Sourced for Game Of Thrones, from Lajpat Nagar
Rangarsons in Delhi is going beyond supplying medieval-era costumes and armour to spruce up Hollywood period films and TV shows
Fresh out of a fashion school in Delhi, 21-year-old Kanika Mittal says she has landed herself a job as an assistant merchandiser in a curious company. Six months ago, when she joined Rangarsons, a sourcing agency for period films, an impressionable Mittal thought she knew the drill: She would sample fabrics and tissues from vendors, get them approved from international buyers and, in due course, prepare the consignments for export.
Today, sitting in a polychromatic alcove of an office in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar, amid a riot of phulkari panels, silk brocades, garish velvets, woollen fringes and leather trimmings, Mittal is incongruously browsing through images of mid-sized cart wheels on her computer screen. Professing her indifference to TV shows, Mittal wonders aloud, “I don’t get these set designers really... last year, they spent so much money to buy 10 cart wheels from us for the sixth season of Game of Thrones. Do you know what they did with them?" she asks, wide-eyed, almost with a shudder. “They burnt them!"
Even the most rabid GoT fan may not easily recall the small details of a pillaging scene where a procession of cart wheels, with boxes full of ill-gotten gains, are burnt in a mythical village. But this company in Delhi is quietly adding depth and intricacy to our best-loved TV shows and Hollywood films, one insignificant scene at a time. Rangarsons ploughs the mean recesses of Chandni Chowk in Delhi, the chaotic hum of Varanasi, the winding lanes of Jodhpur and even a former princely state in Punjab, to source non-essentials like fringes and trimmings made of jute and hemp, leather panels, waxed canvas tents, giant pots and urns, lush carpets and curtains, antique wooden furniture and richly embroidered flags and banners to adorn and embellish opulent historical pageants on the silver screen.
It could be the more hipster version of a clutch of other companies operating out of small North Indian towns like Dehradun and Meerut, like Windlass Steelcrafts, Lord of Battles and Deepeeka Exports, which have carved a niche selling replicas of heavy-duty medieval-era armoury like swords, sabres, helmets, shields, masks, gauntlets, chainmails and full-body suits to period blockbusters—think Ned Stark’s sword, Thor’s hammer, Jon Snow’s longclaw, Iron Man’s armour suit or the helmet of Maximus. Rangarsons is not as battle-ready, even though it may share clients with its more prosperous cousins. Rangarsons is about the scenery, the essential details that make a world or a time come alive for the screen. From the architectural columns in Gladiator to bric-a-brac for a slum scene in The Avengers (2012), from the drape fabrics in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) to military braids in the American-British television series Outlander, Rangarsons’ range of backdrop elements is bewildering and whimsical.
“We gave the team of The Danish Girl some 50 pieces of ballet tutus," says Namrata Singh, senior merchandiser at Rangarsons. “But they were not meant for any dancers or performers. They were hung from the ceiling. You can see them in the trailer of the movie."
Their indiscriminate list of items sent to international prop-masters and set decorators includes painted vintage circus motifs for the fantasy horror thriller I, Frankenstein (2014) and fabrics for encampment tents in Dracula Untold (2014), along with 100 old-fashioned cycles for the forthcoming sequel of Mary Poppins, starring Emily Blunt. The company is now in talks to dispatch pegs, poles, tents, block and tackle, and trapeze bars for Tim Burton’s live action take on the 1941 fairytale (about an elephant), eponymously titled Dumbo, and animal bells for a major biopic on “the woman who befriended Jesus of Nazareth".
“If somebody asks me what we do, I am not sure I have a definite answer," says Manjot Rana, 48, the third-generation owner of Rangarsons. Rana’s typical day at work may need him to procure 3,000 arrows at a week’s notice and then switch to supervising the production of hand-embroidered silken shrouds for soldiers and kings. Rana is now looking forward to seeing their work in a slew of big-budget releases over the next two years, including a new historical drama series called Britannia co-produced by Amazon and Sky, Disney’s retelling of The Nutcracker, starring Keira Knightley and Morgan Freeman, Stephen Frears’ biographical drama Victoria And Abdul, starring Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in the lead roles, Lionsgate’s reboot of the Robin Hood story as Robin Hood: Origins, the spy action comedy Kingsman: The Golden Circle starring Channing Tatum and Halle Berry, and an updated The Mummy with Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe.
Set up in the 1930s in Rawalpindi, now in Pakistan, Rangarsons moved to Connaught Place in New Delhi in 1945, starting off as a supplier of ceremonial uniforms, marching band instruments and other military accoutrements to the armed forces. A framed certificate from the office of then governor general Lord Mountbatten, describing the company as the official supplier of “band accessories", still hangs on the walls of its office. In the early 1980s, when the famed British costume designer John Mollo came to India scouting for suppliers of ceremonial uniforms for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, he found Rangarsons in the yellow pages. The company made all the military costumes and Indian clothes for the 1982 film which went on to win an Oscar for Best Costume Design. Mollo has been a patron of the company since.
Soon, Rangarsons started taking up Raj-era productions like A Passage To India, The Jewel In The Crown, The Far Pavilions and Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy, etc, providing the elements of military regalia: uniforms, pith helmets, Sam Browne belts, boots and the works. But it was only with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) that Rana says the company made a breakthrough, discovering the possibilities of sourcing props for set design in Hollywood.
An exuberant Rana, the face of the company who studied history honours at Delhi University (purely coincidental, he insists), recalls the halcyon days of Gladiator, his first major project. “At that time, nobody had done a movie-set like Gladiator. We did tons of fabric, all the big metal pots and urns, all the major embroidery work in the arena where the gladiators fight, we did the chainmail curtains, braids, tassels, furniture." Because of Gladiator, he found his favourite set designer in British art director Crispian Sallis, who has regularly procured props from Rangarsons for TV shows like Vikings and The Tudors. The Gladiator project also gave Rana a taste of how demanding, uncompromising and rewarding his buyers could be. Rana remembers how he had to prepare a consignment of chainmail curtains, each weighing more than 200kg, in less than a week. “Later, on a Thursday, they tell us they need the curtains by Friday, for Russell Crowe will be there at the Malta set on Monday. ‘Just take first-class tickets to London and leave the curtains at the airport,’ was the diktat," recollects Rana. His cousin and he dropped off the consignment at the airport red channel in London, where someone with a Gladiator namecard was waiting. “There was a car waiting for us outside. We were driven to Shepperton Studios and given a fat cheque. Then we enjoyed London for the weekend and came back happy," he says.
Emmy-award-winning British production designer Gemma Jackson, who was the original designer for GoT, says, “Rangarsons is always my first port of call (when it comes to sourcing props from India). My finds in India were an integral part of the look I created (for GoT). The furniture and a huge selection of objects such as water carriers, agricultural tools, lighting fixtures and much more played a huge part in the original and, I may say, sustained look for the series."
Rana talks about a consignment of props they sent to recreate an entire Indian village in South Africa for The Jungle Book (2016), with carts, potter wheels, wooden jugs, etc. “We went to villages and bought old weaving machines. We specifically wanted the old ones which looked aged," says Rana. The operative word here is “aged", for 30% of the work at Rangarsons involves artificially ageing fabrics and sundry items to attain a weathered and beaten appearance, to get that “antique" look that set designers seek.
“Half of my job entails sourcing brand new fabrics and then dyeing them indigo to make them look dirty and old," says Singh. She has done this extensively for all the seasons of Vikings, the backdrop of the Dothraki world in GoT, and for recreating a desert sequence in Star Wars.
But it is at an embroidery workshop in Punjab’s Malerkotla that the processed fabrics sent by Rangarsons attain the grandeur and luminosity befitting, let’s say, the royal throne of Queen Victoria (Victoria And Abdul). For the last 40 years, some 15-odd craftsmen at Shaheen Art Services in Malerkotla have been gilding badges, emblems, banners and upholstery for many epic blockbusters with their delicate needlework. The craftsmen are often unaware of which film or TV series their work is for.
Abhishek Kumar, who worked as associate director for a documentary on the Malerkotla workshop, titled Empire of Threads, says, “Rangarsons derives its strength from this small workshop in Punjab. It’s hard to find any other company in India which has so many international clients from Hollywood for stitched fabrics and set design."
Arms and Armour
But what is the secret weapon of companies that manufacture historical arms and armour? These firms, like Windlass, Lord of Battles and Deepeeka, with a better scale of production than Rangarsons, have workshops across the country to tap local artisan clusters. Which also explains why the business of prop-making is considered a cottage industry—with no formal estimate of its net worth—and the products made by these companies come under the rubric of the Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts (EPCH). Deepeeka Exports has units in Saharanpur for wood carving and in Kanpur for leather work. Lord of Battles has about 27 artisans operating from their main office in Dehradun, but has reached out to over 140 craftsmen from various locations, including Nagaland, for expert leather stitching, Kolkata and Bihar for buffing and polishing metal work like helmets, and Jaipur for koftagiri artisans, who for generations have practised the craft of weapon ornamentation patronized by the Rajput and Mughal dynasties that ruled over this area.
Saurabh Mahajan, a retired army officer and founder of the Dehradun-based Lord of Battles, regularly holds screenings of films where props made by his artisans have been used. Recently, for instance, Mahajan found out a set of products he’d worked on had featured in Assassin’s Creed. “We just got an email a few days back. It’s very exciting each time we get one of these emails because movie companies are very secretive. They usually give us a different title just to keep the suspense of the film tight and to prevent any leaks," says Mahajan.
The experience has been different for Gagan Agarwal of Deepeeka Exports. “We barely recognize our products. Most of these are one-shot products only," he says. This, even though they have been engaged in projects such as the BBC’s Rome and Spartacus. “For example, sometimes if they need swords, there may not even be full swords but just the scabbards. Most of these things are make-believe."
But these companies are not wholly dependent on Hollywood either. Lord of Battles, Mahajan says, allocates time and manpower to its film projects on a contractual basis. So when they did The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, its artisans invested almost an year’s worth of work. At most other times though, films are only a small part of their business.
Both Deepeeka and Lord of Battles make replicas for museums and theatre companies.
“Films aren’t even 5% of our business," says Agarwal. “But they give us the name and the glamour. Our main focus is supplying to museum shops around the world—the shop at the Tower of London, for example, has a lot of our souvenirs and re-enactment props."
Lord of Battles’ artisans work with designers from the National Institute of Design for consignments for plays at theatres across Europe, such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, and museum shops stocking Roman and Medieval merchandise. Windlass Steelcrafts is one of the foremost suppliers of ceremonial swords and armour for armies around the world and has also acquired licences to retail replicas of props from major Hollywood studios and production houses. Rangarsons’ core business continues to be selling musical instruments to the armed forces as Rangarsons Music Depot. Its set-decoration sourcing arm generates annual profits of a million dollars, with The Jungle Book, their highest grosser, yielding a profit of $100,000. Rana claims their turnover is growing by 15% every year.
Irrespective of their labour pool and business portfolio, most of these companies do not show much enthusiasm for Bollywood. “Frankly, Hollywood is much more lucrative and well, much more professional. They just won’t compromise on quality," Rana says. He claims that Bollywood costume designer Neeta Lulla once walked into his office for the 2008 film Jodha Akbar. “But when she saw my quotations, she never came back," he smiles.
Rana flaunts a photo of him sitting on the Iron Throne at the Titanic studios in Belfast, where GoT is shot. If prodded, he will regale you with trivia on Tom Cruise. “That man is a celebrity in the truest sense. Anything over 45 minutes, and he will travel only in a helicopter. Did you know that whenever he comes to visit the set-design team, everybody gets up and starts clapping?" His January calendar is full of business appointments all over Europe—he has to meet the Robin Hood team in Budapest and visit the Shepperton and Pinewood studios in London for a recce.
“Mission: Impossible 6 is starting, you know," he parts with a flourish. “I better be there."
Vangmayi Parakala contributed to the story.