For Prakash Jha’s 'Gangaajal', he hunted out a small village, Wai in Maharastra, and turned it into a bustling countryside of Bihar, complete with ageing yellowed houses, dusty factories and tractors emitting noxious fumes. Cut to Anurag Kashyap’s 'Dev D' in which he created rustic and colourful Punjab and also the dingy, morbid underbelly of Delhi.
The sets took us from sprawling mustard fields to a riot of neon and fetched him the Asia Pacific Film Festival Award for Best Art Direction.
Meet Sukant Panigrahy, one of the most sought after art directors in Bollywood today, who has in his kitty some of the biggest projects of the year. Currently working on Madhur Bhandarkar’s Heroine, Kabir Khan’s 'Ek Tha Tiger' and Abhinav Tiwari’s 'Oass', Panigrahy says all three are different in style and structure.
“'Heroine' has a more realistic approach with an amount of stylisation as it’s about Bollywood stars, their lifestyle and of course, award ceremonies. Since there are no references as to how the film should look, it is just out of imagination and experience that I am creating the sets,” he says.
While 'Ek Tha Tiger' is being shot in four countries, Panigrahy has done the Indian part. “Oass, on the other hand, has been shot in real locations in Delhi. I had to stay close to reality with some liberty to give the film a different look,” he says.
Also, after the death of Samir Chanda, the production designer of Shirish Kunder’s 'Joker', Panigrahy was roped in by Shirish Kunder to complete a section of the project.
Having worked for 21 films in the last 12 years, Panigrahy’s other projects include movies like 'Chak De India', 'Aaja Nachle', 'Tashan', 'Bheja Fry 2', 'Jhoom Barabar Jhoom', 'Dil Bole Hadippa!', 'Badmaash Company' and 'No One Killed Jessica'.
One of the projects closest to his heart, Panigrahy says, is Ravi Kumar’s 'Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain' that deals with the Bhopal gas tragedy.
Every film presents its own challenges for him. “'Aaja Nachle' did not do very well, but creating its sets was a mammoth task, given the budget and time constraint. I had to think like a town planner and establish the village with roads, drainage, schools, temple, mosque, a river ghat, all in 45 days,” he says.
Panigrahy also did the dream song sequence 'Mere haath mein' for 'Fanaa'. “The song had already been shot in Poland but the filmmakers weren’t happy with it. Though the film was ready for release, Aamir Khan wanted to re-shoot the song and the offer landed in my lap as a challenge. The song was done in three sets of which, the autumn leaf set was ready in a day’s time. The two others with ice and the shikara were done in 48 hours,” he recalls.
Panigrahy’s journey to the tinsel town was not an easy one though. He began life in a village in Aska, Odisha. “I come from an educated family with doctors for relatives. As a student I enjoyed only botany classes as I loved to draw,” he says. He discontinued school in Class XII and ran away from home to Bhubaneswar where after a few menial jobs, he landed in Mumbai, without a single penny. Here, Panigrahy met Ajit Patnaik, who also hails from Odisha and had established himself as a top art director for tele-serials like Tipu Sultan and CID.
After learning the tricks of the trade from Patnaik for a year, Panigrahy began assisting art director Sharmistha Roy by doing some drawings for 'Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge'. After working as an assistant for seven years, he got his first independent project, Gangaajal, at the age of 25. Panigrahy also began his directorial venture Atlas with Satish Kaushik, but it could not be completed due to lack of funds.
He also directed a few TV commercials, and is the the co-founder of MAFIA, an institution that organises art-based events. Panigrahy has also set up an NGO Muskaan to support disadvantaged children in remote villages of Maharashtra.
Juggling between various roles, Panigrahy says he isn’t about to give up his role as Bollywood’s master magician. “I will continue to be an art director,” he says. There are many more illusions and make-believe worlds to recreate.
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