Sabu Cyril: We knew that RRR wouldn’t be as big as the Baahubali films
National Award-winning production designer Sabu Cyril talks about his much-praised work in RRR which has now begun streaming on ZEE5 and Netflix
It’s tempting to say that Sabu Cyril, one of India's most celebrated art director-turned-production designers, has seen it all when it comes to cinema. In fact, he has perhaps even done it all... from the simpler sets of films like Sila Samayangalil (2018) and Thenmavin Kombath (1994) to grand and complex ones in Saaho (2019) and Guru (2007). He has taken us into the past with films like Hey Ram (2000) and Marakkar: Lion of the Arabian Sea (2021) and taken us into the future with Enthiran (2010). He has introduced us to superhero universes like in Ra.One (2011) and Krrish 3 (2013) and to worlds where normal people are superheroes, like in the recently released RRR. Ask the veteran what he thinks about the sheer scale and versatility of his work, and he simply says, smiling, “As long as people enjoy the film, I'm happy.”
You worked with director SS Rajamouli on the Baahubali films as well. How different was RRR?
Rajamouli knew that RRR wouldn't be as big as the Baahubali films. He enjoys a challenge, and I relish it too. We discussed the film for six months before it went on floors. The pandemic meant that it took us three more years to finish the film. We couldn't bring foreigners into India during that period; so, during the break after the first lockdown, we went to Ukraine and shot there for a month.
There may be some fiction in the film, but the story is rather realistic. Rajamouli told me about the period the film is set in, and we collected references. Though the action would be over the top, we still had to recreate the colonial era. Even the CG work ensures that the film is rooted in some realism.
Be it for a fun film like Panchathantiram (2002) or a hard-hitting subject like Kaalapani (1996), your production design has always been in sync with the objectives of a film. How did you set about the plan for RRR?
It all comes down to believability. The subject and emotions of a film are important. Sometimes, films in which we do an excellent job don’t even get noticed (laughs). For RRR, everything was shot on sets, and we used extensions to increase the scale. For the interval fight sequence, we used everything from water fountains to rigs for cars, and miniatures.
The main characters of the film are represented by the elements of water and fire. How challenging was it to incorporate this idea into production design?
Yes, Ram Charan is always near fire. Even in that interval fight scene, the horse-cart he gatecrashes with is on fire. As retaliation, Jr NTR’s character would use the flying water hoses. We ensured that these elements were added throughout.
A production designer is also part of the team that brings to reality the vision of a filmmaker. Are you able to get a free hand in realising your own vision in the process?
My job is to make sure that I bring to reality what he imagined while writing. I think I have done that (laughs). Rajamouli is open to suggestions. There is a lot of back and forth as far as the ideas are concerned. It’s all about team work ultimately. For one scene where he wanted the fireworks going berserk, we executed it by tying them to a mesh… and it worked out. People often ask what our job is, given that everything can be made with CG these days. They don’t understand that even in those scenes, we have come up with lighting and texture references and perspective.
When compared to the Baahubali films, the timeline, technology, architecture, and automobiles in RRR are more recent. What research went into your work?
The events happen in pre-independence times, and within the film, we didn't have to worry about changing timelines as it usually takes about 40 years for major differences to happen. This has reduced to a span of 10 years in current times. I grew up in a tea estate that was created for the British and the Scottish people. It was filled with architecture and furniture that helped us with references for RRR. We made a lot of furniture and wall panels. While for Enthiran, the work had to be futuristic, for RRR, the work ought to feel believable.
As for automobiles, during those times, they used bikes like BSA, Indian and Triumph ranging from 350 to 500cc. We sourced those and modified modern bikes to look like them, as the old vehicles simply lacked the capacity to go fast. We managed to get a few old cars as well and we bought Willys jeep to convert into an older model.
Talk to us about the use of miniatures in this film...
We used miniatures for the train sequence and the final armoury blast. When people think of miniatures, they think of tabletop models. The armoury miniature was 22 feet in fact, and about four storeys big. It had to be one-third or one-fourth in scale to make sure that the perspective would remain right.
The pandemic must have been a hard pill to swallow amid all the work.
The pandemic slowed down the work as we couldn't shoot at all for many days. We used that time for planning and ideating, over Zoom calls and Google meets. Technology came in handy more than ever. On the sets in Aluminium Factory, Hyderabad, we created one to be Rajamouli’s office. It had space for workshops, a rehearsal hall, an editing suite, four make-up rooms, one conference hall, and a room for each HOD. For my team and production, we had small houses that doubled as accommodation as well.
Action sequences were comparatively difficult and more time-consuming to shoot. They took three months to be canned. We shot with an average of about 200 people on an everyday basis and some days, this went up to 1,000.
You have worked on films set in the future and the past. What’s your favourite?
I like futuristic films and films like Krrish 3, Ra.One and Enthiran. They give me the chance to create something on my own. For period films, we have to put in effort when it comes to research. Irrespective of the film, hard work is the key.
The audience, in general, seems to appreciate production design only when the film is set on a grand canvas. What's the right way to appreciate this aspect of filmmaking?
I have done films like Kanchivaram (2008), and though they are not lavish in scale, they too demand a lot of work. My budget for that film was just Rs 1 lakh. In cinema, actors were first noticed. Today, directors get noticed too, and so do cinematographers. Art direction is being slowly understood, but having said that, what I do is something only the cast and crew can truly understand. As for the audience, they notice my work when they compare it with another designer’s work in a different film. Ultimately, as long as they enjoy the film, our job is done. We will continue to make the extraordinary seem ordinary.