It Was 3am and the Ship Won’t Go Down: Tanmoy Chakraborty

More than a hundred films and 50 megaserials. If that is not an impressive enough, nothing is. In a freewheeling chat, leading production designer and Filmfare award winner Tanmoy Chakraborty speaks exclusively to RBN about his struggle, career, the challenges in his profession, and what keeps him following his passion.

My knowledge of art and the beginning

I was in high school back then and once met a boy who studied in the government art college. I never knew that learning art went beyond schools. But I managed to crack the entrance exam in my second attempt and an entirely new world with infinite possibilities opened up for me. I realised that I knew nothing about art. As a student there, I came across many talented individuals, and got to know that art direction plays a very important role in films and other visual media.  I wanted to enter this profession but did not have any contacts to help me out.

Disappointment in Mumbai

I went to Mumbai sometime in 1995-96 to sell some of my paintings and met a person who was staying in the same hotel. He claimed to know well-placed people in the Hindi film industry. But what followed was some useless studio hopping. I could land no work, was hugely disappointed and broke, and finally decided to return to Kolkata.

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The matchbox and a chance meeting

I resumed my painting and was preparing to pursue a master degree. I along with a group of friends had gone to Digha for a holiday where I met senior art director Goutam Basu while exchanging a matchbox. I came to know that it was a film unit with all the key technical persons around. I told Goutamda about my interest and he asked me to meet him in Kolkata. But I did not, since I was apprehensive that such a renowned person may not recognise me.

Tanmoy Chakraborty

The second rendezvous

It happened at a script reading session at producer-director Snehasish Chakraborty’s home in 1997. I had visited him casually where I met Gautamda the second time. He asked me to meet him again but also warned that the profession entails a huge struggle. But I was determined this time. The teamwork behind a film—the coordination between 22 departments—fascinated me. And that started my learning process which continues even today.

An ignored legend

I had a chance meeting with the legendary art director Kartik Basu who had done innumerable films in both Mumbai and Kolkata. He had no penny in his pocket, no proper place to stay, and used to take a public transport to work. Kartikda was ignored by the industry, and he pointed out at his condition upon hearing that I wanted to enter the same profession. I felt that I chose the wrong trade which will give me nothing in return. I quit and went back to painting.

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Destination Hyderabad

I got a call from one of Gautamda’s assistants in 1997 to join Ramoji Film City and landed in Hyderabad. A person was waiting at the railway station with my name-board. I began working in a mind-boggling setup with an entirely different level of workmanship and professionalism.  From then on, things turned for the better. I soon started getting offers from Mumbai.

Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani

I constructed the entire jail set of Phir Bhi Dil Hain Hindustani in 15 days flat. It was really a very small time considering the scale of the film. I was told to complete it within that time as Shah Rukh Khan and Juhi Chawla would not be able to allot combined dates later and the shooting will be postponed by at least 18 months. But I erected the set which was a record of sorts.

Tanmoy Chakraborty

Mira Nair and a dream come true

I had watched Mira Nair’s Kama Sutra in Baroda and was awestruck by the film’s production design. I badly wanted to work with her and couldn’t believe my ears when she called me up one day. My dream finally came true in 2006. The Namesake was an international film and a milestone in my career.

Hindi films

I was the production designer for the Kolkata part of Mani Ratnam’s Yuva in 2004 and Vikramaditya Motwane’s 2013 film Lootera. Ribhu Dasgupta’s Te3n was another major film. There have been several other films and TV commercials as well.

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Film before a film

That’s the essence of production designing. A production designer has to visualise the final look of the film much before the actual shooting starts. This was earlier absent in the Bengali film industry. It’s a pity that for many years we couldn’t carry forward the detailing of the legendary Bansi Chandragupta in Satyajit Ray’s films. Much of the credit of changing the look of Bengali films goes to Gautamda and the support that he got from the new breed of directors. Today, you can’t distinguish a set from a real location. They look more meticulous and aesthetic than back in the seventies or eighties when board painters or those who cut thermocol became art directors. As production designers, our work has become challenging over the years with the narrowing distance between Hollywood and Indian films. The look and feel of a film has to be top class or else the audience will change channels instantly.

The harbingers of change

Rituparno Ghosh undeniably. He took production designing to an entirely new level and I learnt so much from him. I accompanied Rituda to many unknown locations in the city to get furniture and other props. After reading the script I would visualise the film and he would suggest some finer points. He wanted his films to look good and had a deep knowledge of production design himself. I worked with him in the TV series Bahanno Episode, and then in Chitrangada and the documentary on Rabindranath Tagore, Jeevan Smriti. All new directors today, like Srijit (Mukherji), Birsa (Dasgupta), and seniors like Arindamda (Sil) and Anjanda (Dutt), want their films to look aesthetically good and things are getting better each day.

Tanmoy Chakraborty

Reenadi and her sofa

Working with Reenadi (Aparna Sen) is always a great experience. These days no separate time is allotted for set visits before the actual shooting starts. Today, an entire film is canned within 12-15 days. Reenadi always has the homework ready so that no time is wasted on the sets. She is very cooperative. I remember, while shooting for Sonata, we couldn’t get a particular type of sofa as a prop. Reenadi sensed that we won’t be able to find one. She happily asked to use a sofa from her home. I got a Filmfare award for Reenadi’s 2013 film Goynar Baksho.

On a shoestring budget

People in Mumbai simply don’t believe that an entire film in Kolkata can be made for less than ₹1 crore, without compromising on the look and feel. We, production designers, often use props from our own homes to reduce production costs, something which is unthinkable in Mumbai. But yes, a bigger budget would obviously better a film’s look, as we can have more detailing then.

When the ship didn’t go down

I had no idea about underwater shooting before Amazon Obhijaan. All sets I constructed until now were above the ground. The cinematographer from Mumbai suggested using iron and fibre, instead of plywood, to make the ship’s cabin that would be submerged in water. But the budget was already made and I had no option but to use ply. The set was lifted by two 100 feet cranes and pushed down below the water. To our horror, only 15 percent of the ship went down, and the rest remained floating. The set was extracted and additional weights were added to it. But we had no idea of how much weight we were exactly adding. This entire trial and error process went on until three in the morning. I cut holes on the base of the set so that water can flow in and increase the weight, knowing fully well this could be visible on screen. The ship finally submerged fully two hours later after adding almost 1,00kg of aditional weight. We freshened up and were ready for the 6am call time.

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Future projects

Shooting for Guptodhoner Sondhaney ends tomorrow. It will release on 27 April. That aside there’s Kamaleshwar Mukherjee’s Good Night City, Rajarshi Chakraborty’s Happy New Year, Abhishek Chakraborty’s Uronchondi, Arindamda’s Balighawr, and Kaushik Ganguly’s Kishore Kumar Junior . We will start shooting Arindamda’s Byomkesh Gotro from June. I also designed the production for Ek Poshla Rupkatha, a small-budget film by independent filmmaker Chandradeep Das, mostly using props from my home. Talks are on for several other projects and one of them is a Bangladeshi film.

Durga Puja

Production designing is of course my bread and butter, while Durga Puja lends a different artistic satisfaction. Will be doing Ahiritola Sarbojanin and Salt Lake EC Block this year.

Pics: Prabuddha, and Tanmoy Chakraborty’s Facebook page

Amazon Obhijaan


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Foodie, lazy, bookworm, and internet junkie. All in that order. Loves to floor the accelerator. Mad about the Himalayas and its trekking trails. Forester in past life. An avid swimmer. Also an occasional writer and editor

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