It was just another morning at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. The maid who cleaned the campus studios reached on time. In one of the rooms, she saw a man sitting on the floor. He wore headphones and his eyes were half-closed. Thinking that he was one of the art students deep in thought, she went about her work without disturbing him. Done with her chores, she returned to the room an hour later and found the man still there, sitting without moving a muscle. She went closer to check if he was breathing. He wasn’t. Horrified, she ran to alert the security guard.
Rajiv Subba and Zuby Johal of Dirty Hands, a design studio based in Ahmedabad, cannot stop laughing while narrating the anecdote. What the maid mistook for a human was, in fact, a life-size hyper-realistic mannequin, modelled after their friend and studio cofounder Gurpreet Singh. One look at the mannequin, and you would agree that the maid cannot be blamed. When seated between Subba and Johal, the model is as real as it gets, right down to the slight stubble on the cheek to the tiny hair on the toes. Even at such close quarters, it takes a while to realise that what you see is not a ‘he’, but an ‘it’.
Design graduates from NID, Subba, Johal, Singh and their classmate Mamta Gautam started Dirty Hands in 2008. Their first order was from Darshan Museum in Pune for creating life-like figures depicting stories from the life of spiritual leader Sadhu Vaswani. It was a challenging job as they did not know where to learn the process and techniques for making such figures in India. Two years, many YouTube tutorials and a number of experiments later, they came up with 18 hyper-realistic silicone mannequins for the museum.
It was Subba’s idea to approach filmmaker Anurag Kashyap and show him a sample of their work. That meeting translated into two pregnant tummies, a couple of cut hands, an artificial leg, a few severed heads and a few stunt doubles for Kashyap’s two-part crime saga Gangs Of Wasseypur. “There is a scene in the film where the character played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui puts 600 bullets into the villain’s chest,” says Subba. “That was made completely in silicone because it had to bounce like a normal body.” The film was compared to the works of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorcese for the way it handled gore and violence. Since then, Dirty Hands has worked in all of Kashyap’s directorial and production ventures, including the recently released Ugly and Michael and in Vikas Bahl’s next film Shandaar.
Bollywood is not new to prosthetics. The first film to use it was made in 1981—the Sanjeev Kumar-starrer Chehre Pe Chehra. With the proliferation of horror films in the late 1980s, thanks to Ramsay brothers, prosthetic body parts became common. “In the 1990s, filmmakers started flying in makeup and prosthetic artistsfrom abroad, like Michael Westmore, who worked in Chachi 420,” says Nahush Pise, Mumbai-based prosthetic artist who designed and sculpted the Krishh mask.
However, Indian artists were considered inferior in the field ofprosthetics then. “Although there were talented senior makeupartists here, it took a long time for filmmakers to trust Indians to do a decent job in prosthetics,” says Pise, who started his career assisting one such veteran, Anil Pemgirikar, who has been around since 1972 and has worked in films like Hey Ram and Koi… Mil Gaya. The larger shift to more realistic cinema and the arrival of mid- and low-budget films seem to have paved the way for homegrown artists. With increased exposure to world cinema, the audience, too, now demands “hyper-realistic” effects.
The initial journey, however, was tough. While Dirty Hands relied on the internet, others like Pise and Mumbai-based prostheticartist Ritu Jenjani took off to the United States for training. “Doing my master’s in Los Angeles helped a lot,” says Jenjani, who launched India’s first makeup and prosthetic academy in Mumbai and has worked on films like Vishwaroopam and one of last year’s top grossers, Salman Khan-starrer Kick. “That level of training widened my understanding of the craft and acted as a stamp of credibility for my work.”
Cost and availability of raw materials are other challenges theartists face. Most of them import their raw materials from the US. Dirty Hands uses silicone as the main component of its creations. “It is heat resistant, captures Indian skin tones and textures well,” says Subba. It is imported in liquid form. “It turns solid only after casting. And, the price varies from one grade to another, costing about Rs 2.95 lakh to Rs 5.15 lakh a tonne,” adds Johal. Latex, another favourite, costs Rs 1.38 lakh a tonne.
Also, the choice of material varies from situation to situation. Pise, who made a pregnant belly for Deepika Padukone in Chandni Chowk To China, opted for foamed latex to keep theprosthetic light enough for the actor to carry. But he chose silicone when he had to make a bloody torso for Farhan Akhtar’s war movie, Lakshya. “A knife had to be used on the torso and foamed latex would not cut well, so silicone was the best bet,” he says. While making his signature Krishh mask, Pise had to find a material that wouldn’t cut into Hrithik Roshan’s face while performing stunts. But it had to be sharp-edged and had to look metallic. He tried silicone, leather and rubber. “Finally, we rounded in on wax, but again we had to come up with an entirely new way to paint on wax to give it a metallic finish,” he says.
From Aamir Khan’s ears in PK to Kamal Haasan’s portrayal of ten distinct characters in Dasavatharam, the use of prosthetics in our films is definitely on the rise. “It could be something as small as making a wound look real to changing an actor’s look completely or creating animal dummies,” says Jenjani. Remember the narcoleptic cat Nareus in Homi Adajania’s Finding Fanny? “It was common sense that a dummy had to be used, with all the problems that come with filming with animals,” says Adajania. “Now, how to make that dummy look as real as possible was the question.” What he appreciates the most about Dirty Hands, which created Nareus, is its professionalism. “They are very clear about their capabilities and understand the time constraints one faces with shoots,” he says.
Actors, too, have warmed up to such makeup wonders. “Earlier, at least some of them were scared to use prosthetics on their faces as they worried whether it would harm their skin,” says Jenjani. “However, now they are more than welcoming and are keen to understand the products I use and the process.”
Although wary of quoting numbers, prosthetic artists in Bollywood agree that it is a highly paid job. Jenjani justifies the price saying that it is expensive to learn the art. Apart from her institute and Pise’s studio that provides professional lessons in prosthetics, there are not many such training centres in India. Johal, who has some big-ticket films like Zoya Akhtar’s Dil Dhadakne Do, Yash Raj’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy and Fan this year, says the cost of high quality raw materials drives up the prices. “A silicone mannequin with less exposed body area costs about Rs 8 lakh,” she says, “while a hand-modelled [not cast in moulds] mannequin with more exposed area costs about Rs 16 lakh.”
The requirements from filmmakers, however, are getting stranger by the day. “Once there was someone who wanted us to make a fish that could swim in water and as it takes a turn it had to float on the surface as if dead,” says Johal. To such requests, she has just one thing to say: “We are not God!” And, if that doesn’t convince them, there is always VFX!