The man who designed excellence: Nitin Chandrakant Desai

One of the lavish sets designed for Panipat by Nitin Chandrakant Desai. Photo: Publicity Photo 

He had unparalleled vision, and the skills to execute it. And ironically, his soaring ambitions led to him cutting short his life at a young age, just four days before his 58th birthday.

On August 2, internationally-applauded and nationally-awarded and honored production designer, Nitin Chandrakant Desai, took his own life at his dream-come-true project, the fabulous ND Studios, at Karjat, a township 60 kilometres from Mumbai. Four National awards (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, Lagaan, Devdas) led the plethora of private, popular and State trophies that adorned his shelves.

Unassuming and prone to speak in a mix of halting English and Marathi-accented Hindi, Desai, who has also been producer, director and even actor, and has done ads., TV serials and shows and a single web series, Paurashpur, besides so many landmark Hindi, Marathi and English films. Nitin was a creator extraordinaire, for whom work was singular passion. Trained at Mumbai’s prestigious J.J. School of Art and having done G.D. Art through Bombay University, his elective subject was photography!

Nitin Chandrakant Desai. Photo: Instagram / Nitin Chandrakant Desai

As he put it, “It was on May 9, 1983, that for the first time, I entered the portals of Film City for a photography assignment given by Nitish Roy, the famous art director. And life was never the same again! Here was a magical 3D world, where even the camera moved! And I ended up spending a fortnight there before going home and telling my family that I had found my calling in life!”

Grandeur with accuracy and authenticity were Desai’s signature hallmarks all through. The ‘aeroplane’ of Pyaar To Hona Hi Tha that was built on springs to simulate realistic in-flight movement, the haveli  in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, the aristocratic kothas and mansions of Devdas, the hill station of 1942—A Love Story, the 19th century hamlet of Champaner in Lagaan, the quirky ‘convertible’ sets of Baadshah, the Mughal splendor of Jodhaa Akbar were all shimmering examples of the excellence he created.

Harishchandraachi Factory (the Marathi biopic on the father of Indian cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke, which was India’s official entry in 2005), the English and international films Salaam Bombay, Buddha, Invaders, Jungle Book and more, were other examples of his high-quality output that also spanned shows like Chanakya, Kaun Banega Crorepati, Screen Awards, 23 -1/2 Days of Bollywood At Selfridges in London and more.

Initially assistant art director to Roy on serials like Tamas and Kabir, Desai began terming himself as ‘Production Designer’ with his increased involvement in films. “A production designer is involved in the design and look of every frame, and thus the scriptwriter and director, cameraman and costume designer work together. It’s not just about sets and props,” he had told me. A classic example was the general vibrancy of colors in India in the first half of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, and the grim tenor of the second half to suit the mood, despite the foreign locales.

However, though Desai loved the extensive hard work on big films, he even accepted small films with limited budgets, like working for the Children’s Film Society. Desai extensively researched his subjects and took full advantage of technology and special software like Autocad or 3-D Walk-Through. He used both sketches and drawings on his computer to get his results.

In 2002, Desai took his first step outside art direction. A personal experience concerning his family made him produce the devotional film, Desh Devi Maa Ashapura, which proved a success. Alongside a flourishing career in art and design, he began producing, directing and even acting in films. A unique achievement was also getting Ilaiyaraaja to compose for his Marathi film, Hello Jaihind!.

But it was in 2005, that his greatest dream was fulfilled—the state-of-the-art ND Studios. French filmmaker Xavier Durringer raved, “I never found something like ND Studios in Europe. Today, Hollywood cannot do what you can do here!” Hrithik Roshan revealed that he would live there until the schedule was complete in those serene surroundings and state-of-the-art accommodation rather than travel daily to and fro for an hour and a half!

The place was just right for mammoth sets and had some permanent installations too. Desai had more dreams for it. But a stupendous loan of Rs. 252 crore made him take recourse to the worst step he could have taken. The pandemic and slant towards web series (shot on real locations) added to his troubles. “Desai had offers from Reliance to buy his property,” said an insider. “There were other offers too. He could have repaid his debts and started afresh. But his mad passion prevented him from any sort of compromise!”

And that spelt and end to a genius of no ordinary caliber.






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