Art direction is an area of filmmaking that, most often, doesn't find any mention in film discussions — unless it's a discussion hosted by a group of filmmakers. When someone outside the film circles mentions it, it's usually the name of a man, like Sabu Cyril, that finds a way into the discussion. But what about women?
Though the names of a few female art directors from Hindi and Tamil cinema have popped up now and then in film magazines and articles, we haven't heard of anyone from Malayalam cinema before, from Kerala. That's about to change. Meet Dundhu Renjeev, the first female art director from Kerala. Before she was made in-charge of the production design of debutant Prasobh Vijayan's Lilli — a low-budget survival thriller which comes out this Friday — Dundhu worked as an assistant art director on 100 Days of Love (her first film), Rockstar, and Oru Mexican Aparatha.
Dundhu agrees that working on a small-budget film can be more challenging than on a big-budget film. "Unlike in big films where there are no budgetary constraints, on a small-budget film you have to make do with what you have. We had to come up with ideas instantly. On Lilli, we had to improvise: we used cow dung and green leaves to get the grungy and gritty look we wanted for the film. I really admire my team for coming up with some really out-of-the-box ideas," says Dundhu.
Though she is happy with where she is now, there was a time when Dundhu briefly pondered giving up this profession. "After working on 100 Days of Love, I doubted myself. I felt that I'm not qualified for this job. I didn't know anything about carpentry or the various kinds of paints that were being used. But my seniors, after taking note of my hard work and sincerity, egged me on. It was their lessons that kept me going."
Dundhu admits that art direction is not an easy job. "It's physically demanding and that's one of the reasons why women are reluctant to pursue it as a suitable career option. You're required to work at all times, even when you're on your periods. You're not going to get any sort of consideration if you fall sick. If the shoot is going to start at 6 am, we have to be there at 5.30. And we are usually the ones to leave last. We have to make sure that everything is safe and ready for the next day."
Though it's a small film, working on Lilli was not a cake walk, says Dundhu. "We didn't build the set. This was an abandoned building which needed a makeover. It was hard work. We couldn't do as we wished; we had to get the proper permits for everything. We couldn't shoot at night, and we couldn't set up the lights the way we wanted to. A proper co-ordination between the art and lighting departments is of paramount importance in such situations."
She adds that these were not the only challenges. "We were worried about the snakes and other peculiar creatures. Sometimes you're in the middle of work and you see one of them passing by next to you (laughs). Before the start of production, a female intern was supposed to join us but then she changed my mind after we told her about this location. You have to be willing to work anywhere, you see. Recognition will come later."
Lilli is produced by E4 Experiments, an offshoot of E4 Entertainment. The film is E4 Experiments' maiden venture. Samyuktha Menon, Dhanesh Anand, Kevin Jose, Sajin Cherukayil, Kannan Nayyar, and Aaryan Menon play the main characters. Debutant Sreeraj Raveendran is the director of photography and State Award winner Appu Bhattathiri is the editor. Sushin Shyam (Maradona, Varathan) has composed the background score.