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EXCLUSIVE - Art director Ramcharantej Labani: OTTs have given people so much work that I'm struggling to find assistants

The technician discusses the specifics of his craft, his early struggles, life-changing experiences in the industry and what went into the making of The Family Man

Srivathsan Nadadhur
Jul 11, 2021
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A popular Telugu saying loosely translates to 'conquer your home base before you take on the world' but here's a Telugu boy who found his footing in Mumbai before the heartland of Telugu cinema, Hyderabad. Ramcharantej Labani shares his first name with a Telugu superstar, though he was initially a technology enthusiast with no film connections. Thanks to a college senior, he accidentally took to art direction due to a chance encounter with popular production designer Anand Sai on the sets of Yama Donga. It was love at first sight. 

From doing odd jobs on sets to pursuing an art direction course in FTII, Pune and assisting top technicians like Ravinder, Rajeevan, Saini S Johray and Sukant Panigrahy, Labani made a mark in Hindi, Marathi and Telugu industries in his decade-long tryst with filmmaking. His latest release was Raj-DK's blockbuster series The Family Man 2 that has catapulted him into stardom. OTTplay caught up with him for a chat recently.

Excerpts from the conversation.

A lot of us have our own opinions on what an art director/production designer brings to the table. How would you define his role in a film?

Many people assume that the production designer is the one who designs the look and the feel of the film/show on the sets. While this definition may be partly true, I see it as a craft that gives life to the script, brings the characters alive through the ambience. In the past, some of them recognised the presence of an art director or a production designer only when there were larger-than-life/grand sets in songs, almost forgetting that they are responsible for building the visual atmosphere around the characters throughout the film. Thankfully new age directors and cinematographers, whom I've worked with till now, recognise the importance of production design and I have been in sync with their sensibilities.

What attracted you to production design?

My ambition was to become a software engineer when I was 15. I had even enrolled for a BCA course at Osmania University. For reasons best known to the institution, they cancelled the course abruptly in the middle of an academic year. One of my friends Balakrishna Sharma (the DOP of Mallesham) was pursuing his graduation in photography in JNTU, Hyderabad and I wiled away my time sitting with him in classes, watching short films at the university. I had a whale of a time there and had this stray thought about giving a shot at an art course in some form. 

I waited for a year and ended up studying BFA, Painting at Telugu University. I never thought of making a career out of art and was happy to be involved with it through lectures, noticing sculptures, artworks coming to life. But the time had finally time where I had to take a serious call on my career. I wasn't confident about selling artworks for a living and meanwhile, my friends were making a career in animation studios. 

Just then, one of my seniors Maya Chari, out of the blues, took me to Annapurna Studios to the sets of Yama Donga and introduced me to art director Anand Sai. SS Rajamouli was elaborating on the set he wanted to create, while Anand Sai gave us specific directions to execute it. I began assisting my senior and this was my first brush with cinema. For someone who didn't know art beyond paintings, sculptures and animation artists, a new world was waiting to be discovered. 

And you made it to FTII, Pune soon to pursue a course in art direction..?

Yes, I was surprised to make it to FTII in a single attempt. I didn't even know English or Hindi well and was the only South Indian at the institute. However, once the course began, there was no looking back. I was also working in Mumbai on a few projects and the institute gave us access to watch the finest films produced in our country. Cinema was our only world, we helped each other and our seniors with projects and never stuck to one department alone. We handled production, cameras, lights, trolleys and whatnot. It gave us a 360-degree understanding of filmmaking. Of course, I speak fluently in Hindi and Marathi now.

Your first project as a production designer too was for a Marathi film Vihir...

The director of the film, Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni, was also my FTII senior. I had very little practical experience in films and couldn't speak Marathi then. Umesh switched between Marathi and English and always asked if I understood the gist of his briefs. The project was a lot like our diploma film and was made on a tight budget; we did all the carpentry, set construction and painting by ourselves. None of us in the team expected anything in return from the project but for some practical experience. All our efforts bore fruit when we won the V Shantaram (Maharashtra-state level) award for production design. 

In your opinion, what are the qualities that an aspirant art director ought to have?

Firstly aesthetics and some common sense would do. Don't mistake the phrase 'common sense' as sarcasm here. With the right script, the art director can change the entire atmosphere of a scene with his/her creativity. Anyone can shoot near the Taj Mahal and make a scene look good but the real challenge is to construct a Taj Mahal set and still make it look as authentic as the original one. You need to have a knack for choosing the right colours, materials and an added advantage would be the knowledge of filmmaking technicalities, which is mostly gained with on-set experience.

Despite being a Telugu boy, working in high-profile Telugu projects like Dhruva, Nannaku Prematho, you made your career largely out of Hindi films and an occasional Marathi outing...

FTII is a significant reason behind that and gave us access to a lot of work in Mumbai. We had stalwarts like Sabu Cyril, Sukant Panigrahy, Sunil Babu taking guest lectures. The institute has produced the best technicians we have in the industry today. We used to request many of them if we could drop by their sets and most of them would readily agree. Our network with the creme-de-la-creme in the filmmaking world grew as a result. Yashraj Films' TV production, Powder, where I had worked as an assistant art director, gave me a major break in my career and I never had to look back later.

On the sets of The Family Man 2

How did you approach The Family Man (1 & 2)? There are many characters, diverse backdrops from Jammu and Kashmir to Mumbai to Chennai, Delhi, Pondicherry and London...

The script always gives you a fair idea of the environment around the characters. We only go on floors after the director, cinematographer and I discuss the visual references and are on the same page with the execution. Say with Srikant and Suchi's house, it's obvious that Suchi is more hands-on with household matters, spending more time with the kids and has a larger say in the functioning of the house. She has Tamil roots and the brief was to incorporate elements typical to a South Indian household. 

With Raji's house in Chennai, we had to find a place where she is lonely, could feel secure while being undercover, had minimal luggage and from where she could easily escape if needed. For instance, the police station sequence with Raji was a single shot and I had to tie the rope around Samantha's hands so tightly to make her struggle to escape look real. She had to be restless, make a fuss and attempt to escape. I had to try this out myself with the assistant tying me up, shoot a video and show the reference to Raj-DK to get it approved. In some cases, the two are very specific about what they want and offer us creative freedom in other cases. 

Jumping from one season to another for a web show, how challenging is it to handle continuity issues?

With The Family Man, I didn't see the second season as a sequel or look at it in terms of continuity because the situations, characters were very different from the first instalment. You'd be surprised to hear that the portions shot in Srikant and Suchi's house weren't part of the second season originally and the script underwent a few changes going by the hype we got for the first part. Characters like Milind and Zoya were revoked based on the popularity they enjoyed with audiences; the two aren't supposed to survive the gas leak in the original version. Even Srikant's house had to be recreated again and we couldn't acquire similar furniture that we used for the house in the first season. We tried to ensure that the house looked similar more or less. However, certain changes were made to the surroundings taking into consideration that he had changed his job.

The Family Man 2 - The TASC office, Chennai set

You worked with a veteran filmmaker like Ramesh Sippy for Shimla Mirch right in your early years in the industry...

I was on cloud nine to associate with a director who made 'THE' Sholay. Honestly, I didn't interact with him much through the shoot and it was his son Rohan Sippy that I was in touch with. Ramesh Sippy would tell an 'okay' at best after the set is readied. The atmosphere was more like a school for most of us. He used to address everyone sweetly and never lost his temper. Even if he had to explain something to the actor, he was cool and composed. The film had many heavyweights from a Hema Malini to a Rakul Preet and a Rajkummar Rao and yet the set was so grounded in its vibe. I'll cherish that experience forever.

Was it difficult to alternate between Bollywood and Telugu cinema? Do the industries treat technicians any differently?

The working atmosphere is vastly different. In Mumbai, the value you bring as a technician is recognised and they respect your job. I can't say the same thing about Telugu cinema though. Regardless of your experience or qualification, you still need to work in the same position and can only rise in the ranks if you know the right people who can back you up. The respect you get on set is determined by many factors beyond your work. I haven't worked much here, but I can say this from the experiences I've had. However, the Telugu web original I did for aha this year, Mail, is an exception and was shot a lot like an indie film; the collaboration was magical.

Hybath's internet centre set in Mail

What is the fondest memory you have of a set you've created or a project that you've been a part of?

I have many but if I have to pick, it'll be the diploma project I did during my FTII stint, Sonyacha Aamba (Golden Mango). I hold the experience very close to my heart. It came out really well and a few shots were magical. The camera movement in the film was restricted and you had to be innovative in constructing a scene. We had to plan shots in such a way it wouldn't require editing. It was the first time that I saw a set being dismantled for a film that I was so emotionally attached to. I got used to this later on, but for the first time, I was so disheartened to see it being destroyed.  

Web shows and films get made because of teamwork ultimately, but why do you feel that it's the actor or the director get a larger chunk of the credit and hog the limelight? Don't you think technicians deserve better?

You can't blame the audience always because it is the actors that they finally see on screen and not those who've worked on it behind the screen. In my early days too, I appreciated everything that Pawan Kalyan or Chiranjeevi did in his films regardless of who the director, cinematographer or art director was. Not all viewers care for the technical nuances, some come for the actors, some for the music and a few for the director. There are all kinds of audiences.

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