An exclusive interview with Dhanya Pilo, the production designer of Onir's 'Shab'

By Murtaza Ali Khan

The promotions of Onir’s upcoming film Shab are going on in full flow and while it’s quite common to interview the cast and the director, A Potpourri of Vestiges, owing to our commitment to make our readers get a better insight into the filmmaking process, requested the marketing team of Shab to arrange for an interactive session with the movie’s Production Designer Dhanya Pilo and fortunately they obliged and arranged for the same just like they had made the arrangements for detailed discussions with the Line Producer Ajay Govind, Composer Shashwat Srivastava, Editor Irene Dhar, and Lyricist Amitabh Verma. During the exclusive interview, Dhanya not only shared her experience of working with Onir but she also gave valuable insights into the process involved while highlighting the various challenges she faced during the different phases of the movie’s shoot in Delhi. Shab is set to release this Friday i.e. 14 July 2017.


1. Tell us about the experience of working with Onir on Shab. What was the brief shared by Onir?  
Onir had a very simple brief - “Imagine Delhi at night in different seasons, fashion, art & food” and I have always had a lovely time in Delhi so I was happy to work on this project to help Onir showcase this inner beauty of Delhi - which most of Mumbaites have a reluctance and fear towards. I wanted people to see Delhi in another avatar than the usual convenient negative stereotypes that it is tagged as. Delhi has so much more history and a distinct difference in lifestyle.

I must warn you that shooting a film in Delhi is much tougher than doing so in Mumbai for all departments. We get so used to the filmy resourcefulness of Mumbai that one tends to suddenly praise the efficiency of the Bollywood working systems - like rental shops and prop shops when you are shooting a feature film in Delhi. But then again running the art department of a film in a city like Delhi provided me with a whole new palette of colors, moods and textures. Delhi is special. So is Onir’s film - Shab. 

2. Tell us about the process you followed. Was it different from your other films?
Yes, definitely, Onir had a distinct sense of economy to what is required in a scene to make it effective - which is really helpful for the design team when we are working with low budgets - and I have immense respect for him for that specific aspect of filmmaking.  

Onir gives you the freedom as a Designer to bring in the required context for a feel of reality, as well as precise storyboarding to give the entire crew a clear shot break down well ahead in time - so there is no space for any confusion. We were working towards showing a side of Delhi which is not visible or experienced by many, so we are hoping to show a variety of parallel lives that makes up each city. That required a meticulous planning of the spaces inhabited and occupied by different characters of Shab. Shooting mainly at night came with its own sense of excitement and limitations - the bustling city of Delhi becomes quiet at night. 

For each location and character of the film I designed different mood boards by defining the colors, textures, objects, activities, local culture, food, plating, vehicles and personalized items which help build mini stories in each scene. The different seasons had to have a distinct feel, without standing out loud, and that can only be achieved with a gentle balance of lighting, color and textures of indoor/outdoor spaces.

3. The film is shot across different locations within South Delhi. How did you maintain a distinct look and character for each?
We shot in Hauz Khas, Anand Lok, Paharganj, Gurgaon, Noida, Pritampura, ISBT etc etc - we were all over the city. Each part of delhi has a distinct look and culture and we tried to highlight how that changes every character that walks into it. Do different spaces alienate different people differently? - Yes. The city reacts to new and old people differently you might get pushed around or it might accept you as you are. A lot of the venues were real locations that we propped and dressed to fit the mood of the film while creating different corners of the city for each of the characters of Shab. But we would revisit and shoot them over different times of the year. Creating mood boards is the easiest way to define each character and each item in the film has been carefully designed and placed to help the audience relate to the character better.

To show Delhi in a different light, we picked and emphasized on the important characteristics of each season and how it changes the interaction in the area whether it was what people were wearing or eating etc. It was an exercise to retell the same story in a different weather conditions, different lighting, different decorations, accessories and different moods of the characters due to different festivals that affect all our Indian lives such as Diwali, Christmas, Independence Day, etc.  

4. Shab has been shot across different seasons in Delhi. Anything special you had to keep in mind while devising the production design?
We actually shot over 4 schedules to be as true to the different seasons that Delhi has. The tricky part of shooting a film over such a spread out schedule is that one has to be very careful with continuity aspects of the real locations - which meant a lot of heavy documentation, referencing and local co-ordination. 

Onir had instructed me to use five distinct tools while designing the film - fashion, art, food, weather and darkness - so my work involved in bringing bits of those aspects in every scene and that makes the film look - layered and interesting. We began with detailing the cafe’s branding, food to even small personal motifs of each character like Neil’s cupid hanging on his car mirror to all the expensive home decor in Raveena’s house. Winter just made Delhi look so beautiful, I will not take credit for that. This film was mainly shot post 7.30 PM all the way up till dawn and lighting fixtures played a very important role - so we had to source and make a variety of lamps as well as lighting installations. Between Onir, Sachin and me - we had defined specific color palettes for each character for example natural blue with a lot of green plants for Neil’s Cafe and house, Rich sexy Red for Sonal Modi (Raveena), etc.

Afzar’s house for example overlooks the Delhi metro reflecting the new fast paced life of Delhi, in a crumbling neighborhood and his small terrace flat shadows the upcoming mobile model with a sense of tacky cool, male pride - doing a mix and match of high art meets assumed design. Afzar’s house is the only one in the film with white lighting (tubelight) bringing out the unnaturalness of his new found lifestyle and how he is unconsciously alienated in this current predicament. He is visibly uncomfortable in his new house but trying to desperately fit in.

5. Given the tight budget how did you manage to create the extravagant look of the film, especially with regards to the high profile fashion world portrayed in film required?
The budgets were really tight so we worked with a small Art/Design team, as well as local sourcing and improvising in every new location. Since Delhi didn’t have too many options for rental agencies we were mostly borrowing different objects/showpieces from Delhi based friends of crew & family while improvising, purchasing & getting things made specifically. Sanjay and Onir’s goodwill in the Delhi circle was a great support system for the film as we were able to effectively accessorize the film with very expensive and value able wall hangings, furniture, decor, cutlery, etc. Also having my artist and architect friends in Delhi giving me leads was really helpful to create the rich feel seen in the film. Shooting at the Westin hotel and private dining rooms of the Radisson Blu, 5 star poolsides, expensive restaurants in Qutub, bungalows in Chattarpur along with fine expensive accessories, light fixtures, flowers, cutlery and linen all helped to create the mood of the film with contrast to the humble homes the other characters lived in. Raveena herself comes in with so much style and Wendell Rodricks brings in the authenticity of the high profile fashion world. 

The film also holds a variety of very large and expensive art works from contemporary Indian Artists - from the private collection of Art Curator Myna Mukherjee who was very gracious to lend us some art works - helping us create a richer and interwoven film space. The design team was studying a range of photographs from old Gladrags model hunt contests to contemporary French cooking styles and cafes’, talking to chefs to give that authentic styling. Delhi has a huge food culture and for Neil’s Cafe schedules of the film we would have a special team in the kitchen prepare different menus - food and drinks to be served to actors as well as the background actors in the scene - it was so much fun.

What I really like about Onir’s process is the efficiency of shot break down, the clearness, and concise instructions to each person on the team which keeps all the departments in sync. I wish Onir a successful film release.

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