National award-winning Hindi director Neeraj Ghaywan, while waxing lyrical on Sarpatta Parambarai, took the time to appreciate the film’s art director, T Ramalingam. In an industry where his work is routinely overlooked, Ramalingam’s tremendous work in Sarpatta Parambarai ensured that people would not fail to notice his contributions. Here he opens up about the art in art direction and his experience working with Pa Ranjith once again:
You once said that only certain established names are recognized when it comes to art direction. Would you say that has changed now, after Kala and Sarpatta?
Kala has indeed achieved recognition. With Rajinikanth sir and the production house, the scale of the film was huge. I was aware that every segment of the film would be noticed. However, I feel that our work in Kala deserved better. With Sarpatta, there was not as much media attention before the release. We trusted in our work and it paid off. Sarpatta is by far the most popular film of my career.
It’s easier to make a period film in developed countries where the landscape and architecture are often preserved. Was it hard to do that here?
You make a very good observation. In cities like London, old buildings are not only preserved, but you can also shoot movies there. It is the veneration that the cinema commands in these countries. Even in Malaysia, we were allowed to shoot inside a well-known prison. They even opened their arsenal for filming. They consider cinema as documentation. Nammoorla cinemakaaran-na koothaadi. If I need to fit a popular building into the frame, a huge process is involved. We are not allowed to shoot in almost any structure preserved here. Ultimately, we might end up having no visual representation of our cities and towns in our cinema.
How did you manage to recreate the 70s for Sarpatta?
I am fascinated by the past. When I travel to a new place, I place it in a time period and wonder how it might have been in the past. I like going to museums for this reason. When I think of Chennai, I imagine a city inhabited by my grandparents’ generation through the stories and books I encountered. I imagine Chennai as Parrys (called Pookadai at the time because of the flower market there), Erukkanchery and Thangasalai. You get the drift. So, I already had an idea of old Chennai. Then we met people from Mint Street, who grew up there from childhood. A flower vendor helped create the photo studio you see in the film.
Did you really have to go out of your way to get something specific for this movie?
Sure. I wanted a particular kind of odu (terracotta roof) for the buildings in Sarpatta, and they are no longer in production. So I went to my hometown to get some from an old house. Similarly, for sequences involving Kalla Chaaraayam (country spirit), I brought tall pots from the homes of my family and acquaintances for the shoot. Although I had the opportunity to redo these things, craftsmen with such skills are no longer around. There were a lot of challenges like that, but it was fun.
Do’s and don’ts for this film?
We had no such restrictions. However, we wanted the sets and props to be as minimalistic as possible, because that was how it was. Crowds in public spaces weren’t as dense, except in places like boxing arenas or cinemas. The people in Sarpatta only have the essentials. There were still a few cars on the road but there were so many more bikes. We tried to capture all of this.
Explain to us the nature of your conversations with Ranjith.
I will speak for myself here. I understand the script first and then I even make suggestions to the story. I don’t see that as an intrusion; I’m just trying to be honest. Then I plan according to the film’s budget. A director can insist on a set without knowing if it fits the budget, but I have to be aware. So instead of letting the production unit refuse the idea, I try to come up with alternatives that work for both the film and the budget. Also, I do not subscribe to this idea that the pride of an artistic director lies in the realization of grandiose sets.
All the memorable incidents on the sets of Sarpatta that you can recall?
There is a funny incident. When Vetriselvan (Kaliyarasan) joins ADMK in the movie, we had to make a poster of him with MGR in it. So, I drew a painting of the leader in a rural school near Mangadu. A group of guys demanded that we also add Vijayakanth (laughs). I started explaining that it was for a period film and that Vijayakanth wasn’t even in the picture at the time. That’s when another gang came to demand that I include Thol Thirumavalavan in the poster. Things got out of hand and the school principal told us to either fulfill the demands or pack our bags. We decided to leave, but not before painting a Thirukkural there. We shot this scene on a later set.
For the commoner, art direction is simply about building a set. What else goes into your art?
It’s so much more. An art director must know how to fill a character’s room according to his social, mental and financial state. An art director should be someone who observes and assimilates people’s lives and ways of life. They should be creators first, people who care.