Luminary, Profile

Desh Mukherjee

If the name Desh Mukherjee fails to ring a bell, it is because the memory mode is as short- lived within the industry as is its magic mode eternal. It is also because Mukherjee was not an actor but an Art Director, belonging to a tribe of creative technicians who generally prefer to keep a low profile and shun glamour. The mention of the name of a single film, Deewaar, is enough to arouse memories of those memorable scenes between the two brothers that changed the course of their lives, the story and the film. That bridge was conceived of and created by the film’s art director, Desh Mukherjee who went on to create realistic, fantasy-centric, historical and mythological sets for many famous Hindi films over his 35-year-old span as art director.

Born in Lucknow on November 9, 1929, the story of Mukherjee’s early struggle could have been lifted directly from any Hindi film of the 1960s and 70s. Desh was the eighth-born child of Charu Chandra and Charusheela Mukherjee. His father worked at the Ordnance Factory. Interested in art from his boyhood, as a child he would sculpt figures of gods and goddesses like Durga and Saraswati. Mukherjee grew up in the small towns of Uttar Pradesh – Lucknow, Meerut, Shahjahanpur. He studied at Government Art College in Calcutta but after his return, he was forced to take up a job at the Ordinance Factory in Kanpur. He was not happy in that confined world. His love for films began when, as a school going boy, he would cut classes to slink off to watch films with his older brother. Once, a friend at the factory, one Mr Ghosh helped him with money to buy train tickets to Mumbai where he wished to try out his luck. For the first few days, he lived on the streets of Bombay. He then shifted base to the Sion crematorium where the caretaker, a Bihari with a penchant for watching pornographic films allowed him to share his room. In exchange for letting him stay for free, Mukherjee had to accompany him to watch English films at Aurora cinema near King’s Circle and translate the dialogues for him! Desh also had to work in his place when he was away.

He then shifted to paying guest digs near Rivoli cinema sharing it with four other Bengali friends. In his leisure hours, he would draw, sketch but not paint because he did not have the money to buy colours and brush. Mukherjee’s work began to get noticed by art directors of the time like Sant Singh, Sudhendu Roy, etc. Finally, he got the chance to assist Sudhendu Roy. He became very close to his “guru” and assisted him for many years. His work as associate art-director for the Dilip Kumar-starrer Gunga Jumna (1961) was appreciated. He came into his own in the 1970s with Manoj Kumar’s VIP Films – Purab Aur Paschim (1970), Shor (1972), Roti Kapda Aur Makaan (1974) that remain archived in the history of film designing in Indian cinema. The crowning glory was Deewaar (1975).

As a film professional with 35 years of designing and creating movie sets for the Indian film industry, he worked for some of the best production houses and film makers from Yash Chopr ato Manoj Kumar to Dulal Guha, Shashi Kapoor, Manmohan Desai, Feroz Khan and Gulzar. He created sets for all kinds of plots – historical and period films, contemporary dramas, adventure-thrillers or just plain old pot-boilers. His eye for detail, creativity and the desire to build spectacular sets within very mundane environments helped him rise to the top of his profession.

Mukherjee considered Basu Bhattacharya’s Teesri Kasam (1966) a milestone and Deewaar a turning point. The village `nautanki’ setting (or the stage where village performances are held) that he created for the National Award winning Teesri Kasam was something he never forgot. The set is still regarded as one of the most authentic and creative sets in Hindi cinema. For Yash Chopra’s Deewaar, he put up the set of a bridge inside a Bombay studio. He was very proud that none other than Satyajit Ray congratulated him for this creation. A fortress-palace for Manoj Kumar’s Kranti; the recreation of a London night-club in a studio in Bombay for Purab aur Paschim, the Death Row of Yeravada Jail for Khan Dost are just a few examples of sets Desh designed during his illustrious career.

Sometimes, one has to improvise with whatever material is available. Given the chaotic circumstances within which Hindi films are shot, deadlines are as tight as the producer’s purse strings. Sometimes, it can be frustrating and at other times it leads to hilarious situations and innovative solutions that often work well. For instance, for Purab Aur Paschim, a tense fight sequence was to be shot against the backdrop of a cliff with snow-capped mountains all around. Manoj Kumar who was directing the film, wanted to shoot in a stiflingly hot Bombay studio in the middle of summer! Mukherjee was called to create the ambience. So along with his team, he went to work. For snowflakes, they made do with truckloads of common salt! Luckily, the audience never caught on. Mukherjee was very anecdotal, full of jokes he made up on the spot and delivered with a poker face. “We could not do anything about the heat, though,” he would say with a poker face.

Mukherjee narrated how for Dulal Guha’s Aanchal (1980), he had created a temple on the banks of a river near Nashik in Maharashtra. As shooting progressed, local residents began to visit the temple to offer prayers and flowers to the Plaster-of-Paris idol of Lord Shiva. Shooting complete, Desh’s studio hands readied themselves to dismantle the temple set. By then, the set had acquired a life of its own. The transformation from make-believe to a real-world temple had happened without the knowledge of the film crew and cast.

“The film industry in Bombay”, Mukherjee never wearied of repeating, “is a testing ground for every technician. Despite the less-than-perfect conditions and the total chaos on most movie sets, Indian filmmakers have made great cinema because the industry spurs creativity and innovation in a manner that defies all logic.” International filmmakers began commissioning him to design for their films. When David Lean was planning to shoot The Wind Cannot Read in India, he asked Desh to become co-art director. It was his first brush with a Hollywood production. Lean after all, was one of the greatest masters of cinema. Though he later opted out of the film, it opened a window to the international world for Desh.

He teamed up with American, British, Japanese and Russian filmmakers. For Shashi Kapoor’s Indo-Soviet venture Ajooba in Hindi and The Black Prince in Russian, the crew shot extensively in India and in the Yalta region in Russia. For his own directorial venture Aatank, which was never released, Desh worked with a Japanese team to create a 30-foot monster shark at the high-tech Toyo Studio in Japan. This called for an army of interpreters and several months to complete the shooting but as an experience, it was just out of the world.

Around 1983-84, UK-based London Films International came to India to shoot a three-hour television series based on Rudyard Kipling’s classic Kim. Mukherjee was roped in to create a period piece with authentic sets of bustees and bazaars, colonial houses, fortresses and palaces. He  lived up to the challenge of creating a generous dose of Oriental exotica the makers demanded to appeal to a British and an American audience. Peter O’Toole played an important role in Kim. In 1986-87, Mukherjee worked as art director for another international project, Queenie, based on a novel by Michael Korda with Kirk Douglas in the male lead. For two months, the crew, headed by director Larry Pearce was stationed at Hotel Rambagh Palace in Jaipur. Mukherjee used part of the palatial hotel grounds to recreate a Calcutta street complete with graffiti in Bengali. He went ahead and converted the old Jaipur airport into the Delhi airport! One of the most challenging international projects was George Walker Television Productions Ltd’s television series Lord Mountabatten: The Last Viceroy. As co-art director, Desh had to recreate the India of 1947. He created the right ambience for credible riot scenes, political rallies, nationalists’ processions and in sum, the recreation of an important period of Indian history.

In the late Nineties, Mukherjee migrated to Delhi for good. The failure of his directorial debut film Imaan Dharam (1977) produced by his closest friend Premji, is believed to have broken him emotionally and financially. It is strange that a film scripted by Salim – Javed when they were at their creative peak, with actors ranging from Sanjeev Kumar to Amitabh Bachchan to Shashi Kapoor, Rekha and Aparna Sen failed to draw an audience. But this cheerful and optimistic man did not give up and began his next film Aatank, which, as mentioned, was never released. Few however, are aware that Mukherjee was a brilliant still photographer. He did not miss a single opportunity to capture real life in rural areas, in small towns and remote pockets across the country when he went location hunting which was very often. He leaves behind an excellent collection of still photographs that could easily form the subject of a memorable photographic exhibition. Life and living and the grit of the human spirit formed the core of his photography.

Desh Mukherjee passed away on November 11, 2010 of a paralytic stroke.

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  1. Thank you so much for this. Would it be able to talk to you a bit more about Aatank. I don’t see your contact info anywhere, so, I will leave mine here and hope to hear from you. [email protected].

  2. Desh Mukherjee- today while watching a movie “imaan dharam”(1977) with so many star cast got to know about a really talented soul Mr.Desh Mukherjee , movie failed in box office read from upper,we would be pleased to know from you more.Unfortunately Hindi film Industry is ruthless as Indian public. We Only pray for him.

  3. I met Sri Desh Mukherji in Lucknow in late nineties when he came to attend marriage of his nephew Subroto with my niece Priti.That meeting stirred me about how could a born artist could survive in a cut throat world of Mumbai.He left the place at the right time. His condition was deteriorating due to smoking related obstructive lung disease. I saw this man sitting in the living (drawing) room and constantly writing a script hoping it will hit the screen one day. I guess that day never came. His daughter Aditi visited us in US while working on her own script. She has her father’s gene of creativity. Desh’da’s magical ability in art direction is /was uncomparable and unique.A truly confirmed that ‘ ‘a picture can express thousand words without the sound of a dialogue.”
    Sameer Roy
    An ardent admirer of “Mukherji Magic”

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