Learn to hustle, hustle to learn: Outtakes from Offsite 03 with Sidharth Mathawan
This is the third reflection piece from Offsites — a series of intimate conversations unpacking and discussing the work and life paths of SPA alumni who are doing other things. If you went to architecture school and despite that, you felt like building buildings wasn’t the thing for you (at least not in the context it was presented to you), this is your story. At any point, while not practising architecture, if your architecture education has come to serve you in unexpected or serendipitous ways, this is your story.
For Offsites03, we gathered on a bright Saturday morning at Monkey Business, which combines a co-working space with a day-care. It is also a favoured haunt for our speaker, who doesn’t enjoy working in conventional office spaces. Sidharth Mathawan (graduated 2004) is a production designer, screenwriter and filmmaker. Working in film and television since 2006 in multiple roles, his projects include Don 2 by Farhan Akhtar and Midnight’s Children by Deepa Mehta, as well as over 60+ advertisements for leading brands like BBC, NDTV, Apple, Coca-Cola, Samsung, Vogue, Swarovski, Chivas, Toyota, Airtel, TATA Docomo, Vistara, etc.
Our 19 participants gathered over baked breakfast goodies and some delicious beverages generously provided by RAW Pressery and Sleepy Owl Coffee. They also got an opportunity to interact with Vandana Maithani, co-founder of Monkey Business, and to briefly discuss how the space was conceived and executed. At the centre of the design brief was the need for flexibility that was spatially translated into movable furniture and even a conference ‘island’ on wheels!
Sidharth began by showing us a couple of ads he’s recently worked on as a production designer, and broke down his involvement. We learned that the work of a production designer starts much before the day of the shoot. After understanding the director’s vision, a production designer will start building a mood board and begin sourcing everything from furniture to props to small styling details, all the while keeping in mind the characters who will inhabit the space. Questions like What kind of bedsheet would this character buy? or What holiday souvenirs would this character collect? are great starting points. A production designer’s team includes art directors as well as carpenters and painters who lead the execution on set. The production team fleshes out the characters and their worlds, often photoshopping holiday pictures and certificates, and designing custom furniture.
Following this, we sat down to discuss his personal trajectory. With his family involved in the construction business, architecture school was a comfortable choice for Sidharth. He thoroughly enjoyed his time at SPA, and was extremely confident that he would build buildings after graduating. However, soon after venturing into the built environment, he was confronted with the overall slowness in the materialising of architectural work. In his own practice, he wanted to bridge the distance between thinking and making; input and outcome.
What stood out the most from Sidharth’s journey was how unafraid he has been with figuring out what he wants to do with this practice: he started an architecture studio with two classmates right after graduation, gave law school a shot, worked with Sumant Jaikrishnan as a scenographer, then as an independent production designer for ads and films, and is now building his own body of work as a screenwriter, filmmaker and independent producer. He has refused to pigeon-hole himself or succumb to the expectation of having it “all figured out.”
Through his journey, he has sometimes done projects just for the money, for the experience of working with people whose craft he admires, to impress his parents (“Look ma, I worked on Don 2!”), and sometimes just because they were a convenient way to shorten his travel bucket list. He admits to failure, to not always liking what he has made, to getting caught up in the moment and being unable to see the forest for the trees. Meanwhile, he continues to attend workshops and short courses, as well as submit his work to film festivals. This modus vivendi of extended learning—to continuously put himself out there and remain vulnerable to rejection—has allowed him to keep himself open to new interests and opportunities.
In many ways, his choices have been made possible because of his privilege — a supportive family and the freedom to be able to pivot multiple times — and while Sidharth is quick to acknowledge this he isn’t apologetic about it; in his mind, it is more of a waste if someone doesn’t take advantage of the opportunities available to them to discover what truly interests them. He admits that his architecture education from SPA Delhi helps him get his foot in the door and differentiates his work, especially within the Delhi circuit.
Later at the event, Sidharth screened The Desire For Desires, which he wrote, directed and produced in 2017. In the time since, he has been able to objectively critique the film and, in this case, open himself up to feedback and constructive criticism from a bunch of young architects and architects-in-training. K̶i̶l̶l̶i̶n̶g̶ Dissecting his ‘babies’ has also allowed him to take the best from his past work, and repurpose old footage to create new stories.
A key lesson for him has been to get early feedback from other professionals, such as screenwriters and directors. Family and friends, despite their best intentions, are often unable to offer the informed criticism required to successfully shape such projects. He’s also better able to value the formal processes of learning and execution in filmmaking and production. When so much else is in flux, working with trained-experienced teams helps keep the focus on the craft and the storytelling.
We found Sidharth to be refreshingly candid, both in his introspection and in his openness to engage with the audience, which allowed the participants to ask questions and share their own everyday struggles. In addition to the beautiful notebooks by Paperbox Products, our giveaway for this session was a template for a Letter of Interest which participants could fill out in their own time. It summed up the importance of putting oneself out there, confronting awkwardness and seeking mentorship to learn from the best. It’s always the first step that is the hardest to take.