“I Know Her From Her Miss India Days… I Shot Aishwarya’s First Ad ” – Omung Kumar
I was quite surprised when I saw Mary Kom. You would think that the man who did the sets for Bhansali’s films would create a lavish Broadway-esque affair for his directorial debut. Instead, Mary Kom was a gritty film on the lines of Million Dollar Baby. Production design meant Manipuri villages and boxing rings – a far cry from what Kumar usually specialises in. What made the film work (besides Priyanka Chopra’s performance) was Kumar’s ability to tell an unusual story in an engaging manner, minus the shaky hands of a first time director. His next film, Sarbjit, is also a biopic, and something he did not plan to do. The research material for the film was so powerful that he had a change of heart.
We settle into his office for a chat one afternoon and I am overwhelmed by what is around me. It is like a French cabaret star’s boudoir – masks, grand antiques and all that’s kitschy. Every piece of furniture and upholstery has been crazily designed, making the space a grand portfolio of the man’s artwork. From award shows to television soaps, Kumar (along with his better half, Vanita Kumar) is the one-man act behind much of the entertainment industry’s set and production design. He is a handsome guy, constantly smiling warmly, and you can see that he is buddy material.
When did your relationship with cinema begin?
(Laughs) From before birth, actually. My parents are alumni of FTII and I was a part of this massive industry from my inception. Even though I graduated in commercial art, theatre and modelling was always a part of my life. I slowly moved into advertising and worked in various capacities for about 12 years. I was art director and then creative director at Hindustan Thompson Associates (HTA) and my keeda for acting and modelling came back again when my clients would ask me to model for their campaigns. That was also the time when I had to visualise and organise launch conferences for brands. That led to creating sets for television soaps and serials. And then Ek Minute came along.
Ek Minute was quite a phenomenon in the 90s.
Oh yes! It was good fun. I was getting offers to act in serials, but that meant I had to leave advertising and commit completely to the show, and I was not ready to do that. Ek Minute was my own show, my set — whatever I said, happened. It went on for about 12 years.
And you were designing sets along with your TV and advertising careers?
Well, yes. I was working in advertising and I set up my design companies at the same time. I started doing sets for live events and award shows. Even till now, be it Filmfare or Stardust or Screen, I do the set and production of these larger than life award shows. And then, films were just the gradual progression. My first film was Na Tum Jaano Na Hum with Hrithik Roshan and Esha Deol. So I started doing films full time as an art director. With me, I was continuously flitting between being in front of the camera and behind. Also, for me, it is crucial to move on to bigger and better opportunities. What next? You peak at something and then try to achieve a bigger goal. I can always hear myself saying that I can do so much more. And luckily the next door always opened for me at the right time.
So how did the door open for film-making?
I started writing a bunch of scripts with Saiwyn Quadras, but they were stories that belonged in my larger-than life world. I want to do my version of Moulin Rouge. Once the scripts were in place, I realized that it was such a task to get an actor on board. Hence, I decided that we do a film with a female lead and draw up a role that no actress will want to say no to. That is what I told Saiwyn. Finally we landed up with the story of Mary Kom. I had no clue who she was and then we researched on her. We took a flight to Manipur spontaneously to meet her and ask her if she would let us make a film on her life. Initially, she started laughing and thought that we had lost our minds. But it took us just one hour to lock down the story with her. Then we started writing the script. We wrote for two years. Then the Olympics happened and everyone woke up to the phenomenon Mary Kom is. Soon, Sanjay Leela Bhansali came on board and the rest is history.
When I walked in for Mary Kom, I did not expect what I saw. I was expecting extravaganza…
That worked for me, I guess. “Alag” ka stamp lag gaya mujhpe. Everyone realized that I was not just about grandeur and opera. They realized I was also about acting and craft and not just sets. Being an actor myself, I act out every scene to all my actors. I am not only about the design and the glitz. There is much more I have to offer.
And now you have two biopics back to back.
I really did not want that to happen but I was so overwhelmed by the story and the research that I just had to make this film. I remember the excruciating sessions I had with Dalbir Kaur in my office, when she narrated the story in detail. It was agonizing for her too, to go through everything again. We would take breaks, and get back to our sessions. But the hope or realization that the film poses is why I made the film. Iske aage kya? That is the crucial question the film asks.
Why Aishwarya Rai Bachchan?
See, I needed someone who could easily age by 25 years. I didn’t want to take someone younger and fake it with prosthetics. Yes, the problem is that she is too beautiful. How do I not see Ash? That was the most important question. That is what I told her too. She is a director’s actor. And every role I offer my actors will be the actor’s dream role. I loved her in Raincoat and Guru and I know her from her Miss India days. I shot her first ad for Cadilla. She didn’t know anything at that time. And we have grown in the industry together. I know how finicky she is and we have always had such a wonderful rapport. She is a dream to work with. And she was so involved in every single tiny process of shot break up, costume and make up. She did a fantastic job.
Randeep is making the headlines every day with this film.
He is such a fantastic actor. Such a method actor, oh my God. Even when I had spoken to Dalbir and Sarabjeet’s family, the only name they came up with was also Randeep. He looked exactly like him. And it took me just 15 minutes to convince him. Which actor would say no to a role like this? He got the walk, the gait, the expressions bang on. He blew my mind in Highway too.