Though it's nearly a month since Aayirathil Oruvan hit the marquee, the film's art director T. Santhanam's phone hasn't stopped ringing — awed filmbuffs continue to flood him with compliments. In fact, a couple of fans told him they'd watched the movie eight times already, just for his sets! Love the film or hate it, you can't but be impressed with Santhanam's mind-blowing visuals — a lost Chola kingdom, remnants of a hoary past, a haunting, snake-infested jungle, life-sucking sea creatures... And, to think, it all started with a single phone call!

One night, back in 2006, as he was getting ready to wrap up the work for Yaaradi Nee Mohini, Santhanam got a call from maverick director K. Selvaraghavan. By 4.30 next morning, Santhanam knew what Selvaraghavan wanted for his magnum opus. “He said though it was a historical subject, it did not revolve around history. So, everything had to come from my imagination. With that kind of freedom, I knew it was going to be one challenging creative journey, and I love challenges.”

But, that journey was to be riddled with unforeseen hurdles too. Santhanam had to battle a spinal disc prolapse during the course of the shoot — which meant one hour of traction for every three hours of work on a sandy Rajasthan terrain. Also, shooting at a place just 50 km from Pakistan came with its share of restrictions. And, that the weather was nippy did not help either — “the paints on props and metal works would take longer to dry; working was difficult”.

Of course, that's not to say he did not have fun. “I created coins, fresco paintings, and even three lorry loads of props to create the remnants of a bygone era! Every element is important. Every design you come up with, every set you erect, is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Think of it; you'll never do it again. And, definitely not a film of this magnitude. It has all been worth it,” says Santhanam, who had the likes of Thota Tharrani and Sabu Cyril for seniors, back in the College of Arts and Crafts.

In tinselville since 1996, Santhanam says there has been a stark change in the industry's outlook over the last few years. “Filmmakers now think out-of-the-box, and are willing to spend and willing to take risks. A lot of research and reference goes into a film, as does attention to detail,” says Santhanam, who has films such as Sokka Thangam, Pudhukottayilirundhu Saravanan, Bose, Pudhupettai and Yaaradi Nee Mohini to his credit. On the flip side, however, he says that in an attempt to complete films early, “people rush. This won't do justice to the end product”.

Santhanam, whose latest is the sleeper hit Thamizh Padam, opines that it does not really matter if a film has a big or small budget. “In fact, a big budget film can be made on a low budget with meticulous planning. What is important is how committed you are. If the pre-production suffers, the movie will too,” he asserts.

With Thoongaa Nagaram and Kalavaani in his kitty, what Santhanam is really excited about is a yet-to-be titled Tamil film. “The film revolves around an incident that occurs one night — the film is shot at night, and it's challenging to capture the essence of a story in dark. Like I said, I love challenges…”