Text by Shirin Mehta. Interview by Shweta Navandar.
Special effects prosthetist Zuby Johal shot to fame with Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1 and 2 and has since worked on films like Badlapur, Tumbbad, Bose: Dead/Alive, Raabta, Love Aaj Kal 2, the horror anthology Ghost Stories and the Malayalam-language Uyare. In Raabta, actor Rajkummar Rao was transformed by Johal into a 324-year-old oracle. Her upcoming films include Soup by Abhishek Chaubey, an untitled film by Shakun Batra, Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui by Abhishek Kapoor and Dhaakad by Razneesh Ghai, amongst others.
And while the Bengaluru-based artist (she also maintains Studio Avtar in Ahmedabad) can create all that is terrifying, this NID (National Institute of Design) graduate, co-founder (with Rajiv Subba) of Dirty Hands Studio, taps into her love of fashion and desire to design and create everyday items using silicone, the material that she has grown so familiar with, which bends to her whims and fancies and to the dictates of the film that she is working on.
Can you tell us how you got started?
Rajiv [Subba] and I are partners in Dirty Hands Studio. Both of us had done ceramics and glass design from NID and were wondering what to do next. And that’s when one of our senior alumni showed us a book by sculptor Ron Mueck, who is considered the father of hyperrealism. He asked if we could create similar figures for the Sadhu Vaswani museum in Pune, [now the Darshan museum]. When you’re young, you tend not to contemplate logistics and how anything will be done, and so we said yes. Silicone was very expensive then, and we didn’t want to take money from home, so we borrowed from friends, got the material from Dubai and kind of started exploring it. At that point of time there were no YouTube videos – there was nobody to teach you, so it was more of trial and error. But it was the most beautiful time. Because we were exploring something, and we didn’t know what the result would be. We made 18 mannequins for the Sadhu Vaswani museum. One day, while we were installing the mannequins and viewing the separated hands and body parts, Rajiv asked, “Doesn’t this look like a bomb blast scene?” And then he said, “We should get into the movies.” And just a couple of days later we met another senior at NID who was interning with Anurag Kashyap. He introduced us to Anurag’s 1st AD. We had taken one cut head to show him. He showed it to Anurag who gave us Gangs of Wasseypur 1 and 2! That’s how it all started.
It was very difficult at the time because people didn’t understand what silicone was. They would say, “Oh, doesn’t silicone go into bums and boobs?” Knowledge was limited. And 13 years later, there’s an entire genre in Bollywood where people are exploring prosthetics. So, it feels good to be a part of this journey.
How has your background and training in art helped you create your characters?
Basically, we are artists and designers, and there is a very thin line between the two fields. Art teaches you more about rasas [aesthetics]; there is nothing wrong or bad or nothing good. It aims to evoke an emotion. Whereas design teaches you that if you have flaws in a certain product, then you need to retain the good aspect, work on the bad and create something new. I come from graphics, Rajiv comes from a sculptural background, and then we both did ceramics and glass. So now it’s just the material that has changed. The form, moulding techniques – everything else remains the same. My company works in marble, metal, wood…because as designers we can’t be constrained to one material.
Give us a glimpse into the actual process of creating a character. At what part do you come in?
Prosthetics is divided into three major processes. One is to apply the prosthetics onto the person. The second is making props like the cat that I made for Finding Fanny, or the rat in Tumbbad. The third part is for action sequences – like in Raabta where we created the cut neck with oozing blood for Jim Sarbh’s character – so that you can have one long, continuous shot. These broadly are the three categories, but the process really changes. What remains constant is that we need to read the script and know what’s happening with the prosthetics and if it falls under the facial category, prop category, etc. And only then can we sit down to design the character.
Sometimes people come to us after the character design is already done, but 90 per cent of the time, we need to create the character’s look along with the prosthetics. After reading the script, we outline the scope of work with the director and then create photoshopped images of the actor to determine exactly what the director might have in mind. The moment you say, “cut head” or “bruise with axe or knife”…I have a vast visual vocabulary in my head. But I don’t know which one the director wants. If you’re creating an acid attack, for instance, there are so many degrees of acid injuries, right? Photoshop helps us to come to a consensus.
Once that is clear, we start with the clay modelling process. We take a live cast of the actor and convert it into fibre. Whatever little tweaking is needed has to be done in the first phase. The second phase is more about texturing. For example, if there’s an old person, they will have those wrinkles near the eyes, laughter lines which need to be enhanced. If the story demands it, you need to enhance them even more. We then take the finished moulds and cast the pieces. These are known as “appliances”. So, every time I need to get my actor ready, there is a new appliance that is put on the actor. It is as thin as cling foil and kind of blends into the skin; it doesn’t look like a mask. And then we are ready to shoot.
These images from a recent Verve shoot were broadly inspired by the concept of merging prosthetics with fashion and the resulting effects on the body. What is your interpretation?
First, I’ll clarify what prosthetics means to me in terms of fashion because it is different for each individual. I feel that people tend to look at prosthetics as additional pieces that are uncomfortable; there is weight, awkwardness.
The way that I see it, fashion is also concerned with external stuff that you put on your body, right? It’s not your nature. Your nature is your naked body and you’re enhancing it with those things. There are designs that I have seen that are very awkward, but people carry them off. The point is that fashion is very individualistic, just like art, and, if I may say so, it brings you a degree of confidence. In the same way, when I give my prosthetics to people, it gives them confidence. Say, it is an actor in her thirties who is playing an old lady. It helps her get into character. So, it’s more about gaining confidence.
Photographed by Amit Mali. Styled by Shweta Navandar.
When I viewed these images, I felt that the looks were put together very beautifully. These flowy pants [by Yash Patil]…if they bring you that confidence, you would wear them without any issues around the added weight or awkwardness. Take a simple example: say about a year ago, if somebody had said you’re going to be wearing masks all the time, people would have laughed at them, right? Everybody started with those N95 masks, and today you find different kinds – fashion became amalgamated with mask wearing. So, they are both functional and fashionable. I would say that’s also a part of prosthetics.
Do you see the possibility of silicone, the mainstay of prosthetics, being used in objects of fashion and lifestyle?
Absolutely. Absolutely…. The material quality of silicone is so good. It is water resistant, so you could make a line of rainwear. It is strong enough for phone covers. It can withstand a lot of heat and can be used for making cake moulds. You need to explore the quality of the material and amalgamate it with other materials. You can make silicone buttons; I was approached to create silicone bullets for cotton face masks…. There’s silicone that glows in the dark, which offers endless possibilities. The list is never-ending.
Have you thought of creating something on your own?
We were thinking of making an entire line of fashionable rainwear. Also, why not a simple, silicone cover for your handbag that you can fold and put away into it when not using it? I’ll tell you where this idea came from. I was out in Bombay, and it started pouring. And more than looking after myself, I was hunting for something to protect the designer bag I was carrying. So, I told Rajiv we need to make well-designed products that people can carry everywhere. We started off with the idea of silicone totes. We also want to work on silicone spectacle hangers with interchangeable colours to match your outfits. We are also designing very tiny lamps with interchangeable colours that you can plug into your laptop. Our basic agenda was that, you know, you get bored of the same thing. How do we make one product and give it different kinds of covers? Like the silicone covers that we have for our phones that people can keep changing.
And yes, there is one more interesting product for the monsoon range. We are creating furniture that you can fold and carry. This happened because my mother likes to go to the beach and every time she carries her chair in her car, she complains that it is too heavy. So, we thought if we could make a silicone one, it would be lighter. So yeah, basically the design comes out of our experience itself.
Photographed by Amit Mali
How would you use your expertise in working with silicone to design clothing?
I think I would concentrate on bras. Take the simple example of a mastectomy, where a woman’s boob is taken away. There are no stylish bras, or varieties like halter bras, available for them in the market. Imagine if you can make beautiful garments, amalgamating silicone, where this woman can confidently get into a swimming pool, for instance. I would concentrate on bras for the gym because the bras that you’re getting are these really huge ones to put the silicone pieces into. I would create halter neck bras, which have the silicone pieces and yet look beautiful. It could be lace and you could just wear a jacket over it. It could be just a sleeveless top, which already has the silicone encapsulated inside. A fashion designer could come into play with the prosthetics design and create a line, especially for these women, because this is absolutely missing.
Have you ever collaborated with a fashion designer? Who would you like to work with in the future?
Digvijay Singh, “Diggie”, had designed a Lakmé Fashion Week collection, in around 2010, and I created glass buckles and buttons for his shirts.
I have also collaborated with Anuj Sharma. In fact, when Button Masala started, it was with Anuj, Rajiv and me. The brief was to reuse plastic bottles to create something. Rajiv cut the top portion of the bottle and put it on cloth and we constructed headgear for the models, just with the repurposed plastic bottles. Anuj took it further, and created his fashion line, Button Masala. As an artist, I love his work. I think he’s a true designer. But since then, no fashion designers have approached us, though I wish they would. The problem in our country is that we divide things very easily. So, if I say I am an industrial designer, they’ll say, no, you’re a prosthetic artist!
My friend Rahul Mishra is fabulous. I’ve known him since college, so we are buddies. If his kind of work gets amalgamated with silicone, I think we would have something absolutely stunning. He is exploring materials in quite a detailed manner. If he would look at silicone, he could create boots; he could create gloves, hair accessories, jewellery…I would say Rahul, any day….
Do you work with designers and stylists to plan the looks of the characters you are creating?
The way we work, we are not into designing the costumes. The wardrobe basically comes to me only if, say, burn patches need to be added or if the joinery needs to be hidden with a piece of clothing – we give them inputs to hide stuff so that we can cheat. Otherwise, we don’t have any relationship with the costume people at all. That’s between the costume designer and the director.
But, say, monster costumes are being made then I would have to design them. And the biggest problem that we have is how to make it possible for the people wearing them to pee. Because, if I add a slit, then the director’s like, “no, no, no”, and if I don’t give a slit, the actor is going to kill me. So that becomes quite challenging.
Any tricks of the trade that you could share, particularly for use in the fashion world?
I would just say do not fear. Because the moment people think of prosthetics, the fear comes in. “Oh, it’s heavy; it takes time” and this and that…. But look at the material, look at the quality of the material, the way you would look at your garment. Look at it as a fabric and explore. Creating fashion, too, requires a lot of patience. As with prosthetics. And in the same way that you can multiply pieces of clothing, even in prosthetics you can multiply, which means that you can go into mass production. So, I would say that fashion designers should not fear prosthetics or silicone as a material.