National Award-winning Hindi director Neeraj Ghaywan, while waxing lyrical about Sarpatta Parambarai, took time out to appreciate the film’s art director T Ramalingam. In an industry where his job is routinely overlooked, Ramalingam’s terrific work in Sarpatta Parambarai has made sure that people don’t fail to take notice of his contributions. Here, he opens up about the art in art direction and his experience of working with Pa Ranjith once again:
You had once said that only some established names are recognised when it comes to art direction. Would you say this has changed now, after Kaala and Sarpatta?
Kaala indeed got 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 our work in Kaala deserved better. With Sarpatta, there wasn’t as much pre-release attention from the media. We trusted our work, and that has paid off. Sarpatta is easily the most appreciated film in my career.
It’s easier to make a period film in developed countries where the landscape and architecture are often preserved. How tough was it to do that here?
You make a really good observation. In cities like London, old buildings are not just preserved, but you are allowed to shoot films in them too. That’s the reverence cinema commands in those countries. Even in Malaysia, we were allowed to shoot inside a well-known prison. They even opened their armory for the shoot. They view cinema as documentation. Nammoorla cinemakaaran-na koothaadi. If I need to bring a popular building into the frame, a huge process is necessary. We aren’t allowed to shoot in almost all of the preserved structures here. Down the line, we might just end up not having any visual representation of our cities and towns in our cinema.
How then did you manage to recreate the 70s for Sarpatta?
I am fascinated by the past. When I travel into a new place, I place it in a period and wonder how it might have been in the past. I love going to museums for this reason. When I think of Chennai, I picture a city inhabited by my grandparents’ generation through the stories and the books I have come across. I picture Chennai as Parrys (called Pookadai back then 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 have to really go out of your way to get something specific for this film?
Sure. I wanted a particular type of odu (clay roofing) for the buildings in Sarpatta, and they are not in production anymore. So, I went to my native place to source it from an old house. Similarly, for sequences involving kalla chaaraayam (country spirit), I brought tall pots from the households of my family and acquaintances for the shoot. Though I had the scope to make those things anew, the artisans with such skills are not around anymore. There were many such challenges, but it was all fun.
Any dos and don’ts you were given for this film?
We had no such restrictions. However, we wanted the sets and props to be as minimalistic as possible, as that’s how it was. The crowd in public spaces was not as dense, except for places like boxing arenas or movie theatres. The people in Sarpatta possess only the essentials. There were a few cars on the road even then but there were so many more bicycles. We tried to capture all of this.
Walk us through the nature of your conversations with Ranjith.
I will speak for myself here. I first understand the script and then, even make suggestions to the story. I don’t see it as an intrusion; I just try to be honest. Then, I plan according to the budget of the film. A director might insist on a set without knowing whether it fits the budget, but I should be aware. So, instead of letting the production unit turn down the idea, I try to come up with alternatives that work both for the film and the budget. Also, I do not subscribe to this idea that the pride of an art director lies in making grand sets.
Any memorable incidents on the sets of Sarpatta that you can recall?
There’s a funny incident. When Vetriselvan (Kaliyarasan) joins ADMK in the film, we had to come up with a poster of him with MGR in it. So, I drew a painting of the leader in a rural school near Mangadu. A bunch of guys demanded that we add Vijayakanth too (laughs). I began explaining that it was for a period film and that Vijayakanth was not even in the picture then. That’s when another gang came in demanding that I include Thol Thirumavalavan in the poster. Things escalated, and the school’s principal asked us to either heed to the demands or pack up. We decided to leave, but not before painting a Thirukkural there. We shot this scene inside a set later.
For the commoner, art direction is just about set-building. What else goes into your art?
It is so much more. An art director must know to fill the room of a character based on his social, mental, and financial state. An art director needs to be someone who observes and assimilates the lives and lifestyles of people. They should be creators in the first place, people who care about other people.