We shot for 'Naatu Naatu' in peak pandemic time: Veteran line producer Natarajan Ramji
Veteran line producer Natarajan Ramji talks to CE about working with SS Rajamouli in the Academy award winning film RRR
The words which come right before the chorus of Naatu Naatu, ‘Naa paata soodu’ is rather telling of the impact the song made across the world. The words, which roughly translate to, “watch my song” sets a distinct tone from the word go, indicating to the audience that this song is meant for listening as much as it is for watching.
This is also the defining characteristic of the unique, colourful genre of filmy music at large, which is synonymous with dancing and visual spectacle. From the dream sequences of yore to abstract visualizations employed to levitate a film’s underlying themes to numbers that amplify dramatic conflicts like Naatu Naatu, Indian cinema’s song and dance provide immense entertainment, in addition to being a rich source of our nation’s soft power and cultural diplomacy.
While composers and choreographers of songs are rightfully at the forefront of the list of credits when it comes to film songs, line producers, who go to great lengths to source beautiful, production-friendly locations for these songs and marshall an army of extras are the unsung warriors of Indian film music. one among them is veteran location scout Natarajan Ramji, whose primary job is to source foreign locations used in Indian films for a living. From the picturesque New Zealand seen in Chiranjeevi’s Bavagaru Bagunnara? (1998) to the exotic Salar De Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia used for a dream sequence song in Sarrainodu (2016) to the Mariyinsky Palace of Ukraine, where the Oscar-winning Naatu Naatu from RRR was shot, Ramji is the man behind it all.
Joining CE on a telephonic interview from Marrakech, Morocco, Ramji expresses his happiness at being a part of an Academy Award-winning film. “I am totally speechless and overwhelmed with gratitude. I was on a flight when the ceremony took place and my phone was buzzing with countless congratulatory messages once I landed. To have our cinema reach this pinnacle of global success is truly an act of god. I will attribute all of this success to Rajamouli. His vision got us all here.”
Speaking to us about how he locked in on the location of the Presidential Palace in Ukraine, Ramji continues, “It all started in June 21, 2021, we shot for Naatu Naatu in peak pandemic time. Rajamouli wanted a palace for a song sequence. The requirement was pretty specific, he wanted a huge property that looked like it was from the New Delhi of the 1920s. We don’t have locations reminiscent of that time anymore, in that same pristine condition. So, we began to look overseas for a location that will provide a perfect backdrop for our song sequence. It is important to note that the locations we find should not only match the director’s original vision but should also be economically feasible for the producer. We had shortlisted three locations and locked in on the Mariinsky Palace in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Despite decades of experience in the arcane business of international location scouting, the pre-production and shoot of Naatu Naatu, which happened in the middle of the second wave of covid, gave Ramji unprecedented logistical challenges. Speaking about the personal and professional challenges he endured whilst shooting the song, Ramji said, “The entire process, from doing a recce to arranging travel for the team to ensuring a smooth shoot in Ukraine was a huge challenge. I hadn’t worked for a year-and-a-half due to the pandemic. This film had cast members from both India and the UK. The Brits could not go to India, the Indians could not leave the country. International flights were all closed at that time. I had to leave the country on for a recce on June 24, a week before my daughter’s engagement. If I had got Covid, I would have ended up missing her big day. With a lot of hesitation, I told my wife that I will be going to Ukraine for the location recce. She did not want me to leave the country until I told her that it was a Rajamouli film.”
It took a year and a half to make this song and Ramji is rightfully happy with the global success of Naatu Naatu. But he is also quick to reflect that the famous song was shot in a country that is currently in the middle of a deadly war with Russia. Anna Palunchuk, who helped Ramji to coordinate the Ukraine schedule of RRR, has taken asylum in Canada. The rest of the Ukrainian crew is still stuck in the war-ravaged nation. Ramji is hoping that Ukraine’s president Volodmyr Zelenskyy, outside whose residence Naatu Naatu was shot, will get the Nobel Peace Prize soon.
Ramji closes the interview with some insights on how his profession is evolving at a swift pace. “For the longest time, the West represented aspiration for us, which is why a lot of the songs in the past were shot abroad. But things are changing now; these days we go overseas to recreate India. Rajamouli is a game changer, in that regard. Every day brings forth a new opportunity and a new challenge to scale.”