When a master technician passes away suddenly, it is a great loss to the film industry. But when a very good human being goes yonder, he leaves behind a vacuum among the human race. Samir Chanda was both – a talented technician in films and a very good human being who never allowed his achievements to cast a halo of arrogance around his simple head. His untimely death of a massive heart attack on August 18, 2011 leaves a tangible emptiness behind for those who worked with him, and for those who knew him closely. The biggest tragedy in his life is his failure to release his only directorial film Ek Nodir Galpo (2008), one of the most beautiful films in recent times. Despite the acclaim it received from the film festival circuit, he could not sell the film to a single exhibitor or distributor. At the time of his death, he was negotiating with a party to sell the DVD rights of the film.
Born in 1957, Samir Chanda was an Art Director who changed the phrase from Art Direction to Production Design because he felt the term ‘Art Director’ had reduced the status of a master craftsman to that of a glorified carpenter. Arriving in Mumbai with his mentor Nitish Roy in 1984, Chanda had honed his skills in his craft first by arming himself with a graduation degree in fine arts from Kolkata and then through assisting Nitish Roy in memorable films like Kharij, Khandhar and Pragoitihashik. “I feel proud to have worked with an institution like Subrata Mitra,” he said and loved working with Shyam Benegal the best because “he discusses the script and then leaves the rest to me.” The script was very important for Chanda before sitting down to work out his final plan. He would discuss the script with the director, then make sketches bases on the script keeping the characters, the story, the locations in view and then begin to translate his concepts first into visuals and then into concrete designing.
From pure historical films like Sardar, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero, Moner Manush, through literary works like Omkara, Maqbool, 7 Khoon Maaf, Iti Srikanta, through Dil Se, Iruvar, Guru or fantasy projects like Krrish and Aks right to brazenly mainstream films like Saudagar, Rang De Basanti, Mast, Ram Lakhan, U Me aur Hum, China Gate and off-mainstream films like Zubeidaa, Yatra and Kaalpurush, he spanned across genres and subjects with remarkable fluidity and flexibility. He also did the production design for his own directorial debut Ek Nodir Galpo shot entirely on location. He was a multiple National Award and won the Filmfare Award for Guru and Omkara, besides the IFFI Award for Rang De Basanti. His first independent work was for Andhya Yudh. His body of work is defined not only by excellence and aesthetics but also by economy and authenticity in period films. His compelling vision and groundbreaking style has helped to define Production Design in Indian cinema as we know it today. His work has a personal stamp that cuts across films, genres, and decades.
He felt especially proud of having recreated Netaji’s homes in Bhowanipur in Kolkata and in Austria for Benegal’s film, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero. About his work for this film, he said, “We shot Netaji’s passage to Peshawar and subsequently to Kabul. It was impossible to shoot in Afghanistan, so we did it in Ladakh instead where I had already been while Dil Se was being shot. We created the entire Jamroodh Border post that stood between Afghanistan and India. We also created the interiors of a market place in Kabul where Netaji had made important contacts. We had to make Akbar Shah’s house look authentic.”
For him, the most thrilling part of being a production designer in films is that he is constantly challenged by films that need him to create a concrete jungle in New York on the one hand and a Rajasthani village on the other. For Goutam Ghose’s Moner Manush based on the life and times of Lalon Phokir, Chanda created an akhra with some thatched huts and three houses. Actor Prosenjit, who knew him much before he worked with Chanda for Moner Manush, said, “I had to do a look test for my role of Lalon Phokir in Goutam’s film. Goutam could not go to Mumbai so he asked Samirda to do the look test on his behalf. I was amazed at the way he meticulously went into every minute detail of the period. The only idea we had of what he really looked like was from a sketch done by Tagore’s brother Jyotirindranath Tagore on May 5, 1889, 17 months before Lalon passed away. Samir created just the right look Goutam was looking for. He managed to produce a sarinda and an ektara and gave them to me to emphasise authenticity. His dedication to his work was more than total.”
“The most challenging part of my designing was getting the right props. We had a tough time finding a sarinda, a now extinct musical instrument the Bauls played on. To recreate the architecture of Lalon’s time was another challenge. There were almost no frames of reference so we had to rely on whatever little was available and rest had to be done from imagination. A project like Moner Manush does not attract me for the money or the budget constraints we have to work in compared to the budgets in Bollywood. It attracts me for the special kick I get out of working in these films,” Chanda said.
In fact, money was never the criteria for Chanda. He once did a Malayalam film for Rs 40,000 but his hard work in it fetched him a Kerala State Award! He worked without accepting a single naya paisa for the production design of Anjan Das’s period film Iti Srikanta adapted from a Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay classic and even paid his own airfare to Kolkata and back because he said he was grateful to Anjan Das for having picked him from theatre and pushing him into films. “It was my gurudakshina to him,” he said.
His two-storey set of an old, dilapidated Kolkata building he designed for Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Kaalpurush stood testimony to his brilliant mastery in recreation at the Bharat Lakshmi Studio complex in Kolkata till it burnt down completely last month in a huge fire.
Chanda pointed out that the five qualities a production designer must possess are (a) solid grounding (b) innate creativity (c) ability to visualize (d) flexibility and (e) confidence. When he reached Mumbai in 1984, he had but Rs 500 in his pocket. And though he grew to moving around in fancy cars and flying Business Class, his health was a constant source of worry for him, having suffered a heart attack during his work for Dil Se.
Chanda worked with some of the greatest directors in Indian cinema – Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Subhash Ghai, Ketan Mehta, Santosh Sivan, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Goutam Ghose, Vishal Bhardwaj and Mani Ratnam to name a few. He made significant, indelible and influential contributions to the development of Production Design in the Indian film industry. He was singularly instrumental in developing the Post Graduate Diploma in Art Direction at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. He was also a regular guest lecturer at The Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI), Calcutta and was part of the faculty in the Art Direction Department at Whistling Woods International, Institute for Film, Television & Media Arts, Mumbai.
When asked what pushed him to direct, he said, “It is a kind of knowing oneself, of looking within, of testing oneself with a new measuring rod. As production designer, I had read many scripts, visualized the story, underscored its meaning and translated its concept into reality for the moving image for directors I worked with. Time and again I would wonder, “How would I shoot this scene if I was directing the movie?” “Do I understand Cinema?” “Will I be able to narrate a story for celluloid?” For the past few years, a longing to be on the other side of the fence, to share my original thoughts with other technicians and to tell a story in the simplest manner would plague me constantly.”
From a simple story of a motherless daughter and her doting father, filled with the pranks that evolve from the naughtiness of the little girl to the motherly care of an adolescent, Ek Nodir Galpo changes mid-stream, like the river that runs through it like a lifeline, to a tale not as much the tragedy of a father who has lost the only emotional crutch he could lean on, as it is the story of a strange mission that raises questions about the futility of aspirations, ideology, material affluence in the face of a man’s unique mission.
Asked to pick his personal favourites among his career bests, he mentioned Mani Ratnam’sIruvar, Shyam Benegal’s Sardari Begum and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero, Ketan Mehta’s Sardar, Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra’s Aks and Rang De Bassanti and Gautam Ghose’s Moner Manush. “I look on Iruvar as a big challenge because being a Bengali, I had to create a period film in Tamil cinema. Sardari Begum is memorable because the entire film was shot on sets but no one realized this. Sardar was my first film with such a huge set created against an India that does not exist anymore. The madness and the surrealism I could create for Aks was a challenge because in the industry, everyone felt period films were my forte. Rang De Basanti is a favourite because it demanded creating a period atmosphere and a contemporary design in the same film without any conflict between the two and this called for very intelligent designing,” he explained.