and modernity. The presentation of grandiose visuals in these sequences works within the logic of spectacle to produce an awestruck reaction from the audience. Simultaneously, it produces a celebration of Indian cultural practices (in the case of Bole Chudiyan) which acts as a unifying factor for Indian diasporic communities. The film further emphasises on the aspect of nostalgia and homecoming, as we see when Anjali convinces Rahul to return to India by saying “Ab wapas chalo. Yeh humara desh nahi hai, humare log nahi hai” (Let us go back now. This is not our country; these are not our people). The resolution of the narrative conflict takes place when the pair finally returns to India.
Visual Analysis of Devdas (2002)
The 2002 Sanjay Leela Bhansali directorial Devdas is well known among the audiences for its soundtrack and its spectacular visuals. The film was also India’s entry to the Oscars under the Foreign Film category. After Bhansali’s success with Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), the director was motivated to create a magnificent version of the classic novel. Thus, the project began with a budget of 50 crore rupees, the most expensive Indian film ever at the time. The film boasts of elaborate sets built with a whopping expense of 20 crore rupees (Indiatimes, 2002). Today, the director is synonymous with the larger-than-life, exquisite sets and distinct colour palettes of his films. Devdas being the landmark film celebrated for the same, the paper here takes a look at its production design.
Difference of Caste
The central conflict in the romance saga of Devdas (Shahrukh Khan) and Parvati or Paro (Aishwarya Rai) is the social class and caste of the lead romantic pair. While the class difference does exist, it is not starkly evident in the production design, as seen in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. The backlash they face for their marriage is due to Paro’s maternal lineage. Therefore, while the Mukherjee family is deemed as wealthier, the houses and setting for both the families carry a similar grandeur. Sharing an anecdote from the film’s production, production designer Nitin Chandrakant Desai mentions that after finishing the detailed construction of Paro’s house, Bhansali asked him to re-work on Devdas’ house as it paled in comparison to Paro’s (Aikara, 2011).
The factors that differentiate the two houses are aspects such as the varying colour tones and interior décor that subtly bring out the difference of caste and social status. The film is set in early 1900s British India. The architectures of the protagonists’ houses take inspiration from the British Raj architecture of Calcutta (Indiatimes, 2002). The Mukherjee mansion has chic architecture with large beams and numerous pillars with wide spaces in between. The structure is reminiscent of British manors with its polished white walls, reflecting the aristocratic background of Devdas. Intricate details such as jaali designs are added to root it in the Indian fabric. The interiors of the mansion are decked in silk curtains and large chandeliers. Devdas’s academic ascendency over Paro is established through a conversation that takes place in his chambers. In the background, we can see the packed bookshelves which, coupled with him bragging about his life in London, puts Devdas in a position of power. The differences in their caste, which stems from Sumitra’s (Paro’s mother) lineage of a nautanki family, is brought out through the much vibrant décor of their house. Paro’s haveli has colour-tinted glass panes over windows and door arches of the house, reflecting Paro’s fragile beauty, a dominant theme in the film (Damle, 2002). It is in this space, this house, that the romance between the lead pair is allowed to bloom. Once again, producing the idea that the conflict is likely to arise from the imposing, wealthy, upper-caste family.
Image 7: Devdas’ house (Credits: Mega Bollywood)
Image 8: Paro’s house (Credits: Mega Bollywood)
Furthermore, the costume design of the various characters also brings out the subtleties of caste. The use of navy blue and reddish maroon paired with gold and white is associated with rich and upper-caste status. This is evident in the way the Mukherjee family is seen in the first half of the film and subsequently, in Parvati too as she marries into an upper-caste family of Thakurs. The heavily embroidered work, accentuated by the use of gold threads, adds richness and depth to the costumes. Against this, Paro’s costumes as an unmarried woman used brighter shades of similar colours along with greens and pinks. Neeta Lulla, the costume designer for Paro, mentions that Paro is seen draped in simple cottons with traditional borders and prints during the first half of the film, unlike the intricate patterns of others (Indiatimes 2002). Paro’s change in style happens after her marriage to Bhuvan Thakur, after which she is seen in rich colours and longer drapes giving Paro an elegant look. Even then, we only see her wear soft pastels when she is back in her own house.
In the case of Devdas, his figure as a rich-kid is established through the use of English dressing style in the early scenes of the film. Right from his entry, we see him dressed in a suit, with a cravat and a hat, carrying a small staff along with him. This reflects the influence of the British style and the high social standing of Devdas’ family. His style undergoes a transformation when his family rejects his love and he leaves his home. After this, we only see him in white or beige kurtas paired with Bengali dhotis to portray the rebel persona he embodies, coupled with the look of a dejected lover (Hattangady, 2002).
Image 9: Devdas English costume (Credits: Mega Bollywood);
Image 10: Devdas kurta-dhoti costume (Credits: Mega Bollywood)
Image 11: Paro’s costume pre-marriage (Credits: Mega Bollywood);
Image 12: Paro’s costumes post marriage (Credits: Mega Bollywood)
In the film, the change of space indicates the turn that takes place within the narrative. The shift is evident in the film’s second half, wherein we now see Parvati in a higher social order than Devdas’ family. This also results in a shift of power-dynamic between the two. While earlier, Parvati was seen as the more emotional and romantic of the two, she is now the one to put distance between her and Devdas. Devdas, whose character comes off as stubborn and bratty initially, requests Parvati to elope on her wedding day, but she declines. Having left his familial home, Devdas moves between Chunnilal’s (Jackie Shroff) residence and Chandramukhi’s (Madhuri Dixit) brothel. Visually, the colour palette used for these two settings is distinct from his house. Moving from the white-washed décor of Devdas’ house, Chunnilal’s home reflects a combination of blue and white which is soothing to the eye but also adds a sense of gloom despite the shimmery additions of lamps.
Image 13: Devdas in Chunnilal’s home (Credits: Mega Bollywood)
In contrast to that, Chandramukhi’s brothel which is situated within a market-place stands out compared to any other setting seen in the film. The wide shots of the setting reveal that the place is covered in diyas (oil lamps) on the outside, which give the location a divine look. The spatially expansive landscape depicts a sense of openness that the character of Chandramukhi herself possesses. This spatial association is also elaborated by Mishra (2018) in his example of the film Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. He argues that the wide, long aerial shots highlight the themes of self-exploration, freedom, reconciliation, introspection that the characters experience within the film. Thus, establishing the space in this manner enhances the emotions associated with the characters.
Image 14: Wide view of market – Chandramukhi’s brothel (Credits: Mega Bollywood)
Image 15: Interior of Chandramukhi’s brothel (Credits: Mega Bollywood)
The design and décor of Chandramukhi’s brothel is one of the visual highlights of the film. The elaborate detail of golden curtains contrasted with deep maroons creates a balance while showcasing an expensive and exquisitely decorated brothel. While this space is grander than the mansions of the zamindars and thakurs, the idea of the space as a brothel taints its image within the narrative. It is in this space where the male protagonist undergoes a transformation. The changing of space signifies the shift that takes place within Devdas himself. Chandramukhi’s brothel is the place where he first indulges in alcohol. It is from this point forth that we see his descent into alcoholism and subsequent doom (death).
The period of blooming romance between Devdas and Paro shows Devdas as the more rational one between the two. In a scene where Paro proposes the idea of eloping in the dead of the night, Devdas rejects the idea and tries to tell her that he can convince his family. But when Paro takes a stand for her own family before her wedding, there is a change in their dynamic. Now Paro seems the more pragmatic of the two. She continues to be placed as the pragmatic figure as we see her take on responsibility after her marriage, while keeping a distance between Devdas and her. Paro reasons with Devdas, who is senselessly drunk at his father’s funeral, to leave alcohol and become sober. The character development and change seen in Parvati are brought about through the change in space. Therefore, for the film, the spaces that these characters occupy play a key role in establishing the change brought in through the filmic narrative.
In the case of Devdas, since the film bases itself on a novel adaptation set in the 1900s, it does not engage with questions surrounding globalisation. However, a close reading of its visual design shows that the film can be interpreted as producing a ‘global’ image of Bollywood and hence, India. As discussed, the film showcases lavish production design, right from the flamboyant sets to the glamorous costumes of the characters. The 2002 Devdas stands out among its previous cinematic adaptations in terms of the spectacle it produces. The fascination with such larger-than-life sets can be inferred as Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s attempt at creating a mark for Bollywood cinema in a global market. By showcasing intricately designed sets of a high budget, he puts on display the quality and the scale of production in India. While there were more impactful films made that year, Devdas was chosen as the Indian nomination to the Oscars. Although the selection process for Oscars is usually kept under wraps, it is widely believed that one of the major reasons for the selection of Devdas was its ‘exquisite’ and ‘grand’ visual design. This can be seen as Bollywood creating a space in the global, international market through its ‘grand scale’ melodramas. The argument is supported by the commercial success of both Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham and Devdas internationally. Both films project a polished, grand image of Indian families and communities. Centering the narrative on upper-class people, the films produce a tinted image of a ‘rich’ Indian society which paints a positive image of India in the global market.
However, while Devdas was well received commercially, it left various critics disappointed in terms of its treatment of the story. The film was appreciated by many for the visual pleasures of seeing its grandiose and ornamental sets and costume design. Although, having seen legendary actors like Dilip Kumar and P.C. Barua carry the legacy of Devdas, the 2002 film did not hit its mark with the narrative. Bhansali took creative liberties with the elements of the plot that displeased many audiences. Some even felt that the lavishness of the sets overpowered the narrative rather than supplementing it. While the expectations of the audience remained partly unfulfilled, the film’s visuals are still appreciated and talked about. The narrative impact notwithstanding, the production design of the film remains a topic of discussion and a hallmark of the distinct style that Sanjay Leela Bhansali developed.
The production design of the two films subtly fleshes out the traits and emotional experiences of the respective characters. The directors Johar and Bhansali produce these narrative cues through their sets. Both the films are deeply rooted in the idea of spectacle that distinguishes Bollywood from its other counterparts. For Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, this spectacle arises by accentuating the differences between classes and highlighting the Indian identity in a foreign space. The appeal to the diaspora is a key narrative element of the film. This is enhanced by the visual design of the film that negotiates between the modern and traditional aspects of Indian society, building a global idea of Bollywood. In contrast, Devdas is a film about the past and Bhansali gives his adaptation of the renowned novel a grander visual look. The film creates an image of a beautiful, semi-historical past that leaves an imprint on the audience. The components of every single set add to the relationship between the characters and the spaces they inhabit and enable them to negotiate their relationships with others. The two films focus on producing visual spectacles that the scholars argue are a marker of Bollywood. These spectacles build into the narratives and enhance the audience’s experience of the films. Therefore, production design in Bollywood plays a crucial role in shaping a film’s narrative.
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