20 December, 2008
Anjan Gajurel is thirty years old. Like many other thirty-year old Nepali men, he sports a fashionable haircut and a sweet smile. But don't let the modest demeanor fool you—for Anjan, who grew up in Janakpur, is now one of the hottest art directors in Bollywood, and owns his own top of the line studio in the most competitive industry of Mumbai.
Anjan was like any other aspiring Nepali student only a few years ago, when he did his Intermediate in Fine Arts from Lalitkala Campus in 1998. From there, he went to the JJ School of Art in Mumbai (he decided against Australia since it would require him to work and pay his own tuition.) After a four year Bachelors in Fine Arts, Anjan found his teachers appreciative of his dramatic learning curve in painting—initially at the bottom of his class, he'd reached the top ten percent by graduation—but also learnt that paintings had a tiny market. Ironically, he said, he sold more of his mediocre paintings than the ones which received great praise in the final show at the Jehangir Art Gallery.
"I needed to survive in Bombay," he says. So Anjan took himself to a course in animation, hoping this would lead to a stable job. The course was full, and he was told to return in a month. While waiting, somebody in the animation course suggested he try his hand at art direction. Anjan had no idea what art direction was, but he went along. His first set was on "Kusum"—the scale and grandeur of the sets shocked him.
Starting out as a first assistant in Balaji Telefilms, Anjan had zero knowledge of this new profession. His boss had twenty-five assistants already—Anjan was the twenty-sixth. "Now I don't know where those twenty-five people are," he says. "I now have 7 studios which employ around 600-2000 people per day, but the rest of the people who started with me are no longer around." SJ Studios, which he designed and has operated for the last six years, has seven studios and is booked months in advance with TV serials, films and ads. The studios, especially the hospital, police station and a "royal bungalow" set, are so well-designed they are always in demand.
Which just goes to show how you need to struggle and sustain yourself in a very competitive industry. But its not just hard work that keeps you there, although Anjan readily admits that he has no time to breathe in Bombay—at one point, he was working on sixteen different projects at the same time, including gigs in interior decoration and art direction for features as well as ads. It's the belief that you have the talent, and that such talent will be recognized ultimately in an industry hungry for real creativity and professionalism.
Anjan, like other Nepalis, had to face some initial prejudice for being non-Indian. "When I was just starting out, they'd respect me before I told them I was Nepali," he admits. But now that he's established and at the top of his profession, he is treated the same as his colleagues. Anjan may be one of the youngest people in the art direction world—he had to fight to get his union card, which was only available to people after five years of work experience. "Before they wanted five years of work experience," he says. "Now they are starting to look at background and training."
Anjan recently did the sets of Kabul Express. "I was in Afghanistan, the location was apparently one of the most dangerous ones," he says. "After an Indian engineer was killed, I got a car and two security guards. They would try to loot foreigners in Afghanistan." Despite all this, Anjan stayed beyond his specified contract of 15 days, and stayed with new director Kabir Khan for the entire 52 days of the shoot. "We designed the rubber AK-47s, the Pakistani check post, the costumes, logos, barracks, everything," he says. "I would wander the market and get to look. We only had three hours of sunlight, and the workers would go to roza after a few hours. But I managed to do the set very realistically—at one point, I put a bulb inside a loudspeaker and captured that conflict look."
"Cinema is a dream world," says Anjan. "And the sets bring a richness to the experience of watching films. My friends visit my sets, and are amazed by the list of books in the library. They try to pull one out because its so realistic, and the whole thing falls out." He laughs. Anjan's dream is to work on a fantasy set which would allow him to design everything from his imagination. He'd also like to work in a historical film. "I'd like to come back here and do a film about the history of Nepal," he says. "I would love to do the sets of such a historical film." The budget of big sets can run to a few crores (the Madhuri Dixit film "Aaja Nachle" had a Indian rupees six crore set) and he says that such a film could be made with financing from Nepali entrepreneurs and investors who live abroad and who could be convinced to finance an international film for an international market.
After only six years in the industry, Anjan now owns his own apartment in Malad—a dream that is unrealized by many Bombay residents who may live and work there their whole lives.
"I don't believe in awards," he says. "Aamir Khan still doesn't go to those ceremonies. It's given to people who bargain and buy awards. I avoid awards, people should know me by my work." Indeed, many of his new work come from referrals, from those who've worked with him and seen what he can do.
"I loved films as a child," he says. "I would tell my brother and leave in the night to go see the video films being projected at village weddings, then come back and go to bed before my parents could figure out where I'd been." He got two rupee third class seats and saw all the Bollywood classics. His parents (his father works as a trainer at the Rural Development Training Center) didn't like his cinema outings, fearing he'd become a dropout. His brother Suman Gajurel, whose Basai was sent from Nepal for the Oscars a few years ago, encouraged him after learning of his interest.
Although Anjan is at the top of his profession in Mumbai, he remains fairly unknown in his home town and country. Recognition in Nepal, regrettably, still hinges on age and seniority. But lets hope not for long—for many young men and women in Nepal, who are hungry to show their potential and creativity in different industries, the example of a young boy from Janakpur who used to run out of his house to see video films during the night will be inspirational.
Anjan is clear about one thing. "If you show the talent inside you, you can break into Bollywood," he says. "There's a lot of Nepalis in Bollywood who will help you out." Now if only this vision could spread to other industries inside Nepal.