Biren Naug – Art’s Offspring
In the business of film making, today a nearly perfected art of make-believe, probably the biggest juggler is the art director. He is the man who most throws the dust in the eyes of the cine-goer and turns deception almost into a fine art. It is his business to lend substance to shadow, worth to worthless, reality to illusion.
Mostly dealing in sham and counterfeit, the art director makes mountains out of mole-hills, palaces out of pasteboard, picturesque countryside out of painted canvas. He is ready and able to forge and fabricate into shape anything under and over the sun you want duplicated within the few hundred square feet of space in a film studio – be it a dense forest, a starry sky, a sea in storm, a snow covered mountain, a grimy slum, a fashionable city street or the architectural glory of a by-gone age. To play false and ring true is the constant aim of the art director and one of the men in the Indian film industry who have been pursuing this aim with notable success was art director-Biren Naug.
Slim and determined looking Biren Naug started his career as art director in Calcutta and by the time he left Calcutta in 1952 in search of ‘wider scope,’ he had already done art direction, he claimed, in over fifty pictures.
In Bombay he was responsible for the art direction of ‘no less than thirty’ pictures. Among the noteworthy films he did in Bombay were ‘CID’, ‘Pyasaa’, ‘Talaq’, ‘Kala Bazaar’, ‘Kala Pani’, ‘Nau Do Gyarah’, ‘Pyar Ki Pyas’ (in colour and Cinemascope), ‘Chaudhvin Ka Chand’, ‘Tere Ghar ke Samne’, ‘Hum Dono, ‘Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam’ and ‘Sautela Bhai’. For his work in ‘Chaudhvin Ka Chand’, Naug received the Filmfare award for the Best Art Director.
“Art direction,” Biren Naug said, “is one of the most important branches of film production. Good art direction greatly enhances the appeal of a picture. Environment is part of a story. And, if that is correctly portrayed, it helps tremendously in making a scene, and the artistes enacting it, convincing and interesting!”
It is the job of the art director, Naug said, to conceive, in consultation with the director, the set, the locale, the costumes and all the set decorations. “Even the makeup to be used by the artistes,” he added, “must be supervised by the art director.”
“It is essential that the art director possess an intimate knowledge of the content of a script for which he is to design sets. He must know the mood and the emotional tone of the scene he is to design and erect. It is only then that he can contribute his best to the picture.”
A script, for instance, may require just an ordinary drawing-room belonging to a man of average means. But if the art director knows the character, temperament and the habits of that man, he uses his imagination to design the set realistically, to make it throb with life by taking care of small but vital, details.
Every average room, Naug believed, is a little space surrounded by four walls. But that is not what a writer, engaged in the task of portraying human character through the conflicts of life wants. The look, the appearance, the ‘feel’ of a room depends upon the mental and psychological personality of its owner. The material in a room and the way it is arranged reflects the mind of the man living in it.
A given room or house can be made to look either cheerful or gloomy by the art director. Naug therefore believed that in order to devise appropriate and convincing environment in a film, the art director must be thoroughly familiar with the story and must receive the fullest collaboration of the director.
“Before conceiving or erecting a set,” Biren Naug mentioned, “I have a thorough discussion with the director.” And before he started knocking a set together, Naug drew sketches of the set for the approval of the director. On the average, it took Biren Naug about six to eight hours to draw a sketch but generally he does a thorough and fairly detailed job of the sketch. This saved any confusion or vital omissions at a later stage.
A fairly prosperous man living in a house that spoke highly of the aesthetic sense of its occupant, Naug had seen enough of bad days in life. Born in 1922, he spent his childhood in Mymensingh (now in Bangladesh) where his father was a bank clerk receiving a salary of thirty rupees a month. And with that money the father supported a family of as many as seven members.
Without waiting to complete his matriculation, Biren Naug left Mymensingh at the age of fourteen. He had already been an eager film-goer and K. L. Saigal, Kanan Devi and other stars of Calcutta films were his favorites. After living in Khulna for about a year and a half, during which he attended an art school, Biren Naug landed in Calcutta with no introduction letter, no addresses of relatives or friends and hardly any money.
His first day in Calcutta he spent in a public park and the first night in the house of an old man who had befriended him in the park. Soon after, Naug joined an art school whose lady vice-principal proved very kind to him. Having been introduced to the manager of a local cinema, he found livelihood for himself in doing lettering work for the cinema’s show window.
The work used to bring him twenty-five rupees a month, with which amount he paid his room rent (two rupees a month), his boarding charges (eight rupees a month) as well as his concessional fee at the art school.
Around 1940, Naug emerged from the art school with a diploma in hand, exceptionally good marks to his credit and lots of ideas and ambitions in his mind. He had not left the art school very long when he entered the film world as an assistant cameraman.
Why as assistant cameraman, after finishing art school? In reply, Naug insisted that at the time and for quite some time before that, it was really his aim and ambition to be a cameraman.
He continued his career as assistant cameraman for about three years. Then he met art director Bratin Tagore, who knew about his art school background and persuaded him to become assistant art director. After doing a couple of pictures as assistant art director, Naug emerged as an independent art director in ‘Arakshaniya.’
After ‘Arakshaniya,’ he did art direction in numerous pictures which included, besides Bengali many Hindi, Oriya and Assamese films. In 1950, while continuing his art direction, he produced, in partnership with two friends, a film called ‘Jighangsha.’ The film was a “bumper success.”
“And yet”, said Naug, “I left Calcutta for Madras, instead of remaining there to follow the success with another picture, as any other person normally would have done. I have always been something of a dare-devil!” In Madras, Biren Naug stayed only for a year, during which he did art direction for Narasu Studios. In 1953, he landed in Bombay to handle his first assignment as art director in ‘Sailaab.’ His second picture in Bombay was ‘Ferry.’ Since then, he became a popular art director, much in demand.
What did Biren Naug think of the standard of art direction in Indian films compared with that of Hollywood and the West?
“Compared with foreign films,” replied Biren Naug, “our standard in art direction is almost nil.” Wasn’t that too harsh a view of the matter?
In reply Naug said that the harsh view cannot be helped because that is generally the fact, with a few exceptions.
What then was wrong with art direction in Indian films? Weren’t we up-to-date in technique and material?
He commented that “nothing much is wrong with our material or with the skill or caliber of our art directors. Indian studios use very much the same material and technique that are employed in Western countries. The real trouble is in our method of producing films. The dubious status and function of a film producer here, the calendar-choking commitments of over-busy stars, the vagaries of finance – all these act as hindrances in the way of the art director striving to do his best.”
“Often in the present set up”, he complained, “a producer would somehow, with great difficulty, succeed in securing dates from a busy artiste or two and then rush to the art director requiring him to put up a set in a matter of two days or so. This is not quite conducive to the art director giving of his best.”
“Weeks and months are spent idly during the production of a film, precious time during which sets can be conceived, discussed and sketched and then the job of designing and erecting a set is done suddenly and in great hurry. Unless such conditions of working improve, the art directors cannot give to a picture all they can and all they aspire to give.”
To the question, why in most of Bombay’s films one didn’t find the kind of flats and houses that people actually lived in, Naug replied, “by and large, Bombay films do not want to show reality. Bombay producers generally insist on glamour, grandeur and lavishness, even when these elements are not in tune with the story.
The producers aim is generally not to portray reality but to enhance the ‘production value’ of a picture and thus secure a high price for the picture from the distributor. Of course, there are exceptions like Guru Dutt and the Anands but here we are not talking about them.”
In conclusion Naug said that, “the skill of the art director lies in producing the maximum effect with the minimum cost. The average Indian art director can deliver the goods provided he is extended the co-operation that he needs from the director and the producer.”
Extending his outreach further, Naug took to direction with singer-producer Hemant Kumar’s ‘Bees Saal Baad (1962)’ and Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ remake in Hindi, Kohra (1964). His career was cut short when he prematurely died the very same year. Remarkably, ‘Kohra’ also picked up the Best Art Direction Award for G L Jadhav and T K Desai under his guidance.