This art director from Bollywood is breaking stereotypes in Hollywood

While we often associate the film industry with the prominent faces of actors, directors and producers, we barely know about the contribution of a massive number of talented staffers working behind the scenes to make wonders on-screen.

How different would it be if Salman Khan’s introductory scene in Bajrangi Bhaijaan was through a home-held ‘jagraata’ instead of the energetic dance at a bright and colourful celebration for Lord Hanuman? Here comes the role of the production design team. We might not see them up front, but their utmost dedication, aesthetic sense and hard work go leaps and bounds to make a film a blockbuster.

Like a team of magicians swinging their wands the production design team come up with striking solutions to make a regular scene extraordinarily appealing to the eye. One such magician, Lucknow-girl Shivangi Singh, who has worked in films like Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Margarita with a Straw is now a production design fellow of Art Directors Guild in Hollywood and an art director at Art Director’s Union in Mumbai.

This is her story of breaking gender barriers and chasing her dreams from Bollywood to Hollywood.

Shivangi started working at art exhibitions as a researcher and project manager with some of the country’s finest contemporary artists and curators after graduating from Jamia Millia Islamia University with a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts. In Delhi, she explored all kinds of visual art forms – from art exhibitions to film festivals. It was on one such visit to a film festival where she chanced upon masterpieces from across the world like Benhur, Thief of Baghdad, In the mood for love, and that experience changed her life.

Looking to work in films she landed her first break as a storyboard artist for Margarita with a Straw. A few months from then, she was hired as an assistant art director for Bajrangi Bhaijaan, one of the biggest grossing films ever made in Indian cinema. There was no looking back from then on.

Ticket to Hollywood

Shivangi wanted to try her luck in Hollywood as well, which led her to pursue higher studies at Art Center College of Design in California. Stepping out of her cushy life back home, she ended up in an industry with less than 20% women.

“One of the biggest challenges was convincing my family, that leaving my established career in the Indian film industry and moving to Hollywood to start from scratch all over again was going to work out and that Production Design was a serious, legitimate career choice,” says Shivangi.

“As an Indian immigrant woman, I have constantly felt the need to keep proving myself and work harder than my male colleagues to earn my spot,” she continued.

It’s time to break the stereotype

Addressing the gender gap in the film industries Shivangi says, “The industry is much more evolved and inclusive of women compared to the times I started. But there is still a lot to be done in terms of representation of women in films in India as well as in Hollywood.”

“One of the many instances I come across is the unfair distribution of job responsibilities where men are giving preference over women for certain jobs just because women are perceived as physically weaker than men. Many times, women are given jobs of a shopper or a set decorator as it is presumed that women love to decorate. And similarly, men are preferred for the position of art director as it involves supervising a construction team of carpenters, painters, moulders etc. So, breaking these stereotypes and building confidence in people that you can do the job if not better but equally well takes time and involves the need to constantly prove oneself. Finally, after all these years working as an art director for Dharma productions feels great and proves that change is coming,” expressed an elated Shivangi.

If you can dream it, you can do it 

Coming from a middle-class Indian family, Shivangi had to veer off several acquaintances’ suggestions to not work in the film industry. Her family, however, has been a constant pillar of support.

“The key is to surround yourself with positive people who truly believe in you and ignore the unnecessary and negative noise. Once you get to your goal all those naysayers will come on your side. I just hope that I can inspire more girls to come forward and achieve their dreams. Remember, if you can dream it, you can do it too,” says Shivangi sporting a smile of brilliance.

Expert advice

Sharing tips for aspirants of production design, the industry pro says, “Those passionate about movies, should do good research and introduce themselves to various aspects of filmmaking by reading on techniques and watching world cinema. The best way is to either avail formal training at a film school or try some hands-on workshops to learn camera, editing etc. and making one’s short films to test the waters.

“Be curious and be open to learning from everyone. With the digital platforms coming up there are a lot of opportunities in various departments, so once you know what aspect you are interested in just start working on your portfolio,” she continued.

“For aspiring art directors, I would suggest formal training to have some foundation and knowledge to get your leg in the industry,” advises Shivangi. 

One of the highest points in Shivangi’s career was when she won the Production Design Fellow Award by Hollywood Art Department Union, Art director’s Guild of America.

Having art directed and designed many award-winning feature films, shorts and commercials some of her notable works also include Children of War, The Speech (which was shortlisted at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, 2020), and the American reality show Making the Cut.

Spanning a decade-long career in the film industry, not only did she break stereotypes, but also made her mark in the industry working with some of the best directors like Shonali Bose, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Kabir Khan, and Pradeep Sarkar.

Shivangi had recently wrapped up the work as a set designer for Secret Life of Pets Facade at Universal Studios theme park in Hollywood. Currently, she is working on Dharma Productions’ upcoming film Jug Jugg Jeeyo directed by Raj Mehta.

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