Who's That: Suzanne Merwanji - Camera, lights, SET

By Savia Jane Pinto , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | January 27, 2010
The set designer relates a few incidences and the joys of creating an era that takes you back in time

Remember this ad for Polo? A young mother and her son are seated in a train carriage with a middle-aged man on the opposite seat. Since it is getting cold, the mother hands her son a sweater and asks him to wear it. "Nahin," he says with a nasal twang. The mother insists, "Beta Sweater pehno." The child is adamant. Just as she is about to pull the sweater over the child's head, the train is plunged into darkness as it enters a tunnel. When it emerges, the middle-aged man is shown wearing the sweater.

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Meet Suzanne Merwanji, the set designer behind that ad. When Merwanji started off 20 years ago, the art wasn't called set designing. It was more of a costume designer, location finder, constructor and set designer all rolled into one. "Now there is specialisation making inroads into this field," she says.

I am seated in her drawing room that overlooks the Arabian Sea and has a cupboard filled with books of number of cities and towns and its architecture. Merwanji starts with a little history lesson about set designing and its evolution.

Merwanji, who studied in England, started her career by designing art pieces and fabric. This soon turned towards designing of sets for films and commercials. She initially worked on many commercials. One of the ads that she worked on was with Prabuddha Dasgupta, a noted photographer and Preeti Vyas, when Vyas was a creative director with Trikaya (now Grey Worldwide).

Before starting on a set, Merwanji has a chat with the director to understand the brief and draws out a sketch. Then she works on the character of the film or ad film. A couple of sketches later the environment of the set is decided upon and Merwanji gets completely engrossed in completing the look of that environment with all the necessary details. "God is in the details," she says.

Creating a set in a particular era, period or milieu in a certain style, can easily be learnt, says Merwanji. But constructing the life of a character in the film is what takes the greater piece of effort. She explains that when working on a film, the environment of the character is as important to the story as the story itself. "It helps add the pieces of the puzzle together in the end of the story."

Among the directors she has worked with, Merwanji enjoys ideating and working with Prasoon Pandey. "He's very character driven and creates quirky character," adds Merwanji. The ads she has worked on include Centre Shock - salon (where the barber gives his customer a Centre Shock to make his hair stand on end), Mentos - bar and Cadbury Dairy milk's Pehli Tareek ads. She has also worked in Farhan Akhtar's Dil Chahta Hai, and the critically acclaimed Darjeeling Limited, directed by Wes Anderson as well as Mira Nair's Kamasutra - a Tale of Love.

(Who's that? is an effort to highlight the lesser known talents from the advertising, media and marketing industry.)