Lalgudi N. Ilayaraja has won the National Award for production design for Vishwaroopam alongside Thai collaborator Boontawee ‘Tor’ Taweepasas. Karthik Subramanian meets the young art director

When it comes to art direction in cinema, one works hard to be invisible.

“The challenge is to be as real as possible,” says 29-year-old Lalgudi N. Ilayaraja, national award winning production designer for the Kamal Haasan-directed Vishwaroopam, during an interview at his Virugambakkam residence. “If you walked out of the cinema hall, not noticing any of my work, I have succeeded.”

Some of the production designs for Vishwaroopam that he shows are stunning. There is more art work in the Kamal Haasan blockbuster than meets the eye. The gravity of being a National Award winner is yet to sink in for various reasons: Vishwaroopam is just his second release at the theatres; cinema is collaborative art, so he does not want to take sole credit (he shares the award with Thai collaborator Boontawee ‘Tor’ Taweepasas) and points out the hard work of cinematographer Sanu John Varghese and senior visual effects director Madhu Sudanan; and most important, he feels the timing is not apt for celebration. “There are so many people fasting and protesting for the Tamil cause.”

Epic proportions

Vishwaroopam is the kind of project that art directors would long to be associated with. It has come quite early in Ilayaraja's career. It is just his second release after the 2011 small-budget film Yuvan Yuvaathi. But his seven years as an assistant to award-winning art director Sabu Cyril in such projects as Kachivaram, Aakrosh, Om Shanti Om and Endhiran, he says, prepared him to handle the challenge of scale that Vishwaroopam presented.

While announcing the national award, the jury at the directorate of film festivals noted: “for a subject that transcends different times and space, the commendable production design has played a huge part in making this film what it is.”

Ilayaraja credits experienced Hollywood technician Boontawee Taweepasas (whose credits include The Beach and Bridget Jones's Diary) for preparing the detailed sets for the movie. The Thai national had made recce trips to Kazakhstan and Jordan (where some of the outdoor shots were canned) with director Kamal Haasan to come up with the kind of details and atmosphere needed for the story.

The efforts to create the Afghan village, a market place, the underground caves and the New York-style studio apartment involved a massive scale of work. “The Rajkamal production team spared no expense when it came to detailing the sets,” he says.

The Afghan village and the cave sets were erected within a huge complex just outside Chennai on a 1,000 ft by 1,000 ft block. It was 40 days of work involving over 1,500 labourers with three bull-dozers being used simultaneously to level the terrain and create a desert-like atmosphere. Sand samples were brought in from seven locations in Tamil Nadu, one of which was chosen to suit the look and feel of the movie. Over 800 loads of sand were brought in to construct the village and the cave sets. For the New York-style studio apartment, Ilayaraja credits Gauthami Tadimalla, also the costume designer of the movie, for her extensive inputs.

15-layer process

The art of creating film sets of the scale Vishwaroopam warranted was a cumbersome “15-layer” process, the art director says. Once a sketch is finalised, it is rendered in 3D using computer software, then a miniature model is created so that the production team can work on the finer details like where the camera can be placed and how the shots should be canned, so on and so forth.

Such extensive pre-production work is rare in Indian cinema. The prospect of working with Kamal, well-known for his near manic attention to detail, was enough to get him enthused about the project. “That Kamal Haasan chose me is award enough.”

Humble beginnings

Ilayaraja hails from Lalgudi in Tiruchi district of Tamil Nadu. He was always interested in drawing since his student days at the Lalgudi Government Higher Secondary School, a passion, he says, his father S.K. Natarajan fuelled by giving him small perks like pocket money for his best sketches. “Each time he gave me Rs. 10 for a good drawing, I would think of how I could get him to give me more money.” He says he owes his success entirely to him.