Bansi Chandragupta is the person who not just changed the very look of Bengali films but his influence as the foremost Indian art director who championed the cause of authenticity in the design aspects of a film extended far beyond Bengali cinema. The pioneering work he did in the major films of Satyajit Ray was perhaps responsible for giving art direction its due place in filmmaking practice in India. He was perhaps also the first art director who designed for films keeping in mind the totality of the film’s narrative and technical aspects and thus can perhaps be described as the first production designer in Indian cinema. Quoting him, “Art direction has two major aspects – technical and aesthetic. The first is completely the art-director’s domain while the second is not only based on the theme of the film but can also influence on the film as a whole… Sometimes the creative use of furniture or props can convey certain sentiments which cannot be conveyed through dialogues… It his here that an art-director can stamp his personality … But the art-director’s freedom is limited by the attitude and calibre of the director…”
Bansi Chandragupta, who was of Kashmiri Pandit lineage, was born in 1924, in the town of Sialkot, now in Pakistan. He studied in Srinagar and from an early age wanted to be a painter. After finishing his school, he met Subho Tagore – painter, art collector, connoisseur and iconoclastic nephew of Rabindranath. Following Subho Tagore’s advice that Calcutta would be the right place for him to study art, young Bansi left Srinagar and came to Calcutta and took up residence at Tagore’s apartment in the landmark Metropolitan Building in the Chowringhee area. In Calcutta, Bansi came in touch with the Calcutta Group of Painters and began his art studies. The Metropolitan Building at that time used to house the United States Information Services (USIS) Library and Bansi often spent hours at the library reading books on art. There he met the young Satyajit Ray, another regular and through his friendship with Ray he developed a passion for cinema. In fact along with Ray and his friends like Chidananda Dasgupta, Hari Sadhan Dasgupta, Subrata Mitra, Bansi was one of the founder-members of the Calcutta Film Society (CFS)- the organization which pioneered the screening of non-Hollywood foreign films in India – established in 1947.
In 1947, Bansi got his first taste of art direction in films when he joined Subho Tagore as an assistant in the film Abhijatri directed by Hemen Gupta. Subho Tagore left mid-way due to artistic differences with Gupta and the film’s producer-scriptwriter Jyotirmoy Roy. When his replacement fell ill after a few days, the green-horn Bansi became the art director by default and he did a pretty competent job. Subsequently he worked in a few minor Bengali commercial films but his big break came in 1950 when he got an opportunity to assist the famous production designer Eugene Lourie who was working in Jean Renoir’s The River – a film which was being shot in locales in and around Kolkata. Other members of CFS like Hari Sadhan Dasgupta and Ramananda Sengupta got jobs as assistants in Renoir’s unit while Ray and Subrata Mitra were observers during the shooting. Interactions with and lessons from the master filmmaker were to leave an indelible impression and inspire these young cineastes to explore newer forms of cinema of which Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955) was the first and perhaps the finest example. For Bansi, it was a great chance to gain first hand knowledge about the techniques and materials for designing sets, costumes and props. He not only learnt about the importance of production design vis-a-vis the screenplay and the director’s vision but also understood the relationship between design and cinematography. He along with Ray and Mitra would use these lessons to stunning effect in Pather Panchali and the subsequent films they worked together.
Although Bansi’s realistic set designs in the film Bhor Hoye Elo (1953) by Satyen Bose got much acclaim from the professionals in the Bengali film industry, it was with Pather Panchali that his work broke new grounds in terms of materials, authenticity and the role of art direction within the overall context of a film. The sets were constructed outdoors and for the first time all notions of artificiality were discarded in creating filmic decor – the outdoor sets of village huts, the costumes, the everyday utensils, the furniture, the pictures of gods and goddesses and other props looked extremely genuine and perfectly in synch with the characters’ milieu and habits and more importantly matched perfectly with the ethos of lyrical realism inherent in Pather Panchali. Another pioneering facet of this classic film was that perhaps for the first time in India that sets, costumes and props were designed keeping in mind aspects of camera movement, choice of lenses and the tonal variations in terms of black and white cinematography.
In his next film with Ray, Aparajito (1956), Bansi again did a great job in recreating the indoors of the house in Kashi (Banaras) where Apu and his parents had put up residence. The set of the house was made outdoors in Calcutta’s Technicians’ Studio and Bansi kept the roof of the house open. Subrata Mitra, the cinematographer draped the whole house with white satin cloth in order to mimic the light of the dingy by-lanes of the holy city which Ray described as “qualitatively unvarying, and one could pass of a morning shot as an afternoon on” and thus achieved a milestone in the annals of motion picture photography as the first successful example of ‘shadowless bounced lighting scheme’. Ray’s eye for details combined with Bansi and Mitra’s innovations was so successful that even seasoned viewers were unable to make out the difference between actual locales and the artificial ones built inside the studio! The partnership would be responsible for films like Jalshaghar (1958) – the excellent sets of the mirrored dancing-hall, Charulata (1964) – a brilliant mimetic recreation of the interiors of late 19th century Bengali upper-class mansions, Nayak (1966) – the faultless set of Rajdhani Express which many again thought was the real thing, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969) – the fairy-tale palaces of Halla and Shundi, Aranyer Din Ratri (1969) – the interiors of the forest bungalow, the tribal fair and the country liquor shop. Bansi left Ray’s team and Calcutta after Pratidwandi (1970). The friends would reunite for Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977) to craft the ornately opulent mid-19th century milieu of the British General Outram and the pre-mutiny Nawabi habitats of the Muslim kingdom of Awadh for which Bansi spent hours poring over the works of Islamic miniaturists like Gaziuddin Haidar and painters such as Balthazar Solvyns who were known for their great attention to minute details.
Although it must be admitted that the work he did in films by Satyajit Ray was well within the parameters set by the master – Ray had very concrete ideas about design elements and was extremely particular about the realism of the decor in his films and often made sketches of the sets, props and costumes, the films he made without Bansi as the production designer never the reached the levels of excellence as the ones which had him. Working with Ray, Bansi developed a 3-stage methodology for production design which he also applied for the work he did in films for Mrinal Sen – Baishey Shravan (1960), Akash Kusum (1965), Akaler Sandhaney (1980) and Tarun Majumdar – Ektuku Basha (1965) and Balika Bodhu (1967). The first step was to have a thorough discussion about the screenplay, characterisation and the technical aspects with the director and the cinematographer. Based on these discussions he did extensive research on the milieu of the film and some preliminary sketches. Once these sketches got approved Bansi made scaled-down replicas of the sets he had in mind, held discussions about them and made necessary modifications. The third step – the actual construction of the sets – took place only after the scale models got approval of the director and the chief technicians of the concerned film.
Bansi Chandragupta’s contribution to production design in India is significant for the innovations he brought about in using diverse materials for constructing realistic sets and locales. He was the first person to employ plaster of Paris – he used the flexibility of wet plaster with great effect. He also developed a special material by sticking together thick brown-paper and cotton sheets to make walls of the interiors he built. But his greatest ability was to re-create the ‘lived-in look’ – the sets and properties therein had the look of daily use and showed the mark of time. As he himself theorised in an article, “To bring out an impression of the decadence of age or to put an imprint of time on the sets is a problem I consider to be fundamental in set designing. Trifling it is not to create a thing, which has been shaped by time or age. The handiwork of man and time are bound to be different.” In order to capture this ‘imprint of time’ Bansi developed a myriad range of techniques such as taking plaster casts of old walls, charring pieces of wood with fire and then scrubbing them with a hard brush and sometimes washing items with caustic soda. He also had a great eye for details and as Tarun Majumdar recalled in a tribute to Bansi after his untimely death that he used to spend hours chatting up with women from the villages in order to get intimate details of their lifestyles and the things of their day-to-day use.
In the early 1970s, Bansi left Calcutta and settled in Bombay due to artistic differences with Ray and also because of the fact that Art Direction as a profession in Calcutta had limited earning opportunities. In Bombay, although Bansi was greatly disappointed by the casual manner in which production design was treated in the regular commercial films, he was highly valued by the newer crop of filmmakers who were exploring a cinema radically different from the average blockbusters. Seema (1971), a film by Surendra Mohan saw Bansi win the first of his three prestigious Filmfare Awards for the Best Art Direction. The second came with Do Jhoot (1975), while his brilliant recreation of the slums of Mumbai in Ravindra Dharmaraj’s seminal film Chakra (1980) won him his third and final award. Bansi worked with the painter Akbar Padamsee in Kumar Shahani’s controversial landmark debut Maya Darpan (1972), which the critic Ashish Rajyadhyaksha described as, “the only successful colour experiment of New Indian Cinema”. In Umrao Jaan (1981), he collaborated with the director Muzaffar Ali for another sumptuous recreation of the magnificence of Nawabi Lucknow and in all its elegant finery. Avtar Kaul’s 27 Down (1973), Basu Chatterjee’s Piya Ka Ghar (1972), Manzil (1979) and Shyam Benegal’s Kalyug (1981) are some of the other major films in which he worked as a production designer in his Bombay period.
The Guru (1969), Mahatma And The Mad Boy (1974) and Hullabaloo Over Georgie And Bonnie’s Pictures (1978) – Merchant-Ivory productions directed by James Ivory are three of the major international films with which he was associated as a production designer. Bansi also worked in Kumar Shahani’s Tarang – the film was released after his death in 1984. In Aparna Sen’s first film 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), which was one of his last films, Bansi did a great job in constructing the milieu of the Anglo-Indian residences and locales of Calcutta. In fact the film is dedicated to Bansi. He was posthumously conferred with the Best Technical/Artistic Achievement Award at the 1983 Evening Standard British Film Awards for his work in Sen’s film and for his overall contribution to production design in the context of filmmaking in India.
Bansi Chandragupta’s interest in cinema was not limited to production design – he had a thorough knowledge about all the technical and aesthetic aspects of filmmaking. He directed 3 documentaries produced by the Department of Tourism, Government of West Bengal of which Glimpses of West Bengal (1967) won the National Award for the Best News and Current Affairs Film. He had definite ambitions to make a film of his own and before his sudden demise had almost completed the screenplay and the pre-production work for his maiden effort as a film director.
Bansi Chandragupta died on 27th June, 1981 in the Brookhaven Memorial Hospital, New York after a massive cardiac attack. He was on a visit to the city along with Satyajit Ray to inaugurate the Film India Retrospective organised by the Museum of Modern Arts (MOMA). He often felt frustrated at the marginal importance given to production design in mainstream Indian cinema and struggled all his life to correct the balance. Bansi’s efforts influenced the younger generation of production designers in India such as Nitish Roy, Nitin Desai and Samir Chanda all of whom have successfully added new dimensions to his legacy.
Bansi Chandragupta was truly an unsung great of Indian cinema…