Vijai Murugan: The sets of Iravin Nizhal were actors in a way

The production designer, who is receiving applause for his work in Iravin Nizhal, discusses the arduous efforts that made the film a reality
Vijai Murugan: The sets of Iravin Nizhal were actors in a way

As a production designer, Vijai Murugan’s primary responsibility has always been “creating”—a facet he is most fond of about his profession—a world for filmmakers to bring their stories to life. This has been the expectation from production designs for years now. Iravin Nizhal, however, demanded a unique approach to his craft. “We had no reference for this film. None of my experiences from the past came in handy here because everything is different in Iravin Nizhal,” Vijai Muragan says and he means every word of it; perhaps it is an over-simplification of the out-of-the-box format filmmaker Parthiban chose to tell his story.

The non-linear screenplay, filmed in one long shot, progresses at times and withdraws at another. The story goes forward, then jumps back in the timeline and then continues progressing; this is a loop of sorts and the screenplay oscillates between different periods—from the late 80s to 2021—and geographies—interiors and exteriors included, deliberately so to underline the journey of the protagonist, without respite from start to finish. This means only one thing: the entire team—irrespective of their roles and responsibilities—works in unison, towards a common goal. “To be honest, it is hard to separate the work of each department here. The camera, the direction and the art teams worked homogeneously throughout the project.”

Speaking about the sheer spontaneity, synchronisation and synergy that was expected from the team, Vijay reveals, “Timing is everything. For instance, there is a scene set in a temple that features a host of diyas. Had we lit all of them 10 minutes before the camera arrived there, the air might have played a spoilsport in the meantime. So we would light them just before the scene was filmed, giving the camera and direction team optimal breathing space. We rehearsed extensively to crack the timing. The art and direction teams, comprising over 30 members each, were assigned different blocks to take care of and had great coordination, maintaining a gap of at least 30 minutes between each other as the filming progressed in a different location. By the time the camera arrived at a particular location, they would dress the set and move to a location where the camera would arrive only 30 minutes later.”

For Vijai and his team, the work began two years before the filming began. “To begin with, finding the right location that has the capacity to accommodate all the different settings was a challenge. My team, co-director Krishnamoorthy and I spent a few days marking the dimensions of the location. Even the colour scheme was zeroed in even before the construction of the sets. And then, of course, we rehearsed for months.”

Constructing a massive set, sprawling over 94 acres and housing more than 60 different locations, was no mean feat. “Over 400 carpenters used to work on the construction,” Vijai says, adding that precision was the key ascribed to the film’s reliance on production design. Everything had to support the screenplay, to ensure the transitions between different time frames and locations looked seamless. Windows, doors, and even walls had a role a play. “For the first time in my career, I felt that even sets doubled up as actors. We often create grand sets and they just remain mute as the filming progresses, here every set was an active participant. And the parameters needed to be on spot. In fact, carpenters would wonder why I was obsessed with details. For instance, I would ask them to set the measurement of a specific property at eight feet and one inch, but they would end up rounding it off to eight inches. When I would question them about the one lesser inch, they’d say it is just one inch, after all. I had to convince them that the fate of the film depended on that one inch,” Vijai says, laughing.

Although the team was ready with plans on paper, nothing could prepare the team for the challenges that emerged on the set. “In the very first scene where Parthiban sir steps out of the caravan, we realised that the camera was experiencing a jerk due when the operates steps down. We realised this only during the filming. As a solution, we place a ramp for the camera to smoothly move downwards. Every cut, every mistake and every day was a huge learning experience.”

The making-of documentary, which precedes Iravin Nizhal, encapsulates the pain-staking filming process and the collective disappointment the team experienced every time the shooting was met with a roadblock, forcing them to shoot it all over from the beginning. Speaking about how he responded to many such interruptions, Vijai says, “If we had to cut, we would reset our mind and go ahead. Athu patthi yosikardhe kadayadhu. The film held some—those with dedication— tightly; it sent others out. More than Parthiban sir, I think the film decided who stays in and who goes out.”

Vijai closes the conversation with an apt analogy. “This was not just production design or art direction, it was a war… sandai. The location of Iravin Nizhal was a war zone. All of us fought there—together and even against each other. Many people fought with me too. At the end of the day, we emerged victorious as a team.”

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