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Guruji Bros. Bollywood Set Design & Prop Shop

by Rohini Wahi

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When I was younger, I could not imagine anything worse than living in close proximity to family, and now with one of my own — and as each growing year brings with it knowledge — I can’t imagine anything worse than living without them.

Each time I return home to India from London to visit family and friends, I am struck by how intertwined their everyday lives are with their families. One of my uncles lives with his wife on the second floor of a four-storied house — his mother lives on the first floor and he conducts his business from the ground floor. My uncle’s children have grown up surrounded by the love and wisdom of their grandparents, and everyone benefits from the gift of in-home childcare. One of my journalist friends moved to the coastal town of Pune to live what I can only imagine is an idyllic life with her grandparents in her family home, while commuting into the city for business. She spends her time working on creative projects and testing cocktail recipes with her grandmother!

On one of these trips to India, I met Devashish Guruji last Christmas in Calcutta at a family gathering — he was newly engaged to Priyanka, my cousin by marriage, but it was the first time we had met. Everyone was in a celebratory mood and eager to find out the couple’s plans as newlyweds. Obsessed with interiors, I was fascinated to learn that Devashish’s parents were production designers and art directors by trade and had worked on the sets of some pretty notable Bollywood films. I learned that after marriage, Devashish and Priyanka, both graphic designers, were planning move to Devashish’s parents’ home in Bombay, set up within the family business, and all four of them work together like a co-operative.

An only child like myself, Devashish’s synergy with his parents struck a chord. I realize that all family businesses come with their own complications, but the sweet, supportive nature of this close family inspired me to find out more about how they operated as a unit. Read on to learn more about Guruji Bros. and their Propshop after the jump. —Rohini

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Devashish, tell us about Guruji Bros.

Guruji Bros. studio is a space based in the heart of Bombay and is run by our family. My father, Vinod Guruji, is a production designer and art director and is project managed by my mother, Netra. My wife Priyanka and I are graphic designers and run a firm called G.A.S. within the same premises.

At the studio we have carpenters, painters and artists who work towards executing a brief for either feature film-related work, to events and interior spaces. We also do custom orders for props and other art-related work. We have people come in to order a sculpture or get institutions to commemorate people with having their portrait done.

At the design studio, we’re graphic designers and image makers taking on work from publicity design and branding for film and entertainment to working end-to-end with boutique brands [and] artists, alongside fueling our own personal projects. We have the freedom to swap facilities and talent amongst ourselves and make and break teams as per projects.

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Tell us about the history of Guruji Bros. and how it came to be today.

My grandfather ran this space as a shop. Back in the day, he’d work on handcrafted signboards. A self-trained man, my grandfather was exceptional when it came to the art of regional expressive typography, the work would swing from creating formal type for a set of government chairs in the municipal office to elaborate and quirky typography for regional films.

With his two sons trained in the fine arts, the shop expanded into an art studio undertaking set design and production design for India’s major advertising agencies and feature film production houses. Our work reached its peak during the late 80s and into the 90s with clients ranging from Ogilvy to MTV, amongst others.

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Who does the team consist of ?

Apart from the four of us comprising of an art director, project manager and two senior designers, the team consists of a carpenter, a molder and a painter, each of whom reach out to external teams the moment work gets too large to handle. We always make everything in-house in our workshop. All technicians need to be supervised, and we take turns art-directing teams or looking into the quality of work. A clay artist is usually called in to create special surfaces / objects or props and talent is sourced from students, alumni of art schools in Bombay, or local artists as freelancers.

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Tell us about some of your past projects.

I’ve had to sit down with my dad to talk about this one… whilst I know the usage of props in theory, as an art director, he’s had a good 25 years with them… we’ve worked on a number of mainstream and art house films, along with a vast portfolio in advertising. We do spaces as well.

It was two years ago that we assisted photographer Steve McCurry for a photoshoot for Louis Vuitton. The brand was shooting in Rajasthan, for most part this was a purely propping exercise. Between the brand and the photographer, the art team is quite set and the brief quite tight. We went on board with our property to allow the photographer to realize his vision. We had [a] meeting prior to the shoot to discuss what we had to carry and left the rest to the locations. It was all about looking at the screen and placing everything in position to arrive at the perfect shot.

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One of our most recent films was a slapstick comedy, which is quite a challenge to do because you are involved in facilitating all the action and gimmicks as well. The film was called It’s Entertainment and was shot entirely in Thailand. That, for one, was the biggest challenge — going to a foreign country empty handed for an entire shoot schedule. We had to prop a palace and had to buy everything from the chairs, tables, fans, lamp stands, and after we had finished everything, sell it all off.

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Another project we did were two reality shows, an Indian show called Kingfisher Supermodels and the other, India’s Next Top Model, the Indian edition of America’s Next Top Model. In these shows, the art director is directly involved in the planning and execution of each challenge. With this one, the challenge was creating two shows [with] essentially the same theme, but created for two different television channels. The entire brief essentially became everything contrary to what we did in the first one, and you tend to best yourself on the first job, so now what?

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How has the family business evolved since you joined? 

We all work independently of one another. Each person has their work and clients that they cater to. We work together when it comes to sharing skills and resources. The space works as a binder for any nature of work to be taken on, be it manufacturing something to digital or print work to even analog classical painting and sculpture. I like to think of it as a co-working space with your family. We’d hope to be mutually inspired.

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Priyanka and I work as the design studio within the space, as creative head and project manager, free to switch roles.

Overall, the studio operates to date using prehistoric techniques… which we’re very proud of. Most people go nuts thinking about how we manage to get work done with no computers. I’m one of those people (at times) constantly battling between formalizing ways of working and at other times not. In terms of evolution, I think G.A.S. brings in newer people and contexts — by contexts I mean the opportunity to see other avenues for the studio for its talent to explore. It’s important to re-address and re-contextualize skill sets that have been operating in one set way.

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Was it always your plan to join the family business?

I think I always knew, but never acknowledged it till the time I actually did start working out of the space.

You mentioned old school techniques used in the studio…

It’s almost like saying if you took a first-year graphic design student in 2016 and asked him to hand-set an entire layout. Similarly, everything we achieve today in graphic design was being done in some way or another to achieve the same purpose… it’s only the technology that has refined itself and hence the aesthetic, like driving stick [as] opposed to an automatic. Till very recently we had entirely handwritten menu cards that we screen-printed or created a grid to scale up an image 15 feet with no digital interventions… having an exposure to painting techniques or old school carpentry hacks. It’s growing up with simple, everyday tools and techniques that influences your work.

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Tell us about the Propshop.

The Propshop, for us, is a very recent arm and development of the studio and almost a byproduct of the 70 years that we’ve been around. Today, the studio is a space of immense potential, untouched and looking exactly the way it did those many year ago, just re-appropriated in its current stage of evolution.

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Over the years, we’ve collected a number of objects used to prop various briefs from a number of kitchen sets, to old durbars — a sudden awareness of all the ridiculous things we’d made and catered to hit us and that led to the organizing of the Propshop.

At the Propshop we’re makers and breakers, up-cyclers, collectors and it’s all run as an informal arm to our main business — art direction and graphic design. So to answer the question, the Propshop was founded by many people at various points in time, only to begin being curated today.

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Tell us about your props. Where do you source them?

We have props collected during different times and by different people… It started with old wood panels, pillars, posters, legs, tabletops, doors and we’d mix and match and reassemble the elements to suit our needs.

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There was a time when I remember my father trying to piece together a set of objects belonging to the 30s, and then I think the 50s, and so on. He was trying to collect an end-to-end set when an acquaintance showed up and just gave us a Mercedes no.5 typewriter dated somewhere around 1915. I had to do a bit of digging up on it — part of the fun is figuring out when/where it all comes from. Another time was when he was driving, he spotted a wooden frame, traditionally Maharashtran (of west India); he immediately took it back to the studio and [started] to repair it.

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We’ve gathered so many props that we’ve literally run out space to put them, and sadly the thing with props in the industry is you can never get too attached to them. Trends change and objects need to reflect the time you’re in, so the demands die out and you have to let go.

With props, you need to have an eye and a good pulse of the industry… Mumbai has an open market called Chor Bazaar which is quite a go-to destination for stuff, but you need to know the vendors in and out or be prepared to leave empty-handed. From trinkets to furniture, old posters and records, to somebody’s teeth in a box, you’ll never know what you’ll find there.

One also manages to come across a lot of stuff when traveling. You can make friends with local craftsmen, bring them in on a project or source traditional tea-picking baskets from the northeast –whatever catches your fancy — and as an art director you have the advantage to bring it in and put it to use.

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What are your plans in taking the business forward?

The studio has remodeled itself to suit the times and people that have come to work there. With Priyanka and me, the focus is on design and the fine arts. The Propshop opens possibilities of retail, which is in Priyanka’s interest while art is mine. In the future, I see three verticals defining the studio: a retail enterprise to do with finishing and homeware as a natural progression to collecting objects, designing your own, a design studio to address commercial creative projects and space to collaborate on projects with different artists.

The ability to house and self-publish is very exciting to me and to formally showcase our work is important. The studio has always run as a multidisciplinary space, it’s just that we call it these things today… with family businesses, one needs to plan to address not only the business but answers to questions at a personal level. I find this proximity exciting. It keeps you passionate.

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What’s the best and most difficult part of being involved in a family business?

One of the most difficult things, I guess, is to get everyone on the same page and share an equal vision and to see potential in work and in people. I’ve been lucky so far to have had both.

It’s incredible to work in a space with so much activity and character and most of all, familiarity. We’ve all grown up in and around the premises, watching and learning from talent, old and new, that have been associated with us through the years. There is a commitment to the space, almost like an estate that must be oiled and run.

Final thoughts on running a creative business…

It’s very hard to focus and define what it is exactly you want to define your business as… especially in the creative field, everything is exciting. With us, it is advantageous to play off of what already exists. To redefine it to suit your time and the people you bring in. There is never a perfect answer and you only have to get on with it. Do as much as you can, join the dots, and figure it out.

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Comments

  • I LOVE this story! So unique! I’m originally from Bombay and have a business focused on limited edition women’s accessories from India, so this piece is a little taste of home!

  • I’ve been reading this blog for years, I think this one was one of the most interesting pieces…ever. The intersection of design and family coupled with a visual diary into an industry which I know nothing about, it was compelling and poignant. Preserving tradition and building upon it, lovely.

  • Hey, I love your work and the story behind it is also very inspiring. I am an interior designer and would love to be an intern at your firm. Do tell me if that’s possible. I would like to work with you in this December or the next summers.

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