Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films are known for its aesthetic art, every one of his films seems to redefine art. The recently released Bajirao Mastani took this a notch higher. The powerful trio of Art Directors, namely, Sujeet Sawant, Sriram Iyengar, and Saloni Dhatrak took Bajirao Mastani to a whole new level.  They bagged an award at the Start Guild Awards for their phenomenal work. The three Art Directors are here sharing their experiences, their doubts, and the challenges they faced while making Bajirao Mastani. 


How did you get on board with the movie?

Saloni: Basically, this movie came to Yantra – Sriram and Sujeet as they did a research on Bajirao Mastani few years back. During that time I was assisting Nitin Desai for Jodhaa Akbar. Since this was a huge project and Mughal research was required, which I had, so we collaborated to do this project.

Sujeet: Since 2003, when Sanjay Leela Bhansali first announced Bajirao Mastani, we started researching, but due to some reason the movie was shelled. We did a lot of architectural research as we knew the story. We were so intrigued with the research for Bajirao that we decided to take it forward. We went to Pune and studied all the ruins of Maratha architecture and tried to understand it. Then after Ram Leela we got to know that Sanjay Sir is making the film, we were really disappointed to know that he had already signed somebody else for Art Direction, so we were not doing the film at that point, but Shabina Khan, who is a close associate of Sir got to know about our research. She said Sanjay Sir to have a look at our research and that is how we had our first meeting.

Sriram: We had done extensive research on Maratha architecture, which Sanjay Sir liked, but we did not have much on Mughal elements. This was very important as Mastani is an important character. Sanjay Sir gave us a week to come up with Mughal research. But seven days nothing was possible, so we knew we had to come up with something and that is how Saloni came on board. We took her to Sanjay sir, and said that she has the research we require and we would like to get her on board so that we don’t lose on time. The day we got on board was a very big day for me and I was overwhelmed with the whole idea of doing Bajirao Mastani because we had worked on that film for so many years.

How was the coordination between the three of you?

Saloni: Ever Art Director has its own quality. So for every set each one of us had put in our bit.

Sriram: Coordination was pretty good.  I and Sujeet have been working for almost 13 years.  The tuning between us is very good. I had never worked with Saloni, but after we started on our own we did Agent Vinod too, and she worked with us as our assistant then, so we developed good coordination between us. We knew each other pretty much, so it was not difficult to communicate. It was nice team work.


What was the brief that you received from Sanjay Leela Bhansali? How did it help?

Sriram: Our research was very realistic and authentic. When we had started off we did a lot of research on Shaniwarwada. The British had burned down the area and now, all that is left is the foundation and a gate.  When we measured them, we realized the rooms were 20 by 20. Sanjay sir was clear that we need to come up with methods to increase the scale and not just in terms of room size. That was the main brief that we received. Hence, the whole place was redesigned to make sure that the rooms were bigger from the inside. When you see Shaniwarwada from the outside it is the actual one, but when you enter the rooms they are much bigger than the existing ones.  That was the biggest challenge, to keep the size of the arches bigger. We needed to glorify the characters and keeping that in mind we started working.

Sujeet: Our research was architecturally correct, but it was not cinematically correct. Sanjay sir was worried that though Shaniwarwada is a big complex, but the place is not cinematically right. Today there is nothing more than a plight in that place and hence, we actually had to imagine how the whole place would have been in the 17th century, when Bajirao must have built it for the first time. It underwent a lot of changes since Bajirao created it, but we had to design Bajirao’s version of Shaniwarwada and as per the research it was very lavish, but it was just ground plus two, so it is architecturally correct and at the same time we took cinematic liberty and made it a little bigger in terms of scale. Though Maratha architecture was small it was very intricately decorated. But we had to give that cinematic scale to the whole architecture, which was the first input that came from Sir. The first set of the film was Kashi’s chambers and that was the time we started understanding what, Sir wanted because till then we were discussing the authentic design. We wanted give an earthy feel, to the set in order to give a spiritual touch to the whole space.

Saloni: We know the scale that Sanjay Sir has set already and we had to match up to that scale. Even though the architecture did not allow us, but that was the main challenge that we had to face, how do we show these small rooms because we cannot deviate from authentic architecture too much. Therefore, we increased the size of arches and pillars a bit and we enhanced the room in a way that looked interesting. It might not look extremely huge, but every part of the set will look interesting.

When you read the script for the first time, what did you visualize?

Saloni: I visualised it in earthy colours with basic materials and keeping it very minimalistic. In Maratha culture they would not decorate their home, it would be all mud.


Since it is a period movie, how did you get about sourcing the props?

Sujeet: There are a lot of things that were made in house. We kept it very minimalistic that gives a spiritual feeling to the whole space. For instance, if it is Kashi’s bedroom, then there is one big prop and then the absolute necessary props like a small water source, a few diyas on the wall to get the spirituality out. We wrote Shlokas and there were a lot of lotus motifs on the wall to give a very feminine touch to Kashi’s room. Then the floor was completely made of stone, the bed was designed as per the Maratha architecture, it was a lavish bed, which was designed by us. Renting out was always a problem so, we had to replicate everything. A lot of earthen diyas were used even the marble fountain was used. Every frame would require something which is quirky at the same time it is authentically and aesthetically correct so that was one challenge that we always faced. For instance, for Bajirao all the tents created had big eagles, similarly, we had given small touches and quirkiness to the whole film. 

Saloni: For references we visited the Kelkar museum in Pune, which has most of the Maratha antique. Those we saw and created, some we sourced from Chor bazaar, Pune, and different places. We mostly used copper and brass here. We created all the rest so there we took a little liberty. We made huge diyas and we made Chinese kind of lamps, which maharashtrians use and are called Akash Kandil, which is used in Diwali. We kind of modified the shape of Akash Kandil and used it throughout Shaniwarwada. Then for the fabric we had purchased a lot of antique fabric as in the zari sarees. We had purchased it and used it as quills and cushion covers. Sanjay Sir specifically wanted a particular kind of texture and would not compromise on anything. With Sanjay Sir, we sourced all the fabrics as he has a unique taste and knows a lot about it.


Can you tell us your experience regarding the war sequence?

Sujeet: We shot two war scenes; one was the outdoor scene, which we shoot in Raichur, where we found this beautiful place at the base of the Aravali Mountain range. The war sequence was something else because there were elephants and almost 400 horses, there were foot soldiers. So dressing up the elephants was a task and dressing up the soldiers as per their hierarchy was also difficult. Everybody was carrying different types of weapons. Those were some of the most challenging parts in the movie, which we managed to pull off. Moreover, you cannot really anticipate anything with animals and few incidents happened during the shoot. There was a little accident on the set where Ranveer fell off the horse. The movie was a challenge, which as a team we completed. But somehow this film is very blessed as we managed to finish it on time with all the logistics in place.

Sriram: It was particularly tough because it was done outdoors.  The ground was not very hard so walking was problematic. We had to carry things around, which was very trying. Coming down to creativity, outdoor is particularly hard because we had to create tents and camp for the army. On paper, we were sorted, but once we started making the tent it was a different story. We used different materials like canvas, jute and we were experimenting with different fabrics. But the same fabric reacted differently to different light. The same tent would look different in the morning and different in the afternoon, so it was very tough to get a sense of which color to use and how to use it. So we had to pay attention to the color scheme and if there were any difference, then we compensated that by using lightings from within the tent. These were the kind of challenge that was thrown at the last moment. With indoor sets we knew what to build and how to do the lighting, but here controlling the environment was tough.

Solani: We started preparing for the war sequence in Mumbai one month prior to the shooting. We erected all the tents here and dismantled them and took it on the site. Even the flags were made here. And, there in the desert we had to put up these tents, according to the frame and most of the time we had to shift the tent, luckily we had made it portable.


What was the colour palette used for Bajirao Mastani?

Sriram: Each character has its own shade, which we have tried to bring out. There is a saturation level that we have maintained, which gives this whole film a spiritual kind of look because the hue is not too much on your face. Background remains in background and at the same time it is telling its own story. Kashi’s room has a greenish blue color, but the saturation level is slightly low to give a spiritual feel. Her room is pleasant and calm, but her story is a little sad, so the background colours give you a hint of that sorrow. With Bajirao we have kept the Chandan color. His character is like a fakir or a baba so he has that spiritual element and he is almost in touch with God. The love story revolves around Mastani so there is a lot of red, pink, and peach in her palette. These colors were established from the start and were used throughout the film.

Sujeet: Natural colours were used in the 17th century, nothing synthetic was used. So the main part was to create the right texture. In those days the walls were made of brick or stone wall. And mud, was the basic idea when we started designing so we used mud in different forms.

How do you connect the character to the design around it?

Sujeet: First the architecture should be correct otherwise everything falls apart. The next step is to get the characters through their props. For example, Mastani’s character has a lot of sufiness therefore, when the space was created we gave in a water stream and I believe water is the purest form in the world. The reference for creating the interior of Mastani’s room was Taj Mahal as there are a lot of miniature paintings. While creating the interiors for Bajirao we created big tents with masculine elements. We used rope wire or thick chains, it is rugged, but still beautiful. For Bajirao’s character, interiors do not matter, everything is minimalistic. In terms of architecture we created a free spirited tent because his character is like that wherever he goes, he adapts to the place, so the tents are like that, wherever you put it they flutter in the air.


Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s movies are known to create a world of their own, how difficult was it to create Bajirao Mastani’s world?

Saloni: A director like Sanjay Leela Bhansali and an amazing script like Bajirao Mastani kept us motivated. Every day was motivating and when we used to create something on the set we used to feel so happy seeing it. Yes, it was difficult, but we used to forget all that, we used to come together again and prepare for the next set. This was the first time we were working with Sanjay Sir, so the first meetings went really well. We used to enjoy the session wherein we would discuss the designs and improvise on it, his inputs were very useful throughout the film.

What is your favourite set in the movie?

Saloni: I like Mastani’s chambers, of course, after Aina mahal that is the most beautiful set. I like it because that was one place where we could use stain glass and other things. We have used a lot of stenciling there. I equally enjoyed Kashi’s set, it was the first set and I was very excited about it. My entire creative outburst came out on that set. These two sets are very special to me. The way Sir had explained and briefed us about Mastani’s set and her character I don’t think I will ever forget that.  The way he narrated and the words he used to describe her character were beautiful.


Sujeet: All my sets are my favourite because they are my babies. But there were two most challenging ones. First was the Aina mahal. It was a challenge in terms of creating it as per what we had designed, which was the floral shape of a lotus hence creating a lotus design as architecture and still getting it right by connecting that design to the Maratha architecture was a challenge because lotus then was a very Mughal element. But still for the opening of windows, the railing, the sitting area, we used a lot of Maratha elements through wall motifs or the mirror pattern. Secondly, Shaniwarwada the way Bajirao must have built was challenging. It was challenging in terms of logistics. It was difficult because there was nothing remaining of Shaniwarwada and executing it was a challenge because of all the analytical work involved in it and I really thank the entire art team who were working on that particular set. It was fantastic of them. These are two biggest set, the most challenging ones, and my favourite.

Sriram: I’ll name two for two different reasons as they are completely different from each other. One is Shaniwarwada mainly because it was a complete set that was constructed inside out. It was 360 degrees, meaning you can put the camera anywhere and shoot in any direction. The second would be Aina mahal. It was a dream for Sanjay sir also which he fulfilled and we got to be a part of it. It was a challenge because we had to live up to his expectations and standards, it had the grandeur of the height and the dome and every petal would have a balcony and embellishment of mirror. 

By Aarti Sukhija