Suresh Selvarajan: Acharya took my work to the common people
Production designer Suresh Selvarajan talks about creating the massive artwork for Koratala Siva’s Acharya
While the latest Chiranjeevi vehicle, Acharya, directed by Koratala Siva, might not have completely worked for everyone, one element that received two thumbs up from everyone is the film’s production design. Set in a temple town named Dharmasthali, the landscape of this place is central to the film’s narrative. Surrounded by a waterbody and scenic hills, the landscape breathes life into the scenes. It’s grand but grounded, colourful but never cloying, real yet mythical. The production design is definitely the film’s standout aspect.
Production designer Suresh Selvarajan, who is reveling in the adulation coming his way, shares that building a temple town from the scratch wasn’t the team’s original idea. He ascribes the diverse geography of the setting as one of the reasons why the team initially deemed constructing a set an unrealistic idea. “There’s a temple ringed by a town, a tribal area, a river bed, the entry of the town, and other locations in the story. We never thought we’d be creating an entire town. Even the thought of spending crores of rupees on the sets felt like a huge deal,” Suresh says over a Zoom call, before sharing how the team eventually arrived at the decision to build a fictional town. “Once we started scouting locations, we gradually began to understand the potential challenges such as crowd control when stars like Chiranjeevi and Ram Charan show up at real locations. Taking all these practical factors and our basic requirement—an unpolluted site—into consideration, we finally decided to go ahead with the creation of sets.”
In addition to his team, which includes a set dresser, concept designer, storyboard artist, and art director, Suresh shares that 1000-2000 construction workers were involved in building these sets sprawling over 20 acres. “I know a town spreads for over 20,000 acres in reality, but we had to condense it and represent it in its entirety in 20 acres. Yes, the budget was enormous,” he says with a smile. When I point out that the money spent on the film’s artwork might have funded a mid-size film in itself, he shares, laughing, “To be honest, we spent only 50 per cent of the budget allocated to the art department for creating Dharmasthali. In addition, we had two song set-ups and another village set, which we shot in Maredumilli.”
Suresh’s modus operandi is driven toward clarity. After listening to the script, he comes up with a rudimentary idea of the director's vision. Then, he draws out references, gets to ground planning, and ensures the basics are in place. The first meeting with the director kickstarts the fine-tuning process. Procedures like 3D images, model making, and scaling enter the picture. After 5 to 6 meetings, a blueprint of the art takes shape. Once the blueprint is ready, the team begins to address finer details. The process was the same for Acharya.
Both the challenge and advantage, he reveals, with respect to Acharya was creative liberty. Unlike popular pilgrimage sites like, say, Tirupathi or Srisailam, Dharmasthali is a fictional town, thereby giving him a free hand with his imagination. “I was lucky that it was a fictional temple. Had it been Tirupathi’s garbha gudi, people have the real temple to compare it with. We had the liberty to present something new to the audience. On the other hand, the challenge was to build a town that looks and feels real, making people forget that it’s a setting.”
The pandemic, of course, was another major challenge the team didn’t foresee. The first lockdown was implemented three days before filming was scheduled to begin. Having withstood two Covid waves, the sets still stand tall today, two years after they were built. “Naturally, film sets don’t last for more than six months. But Dharmasthali stood for two years, thanks to the efforts of every member involved.”
Suresh believes that his hard work was rewarded when cursory film viewers, who are generally oblivious to the technical aspects of a film, spoke about his work in Acharya. When asked about the best compliment he received for the film, an elated Suresh shares, “Generally, technicians are appreciated by directors and other insiders, common people hardly speak about the work of technicians. I received a call from an average movie-goer, and I'm grateful that Acharya took my name and work to common people.”
What’s in store for Suresh next? “I doubt if I will get a film on such a massive scale in the near future, but I’m confident about interesting projects coming my way. For instance, Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Animal is a crazy story. While I enjoyed the scale in Acharya, I will enjoy the story in Animal.”
Suresh is juggling between Hindi and Telugu industries with multiple projects progressing parallelly. “Yes, it’s difficult to coordinate, especially when it’s in different languages, but giving my 100 per cent is a challenge I look forward to,” Suresh concludes.