WHEN he was a student of sculpture at Chandigarh’s Government College of Arts, Gurpreet Dhuri would say, ‘I don’t dream big.’ Now that he is one of India’s most sought-after prosthetic artists, he still says, ‘I don’t dream big.’ For someone with a resume boasting of films such as ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’, ‘Tumbbad’, ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!’, ‘Ghoul’ and ‘Sonchiriya’, Punjab-born Dhuri is a picture of humility.
As a student at Sangrur’s Ghanaur Khurd village, Dhuri’s flair for art did not go unnoticed. He was always given the task of doing calligraphy or painting on the walls of his government school. “For a village kid, I got more than I asked for. Whenever I was given colours to paint a board, I was always told to keep the leftovers. So, there was no dearth of colours,” he recalls.
From painting walls in school and village streets to signboards as a painter’s assistant, Dhuri was constantly perfecting his art, all in the hope of becoming a teacher one day. But a notice for admission to Bachelor in Fine Arts in the newspaper was to send him into an altogether different direction. The notion of painting was to find a new meaning, beyond signboards and walls.
The teachers at Chandigarh’s Government College of Art (GCA) persuaded him to take the less-favoured stream of sculpture. His works depicting everyday life and its realities — ‘Cycle of Life’, ‘Female Foeticide’ — were soon standing out. But a degree in MFA in Sculpture, also from GCA, was what really defined his art. “I learnt the details of portraiture: how to give expressions, how to bring out personality traits. I learnt about the materials, their softness, hardness. This came in handy in films too,” recalls Dhuri.
Soon after MFA, he went to Gujarat to assist his seniors working on a new museum. Films happened almost simultaneously — he assisted the prosthetics team on Anurag Kashyap’s ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’, making a severed head in silicone, Richa Chadha’s fake belly, etc — and Dhuri was on his way to make his mark in the world of character designing, portraiture and prosthetic FX design. His knowledge in different mediums, including clay modelling, silicone, wax and metal helped him cement his place at the outset. Add to that the countless hours spent studying his subjects and researching their features to ensure that his sculptures are as accurate as possible. “His attention to detail is unparalleled, and that sets him apart from his peers,” says Dharampal, his team member.
Dhuri’s first independent project was ‘Tumbbad’, his most challenging and satisfying work so far, too. Directed by Rahi Anil Barve, the film is rated amongst India’s top horror films and was high on art and design, besides superlative storytelling. “The kind of freedom and resources at our disposal were something I could not have expected so early on in my career. Until then, prosthetic artists had been coming to India from abroad, making it an expensive proposition. ‘Tumbbad’s’ creative director Anand Gandhi encouraged us a lot because he wanted the skill to be developed among artists here,” says Dhuri.
The character of the grandmother was a key figure in the film. “To convey her mysterious persona, we paid attention to details such as skin texture, wrinkles and facial features,” he says. Hastar, the ancient deity, was created using sculpting techniques and prosthetics to build an imposing physicality that would captivate the audience’s imagination.
“Working as a character designer in ‘Tumbbad’ was a challenging and creatively rewarding experience. It involved combining artistic skills, prosthetic effects and collaborative effort to create visually stunning and emotionally resonant characters that contributed to the film’s unique storytelling,” says Dhuri, whose team comprises his wife Gagan, also a sculptor, and two of his nephews, besides others, all of whom are from GCA.
Prosthetics is challenging — both for the artists as well as the actors. If it would often take Dhuri and his team several hours to put the cast on the actor, cinematographer Pankaj Kumar has shared how at the end of the day, he would just get an hour to shoot because the actor would be exhausted with the cast on.
All prosthetics makeup starts with painting the character, followed by a clay model perfect to the actor’s measurements. A cast is then created in silicone and the patch is applied on the actor.
Prosthetics is also an expensive proposition, one where India is still learning the ropes. “The good thing is that the directors understand and ask whether an idea can be realised. If I see the possibility, I say ‘yes’. Else, I say I will try,” says Dhuri, who is inspired by Stan Winston, the pioneer of modern special effects. Winston was the man behind films such as ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘Edward Scissorhands’. Dhuri says India has only now begun to do what Hollywood accomplished decades ago. He is in constant touch with some artists abroad who readily offer guidance. “We are constantly experimenting and learning,” he says.
Ever since the lockdown, a studio in Sarangpur has been his workplace. It is a mini gallery in itself. A model of the recently unveiled bust of The Tribune’s legendary editor Kalinath Ray adorns a corner and silicon models of an upcoming film project light up another. There is a model of Maharaja Yadavindra Singh; a work in progress is a sculpture of Bhagat Singh. Amid these, says Dhuri, all of art college’s lessons come calling. “The Maharaja should exude royalty; Bhagat Singh’s stance should portray his conviction; Kalinath Ray’s eyes should display his strength of character. And even as they are cast in metal, they must look real. Have you ever looked at Ambedkar’s statues with a finger pointing to the front? I don’t see the man in those statues. This is why I feel it is important to have discussions and debates before a sculpture is made,” says Dhuri.
And being in Chandigarh gives him ample time to do so. “There is a kind of peace and stillness here. It lets you work and meet the people you want. This was unthinkable in Mumbai’s fast-paced life,” says Gurpreet Dhuri, his eyes looking for detail in what’s around, the detail that makes him stand out in a PR-ridden Bollywood and lets him be the village boy that he still is.
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