How Matthew Smith Created the Vitiligo Look in ‘The White Tiger’

Matthew Smith recalls being brought on board for Nalneesh Neel’s character in The White Tiger.

4 min read
Nalneesh Neel with Matthew Smith and team.

What’s common between Marion Cotillard’s singer character in La Vie en Rose, Meryl Streep’s witch in Into The Woods, Kate Winslet’s war criminal in The Reader and Nalneesh Neel’s head driver in The White Tiger?

The looks of all these characters have been perfected by the Emmy-nominated prosthetics / special make-up effects designer Matthew Smith. With 25 years of professional experience in Film and Television, Smith has worked across all genres, ranging from large Hollywood blockbusters to small independent films worldwide. Smith was brought onboard for The White Tiger after writer-director Ramin Bahrani wasn’t convinced with any of the previous test results done in India for Nalneesh Neel’s character’s look.

“I was first contacted asking if I could achieve the 'Vitiligo look' as their previous tests hadn’t been successful. I was told that Nalneesh’s look had to look totally real and convincing. Otherwise, the character would not work or be believable for the story,” reveals Smith.

 <p>Prosthetics / special make-up effects designer Matthew Smith.</p>

Prosthetics / special make-up effects designer Matthew Smith.

(Photo Courtesy: Matthew Smith)


Smith had a completely new challenge in front of him as he had never seen the look created before on screen. Now, vitiligo is a disease that causes a loss of skin colour. What made it even more challenging was the fact that the film was to be shot in India.

“The make-up had to be very resilient and sweat-proof to withstand the humidity in India. But the biggest challenge was coming up with a layered pigment that would not look like thick make-up sitting on the surface of the skin. So before the make-up test with Nalneesh in my UK studio, I carried out research and development on the disease,” explains Smith.

Based on his initial reading of the script, Smith designed various digital concepts of Nalneesh with vitiligo, covering his face and hands. “The director liked the approach and the production team then organised for a body double to come to my studio for a full day of make-up testing. Various photos and video footage were sent to the director and the production team throughout the day showing the different looks, colours, skin tones and patterns that I had achieved, until they were happy with the outcome,” adds Smith.(Photo Courtesy: Matthew Smith)

 <p>Nalneesh holding the lifecast of his face.</p>

Nalneesh holding the lifecast of his face.

(Photo Courtesy: Matthew Smith)

After the groundwork was done it was Nalneesh’s turn to fly to London. “As soon as Nalneesh arrived at the studio my team and I took a lifecast of his whole head and both his hands up to his elbows. The moulds were filled with plaster before various moulding processes were undertaken for the remainder of that day (which was a very tight time frame). I created a vacuum form of Nalneesh's face and hands,” recollects Smith.

The next morning the photography team arrived at the studio and set up a camera test as Smith created various make-up looks for Nalneesh. “Once approved, I used the vacuum form to make templates of the various patterns on the face, chest and hands, which I knew would be invaluable when I was applying the make-up for both continuity and speed throughout the shoot,” explains Smith.

For Nalneesh it was a test of patience and commitment to work with Smith at his UK studio in order to bring his character to life.

“Both the director and I were convinced that the look must be spot on. But, unfortunately, it couldn’t be perfected here in India and that’s where Matthew and his team came into picture. At Matthew’s UK studio, I had to go through a series of tests. I had to keep myself calm and composed at all times. I hadn’t gone though anything like this before. The biggest challenge was that for hours, I had to sit there with prosthetics completely covering my face. Only my nostrils were left open. I am glad Matthew was there around me at all times and kept me informed about the various steps of the procedure as it allowed me to stay calm”, recollects Nalneesh.

His manipulative character, also named Vitiligo after its skin condition, is the head of the drivers who rules a colony in the basement garage of a Delhi hotel. Vitiligo is instrumental in the transformation of the story’s lead character Balram Halwai (essayed by Adarsh Gourav) whom he mentors in the ways of the world.

Nalneesh with Adarsh Gourav in a still from <i>The White Tiger</i>.
Nalneesh with Adarsh Gourav in a still from The White Tiger.

(Photo Courtesy: Matthew Smith)

With everything in place Matthew was now required to be on the sets during the shoot. “It's a very specialized technique and so the director and the producers wanted me to administer it personally during the shoot. Also, I prefer to apply the make-up that I have designed and created myself as I already know how it should look, and how best to apply and maintain it, so it made sense for me to fly to Delhi. It’s really great to see the job through until the end,” rejoices Smith who is also full of praise for Nalneesh. “I must say that Nalneesh was such a great person to work with. He was very patient, professional and such good fun to work with. And ultimately it is his performance that brought my make-up to life in The White Tiger,” sums up smith.

The White Tiger recently made it to BAFTA longlist in seven categories. The final nominations will be unveiled on 9 March, 2021.

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