About Sujeet Sawant and Sriram Iyengar

Having honed his artistic skills with a voluminous stunt in the field of advertising and graphic designs, Sujeet Subhash Sawant forayed into the film world with popular movies such as Swades (2004) and Devdas (2002) to name a few. An engineer academically, Sujeet is known for his ability to back stunning aesthetics with strong logic and exceptional finesse that has translated the vision of many directors to sets that can range from a hut to a palace, with equal aplomb and a signature finish.

Sriram Kannan Iyengar, (45) began his career as an assistant director to Tanuja Chandra in 1998. Around the same time had the fortune of assisting Mahesh Bhatt on Zakhm as well. During the process he developed keen interest in art direction and production design. In the year 2001 he shifted gears towards art by joining a renowned art director. After working for a couple of years on various projects, he proceeded to hone his craft further in 2003 by studying visual media and communications in the US.

Sriram returned to India in 2005 and in association with his friend and partner Sujeet Subhash Sawant
launched his own company Yantra designs. Some of the feature films that they worked together include the national award winning I Am, and others like Dil Jo Bhi Kahein, Mirch, Agent Vinod and finally Bajirao Mastani. Iyengar and Sawant have over 100 TV commercials under their belt and have even designed the sets for several music videos. Bajirao Mastani (2016) remains their most ambitious, lavish and challenging project.

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When Sanjay (Leela Bhansali) Sir shared the brief for Gajanana song sequence from the film Bajirao Mastani with me and Sriram (Iyengar), we knew that we were expected to architecturally create three different mansions blended into one! And we were further informed that there were three different moods to that one single song. Our journey into the song, thus, started on a complex note, wherein we tried many permutations-and combinations to make it look like it finally did, on screen.

At a very fundamental level, the “Gajanana aarti” of Bajirao Mastani wasn’t the traditional form of aarti (a Hindu ritual of making offerings to the deity). “Sukhkarta Dukhaharta” is the known and colloquial tune commonly used during Ganesha festival. For this sequence though, Gajanana was chosen because it was melodramatic, passionate, and more musical with intense beats. The scene was meant to be indoors, inside the stately home of the gallant warrior.

Shaniwar Wada complex was the main residence of Peshwa Bajirao Ballal. During his times, public worship of Lord Ganesha didn’t happen. Rather there were domestic arrangements for every family where Ganesha idols were brought into the houses and worshipped in private. Bajirao being an ardent worshipper of Lord Ganesha, celebrated the festival with great pomp at his own temple inside his residential complex and threw it open for visitors.

I and Sriram stylised the Ganesha Utsav sequence trying to maintain authenticity in terms of colours, forms and architecture of the place, as much as we could research out the facts from history. But of course, this was attempted with some level of cinematic liberty. The scene we were about to shoot was complicated, because it was meant to arouse multiple emotions simultaneously, within the audience. On the one hand there was a high tempo song being played in admiration of the deity, welcoming him to bless lives with his holy presence. On the other hand, a secret assassination was planned out at the backdrop, by the same priests who prayed for divine intervention and general well-being by pronouncing holy chants. That was the inbuilt irony in this part of the story. The third angle was that Kashi bai had been informed about the impending massacre and she was left to choose between humanity and cruelty. That entire path which Kashibai walked till she stood next to Bajirao was the only little time she had to reach her decision. The shots were hence carved as – Kashibai informed-cut-Ganesha aarti-cut-Mastani attacked, all weaved into the same scene.

Kashibai met the priest at the portico where she was told that Mastani will be killed. She walked steadily towards the temple and opened the door. Inside it was red everywhere. That was meant to symbolise the mental condition of Kashibai, the obvious dilemma whether she should choose happiness for herself or for her husband.
The mood inside the temple was that of devotion. Amidst loud chants people were submitting themselves to Lord Ganesha. And just behind the festivities, Mastani was mercilessly attacked. The huge courtyard hence had to be Mastani’s courtyard as well, from the opposite side. Architecturally we had to work out a triology where the common courtyard of Shaniwar Wada, Mastani Mahal’s courtyard and the temple courtyard did cross paths and were inbuilt as one!

For the aarti scene, we chose to stick to the most basic form of Ganesha. We got the idol cast with “Shadu” soil which is traditionally used to cast Ganesha. These days often synthetic materials like plastic or fibre made or plaster of paris is used, but we went with the old school format to bring authenticity to the scene. Minimalistic in design, the Ganesha idol on the sets of Bajirao Mastani had lots of sandalwood and turmeric embellishments in its dress and décor to usher the required colour connect. Flowers like kundha, jasmine, oleander and champak were used along with “durba”. Modak (sweets) were made right there on the set. The set actually looked like an entire community had come together for celebrations.

The red colour in the ambience was created by spraying ample red dust or gulal up in air. Colour had a very strong role to play in this sequence. To the Peshwa already deep in devotion, Kashibai had to say everything with her eyes. In hindsight, a dialogue was actually shot there but it was edited later. It felt some things were better expressed without the support of words; rest must be left to the assumptions of the audience. In the very next scene, Mastani was fighting her lone battle when Bajirao reached out to help.

The major challenge was to get the crowd in sync with the scene. We had to recreate the traditional diplomacy immersed in rich musical rendition with the use of pakhawaj and dholak (drums). At that time the track, Gajanana wasn’t recorded yet. So the singers were brought into the set and they were singing it live. It was fun as well as stressful, since the minutes of the song had to be monitored along with those of the actors. They stood at the far end wearing costumes of Bajirao era people; their mikes were hidden.

Every day when we went back home after shooting all through the night, those red dusts flew out from our nostrils and ears and hair. As much as you bathe, they would still stick to your scalp. After a point though, we gave up trying. The song went on for three days at a stretch. Hence that Hercules effort each day didn’t quite make sense. Moreover, tons of red dust were being sprayed into the air. Every time the direction of the spray went wrong, we had to re-shoot it because Sanjay Sir was very particular about these minute details. Though the scene as you see in the film feels indoors, inside a temple, we were actually working through a make-shift set where the sky was open. At times when it was breezy, the earthen lamps would get put off time and again. So we would had to shoot again with everything appropriately in place and take the dust fountain on ourselves yet again.

Once the shooting of Gajanana sequence was over, we all had a tough time explaining at our homes, what we had been doing after we went out for “work”! Today of course they understand, having seen the film once it released. And we cherish the moments with a smile and satisfaction, as our names rolls out during the credits for one of the most iconic films this era has produced.


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