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The army behind the armour

We go behind the scenes to find out what went into making this 'Thugs Of Hindostan'

A still from ‘Thugs Of Hindostan’.
A still from ‘Thugs Of Hindostan’.

It takes a village, and a budget that’s perhaps equivalent to the GDP of a small country, to create a period epic of the scale of Thugs Of Hindostan. Set in the late 18th century, Vijay Krishna Acharya’s period fantasy adventure tells the story of a tussle on the high seas between Indian rebels and the East India Company.

Hundreds of extras, two vast ships and three countries were required to give the story of Khudabaksh (Amitabh Bachchan), Firangi (Aamir Khan), Zafira (Fatima Sana Shaikh), Suraiyya (Katrina Kaif) and Lord John Clive (Lloyd Owen) shape and form.

Of the departments that contribute to the making of a movie, two that are critical for bringing authenticity to a period set action adventure are production design and costume. For this 8 November release, production designer Sumit Basu’s work began in May 2015 and covered three geographies—Malta, Thailand and Mumbai.

The first order of business was designing and constructing two mammoth ships. Basu (Dhoom 3, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag) and his team studied engineering, flotation, weaponry and gathered specialist teams to execute the designs. “Malta has large exterior water tanks that are used for shooting ship scenes, so we enlisted the help of a structural engineer, an art director and carpenters (who specialize in shipbuilding) from Malta. One ship requires almost 5km of rope (for the masts, etc.), which came from Vancouver," says Basu.

But before the first plank of wood was cut, Basu’s team deep-dived into research. Their primary reference for the ship design was the El Galeon, popular with the Spanish and English traders of the 18th century. Basu was acutely aware of the possibility of being influenced by other films and shows of the genre. “I have not watched Game Of Thrones because I know there is a chance that the images will seep into my sub-conscious, and I wanted to be true to the director’s vision," he adds.

Once the ships were constructed, it still took wave-makers, rain machines and other special effects to recreate the feel of choppy waters. Once the shoot was done—boom! A controlled explosion conducted within the water tanks was used to destroy the ships. “The ships looked so good, that when they blew them up for one scene, I did feel bad," says Basu.

With the assistance of a Thai art director, Basu dressed up a cave in Thailand (which was later recreated in a studio in Mumbai for a song shoot) as an Indian village using locally sourced materials such as bamboo, leaves, wood, etc. His team also crafted the weaponry used by the rebels and the English soldiers—from cannons to bows, arrows and guns. “They had to be accurate, but also practical for the actors to use. We made the weapons in India and made extra units to account for damage during rehearsals and shooting." For instance, 2,000 guns were made of either wood, fibreglass or rubber for the actors.

The quirkiest look in the film belongs to Firangi, a shifty character hired by the East India Company to infiltrate the Indian rebel group. Besides his costumes and weapons, Firangi carries a flute and rides a donkey. “The flute is a concert flute sourced from the US which our carpenters replicated in multiple versions. For the donkey, the basic design came from camel dressing and was adapted to the donkey," says Basu. One of the adaptations was adding a small back support for Khan.

Basu works closely with the director of photography, art director and costume designers to recreate the world as imagined by the director. Costume designers Manoshi Nath and Rushi Sharma (Dhoom 3, PK), stuck to a simple brief: the audience should be transported to the 1800s.

“Our costumes speak about the character even before the actor has spoken. Like, Firangi wears a contrast of styles: a jade green faux leather English tailcoat with a burgundy weathered dhoti and leather boots which have been misshapen almost into a jooti. The costume brings out the dual nature of his character. Even before he smiles mischievously, you know this character is up to no good," says Sharma.

Detailed research took the costume team to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. “Absolute period correct uniform references helped us get the finer details of the red uniform, which is a big entity in the film. The paintings of the time, helped us get into the detailing of each costume. We had a research team that travelled to museums and libraries and gathered references," says Sharma.

In contrast to the East India Company, was the imagined world of the thugs and revolutionaries. “That was exciting and challenging. Keeping their emotions in mind, we created silhouettes that resemble the glorious past but have evolved into something that helps them survive the present and keeps them ready for battle."

The team fashioned around 15,000 garments. “All the fabrics are natural and sourced from Delhi, Varanasi, Surat, Ludhiana and Rajasthan. We found weavers to weave the fabrics using the yarns we wanted. They’ve been hand-knitted and underwent various ageing and weathering processes," adds Sharma. The antique silver pieces have also been adapted to buttons, clasps and toggles.

Their biggest challenge was balancing action scenes while maintaining the look. “Making the actors look like warriors, with heavy armours and weapons, while doing intense action scenes—was our Everest," says Sharma. The solution? “Dupe armours and action armours made in rubber and, at times, a combination of leather and rubber to give the shape but also keep them light, especially for Mr Bachchan, since he had an incredible amount of action and most of it was in the rain!"

The duplicates were absolute true copies of the master armour, complete with details of engraving and jewellery. “You wouldn’t know the difference till you touched it," says Sharma. This is what production design, costume and cinematography strive for—to be impactful but invisible. As Basu says, “If you are swept into the world of the film, if you do not notice our work, that’s the greatest praise."

Thugs Of Hindostan releases on 8 November.

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