Set­ting the Mood

A set de­signer talks about the heart­breaks that come with dis­man­tling what she cre­ates—homes, worlds, lives.

India Today - - TRAVEL - By CHINKI SINHA

It is an empty house. A few books, a few san­dals, two mat­tresses, a desk and a chair. Out­side, the pink bougainvil­lea is in full bloom. You can see the ru­ins from the bal­cony of this house on a summer af­ter­noon. There’s time. Empty spaces are for her to fill, and this one be­longs to ac­claimed writer Vikram Seth. And this time, it will be a house that won’t be de­mol­ished. That’s so­lace, for now.

The Be­gin­ning

Years af­ter she de­signed the sets which in­cluded building a whole house in Goa, for the Bourne Iden­tity se­ries, pro­duc­tion de­signer Arad­hana Seth still hasn’t re­turned to the site even though she now lives in Goa. Of all the tem­po­rary homes and spaces she has built over the years, this was one she got at­tached to. Such are the oc­cu­pa­tional haz­ards of her work—you need a heart of steel per­haps to de­mol­ish what you once cre­ated. From a dis­tance, it looks like a gi­ant clam shell. A song se­quence for The Sky is Pink, a film starring Priyanka Cho­pra and Farhan Akhtar, is be­ing shot at the Fil­malaya stu­dios in Mum­bai. It is a com­plex set, she says; "You have to be imag­i­na­tive.” As a lit­tle girl, she was al­ways cu­ri­ous about spaces. She would go to oth­ers’ homes and rear­range furniture in her

head. The artist and pro­duc­tion de­signer is the daugh­ter of Jus­tice Leila Seth and sister of au­thor Vikram Seth. Her fa­ther Prem Nath Seth stud­ied footwear design in Eng­land and worked with Bata in the early 60s. Part of her child­hood was spent in Digha in Bi­har in a bun­ga­low on the premises of the shoe fac­tory. Seth grad­u­ated with a mas­ters de­gree from the Mass Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Re­search Cen­tre at Jamia Mil­lia Is­lamia Univer­sity in New Delhi and first worked as an as­sis­tant di­rec­tor for In Which An­nie Gives it Those Ones writ­ten by Arund­hati Roy, af­ter her grad­u­a­tion in 1987.

Life on the sets

“I’d do ev­ery­thing on the sets, in­clud­ing design; I was young and tire­less at the time,” she adds. And in 1992, she met di­rec­tor Deepa Me­hta on the set of Ge­orge Lu­cas' Young In­di­ana Jones Chron­i­cles. That led to Seth de­sign­ing the sets for Fire in 1996 and Earth in 1998. It is the lit­tle things, like the yellow hues in Fire, a film that first tested her skills at sto­ry­telling through ob­jects, per­fume bot­tles, win­dow frames, ageing on the walls, ev­ery­thing that tells some­thing. “In Fire, we dressed the house. In Bourne Supremacy, we cre­ated it,” she says. For ev­ery story that is given to her, she trav­els in time and space. There are facts and there’s imag­i­na­tion, and af­ter she has read the script a few times, she be­gins to place the peo­ple in time and con­text. There are truths and myths. She must act as the me­di­a­tor be­tween the real and story world where visual fic­tion needs ev­ery­thing—cos­tumes, props, furniture in real or sim­u­lated ar­chi­tec­tural spaces in imag­i­nary worlds. Film scholar C. S. Tashiro says real­ity needs to be shaped “to fic­tional ends” and “the pro­duc­tion de­signer sits at this con­junc­tion be­tween the world out­side the story and the story’s needs”. Ev­ery­thing must have a vis­ceral re­sponse to it and for the sake of im­mor­tal­ity in mem­ory’s treach­er­ous land­scape, you must burn a scene in col­lec­tive con­scious­ness. The train in Wes An­der­son’s The Dar­jeel­ing Lim­ited (2007) is one such ex­am­ple. A train was dis­man­tled, reimag­ined and re­con­fig­ured and re­designed and then re­turned to its orig­i­nal state af­ter the film. It is then about work­ing with be­liev­able re­con­struc­tions, even in a dream se­quence.

Of needs, nos­tal­gia and nar­ra­tives

“You live in that world. And you also can’t live in every­body’s world,” Seth says. That’s the con­flict of it and that’s the irony of it. Seth is al­ways else­where. There are pho­tos on her so­cial me­dia that be­long else­where. Like a steel box that must have be­longed to another era with red books piled on it; the lo­ca­tion says Kolkata. Or a stair­case with black semi-cir­cles on each land­ing. She is al­ways look­ing, al­ways record­ing. Th­ese will reap­pear on some set some­where. And that’s how she sum­mons com­mand over ev­ery element of the set as a nar­ra­tive de­vice. There’s a lot of emo­tion. That’s how peo­ple re­late and ul­ti­mately re­mem­ber.

Arad­hana Seth (left), built a whole house in Goa for the film Bourne Supremacy starring Matt Da­mon (below)

THE MAGIC UN­FOLDS: BE­FORE AND AF­TER Con­struc­tion of the sets of the film One Night With the King (2013) (Top); Screen frame of the film be­ing shot on the same (com­pleted) set in Ra­jasthan (above)

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