Events

Madras, through lines and strokes

Art Director Thotta Tharani giving a lecture demonstration on the occassion of Madras Day Celebrations. Photo: R. Ragu   | Photo Credit: R_Ragu

Heavy rains had lashed Chennai the previous day. But Thota Tharrani needed dry grass for a movie set. Where will he source it from, when the entire city was soaking wet? His team went from house to house to gather grass and managed to collect almost six lorry-loads. The artist and art director, who has designed over 200 movie sets, recalled this at his talk on ‘My Memories of Madras’ as part of Madras Week celebrations. The talk began with a short video presentation that touched upon his important works.

Thota Tharrani grew up seeing master craftsmen at work. “When I was four or five, I remember observing background artists paint,” he said. The way they swiftly went about painting with a flat brush fascinated young Tharrani. “This gave me a perspective for art. It was so strong that I was able to do the same after 30 years.” In his younger days, Tharrani walked with his father, met, and spoke to actors such as MGR, Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, and Raj Kapoor.

It all happened in Madras. For the city, back then, was the origin of “45 per cent of world films.” It was here that Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, and Malayalam films were made. Times were so prosperous that there was a car designated just to buy paan. “After the Eighties, the boom crashed,” he said.

Tamil cinema is not what it used to be, feels Tharrani. He worked in a period where producers directly discussed with art directors; where technicians slogged on story boards for years before setting out to shoot a movie. “We had a system wherein a scenic designer functioned as a liaison between a mesthiri and art director,” he said. “We were the best. We had the best carpentry section — craftsmen were perfect; they worked fast, and to the detail. It all just vanished. I don’t know what happened,” he said. “Art directors not only designed the sets, they also designed costumes, went purchasing with the costumer. Today, we talk of zardosi work as a statement embellishment… but back then, we had craftsmen from Triplicane who did it for us effortlessly. Within a month, everything would be ready.”

Tharrani said that he was approached to create the apartment complex set for the movie Anjali on a Christmas day. “They wanted it to be ready by the New Year,” he said. “It is one of the most strenuous social films I’ve worked on,” he observed. Actors were easily approachable back then. “When I was a little boy, father took me to meet MGR. He was sitting on a chair under a tree — alone. The next day, I bragged in school that I had spoken to MGR,” he smiled.

Tharrani has had a lot of unforgettable moments working with his father as a young boy. “In 1970, we had to create a rock effect for a movie using brown paper. For the work, I walked with my father from Kodambakkam to Teynampet at 2 a.m.,” he remembered. Venus Studio was where Tharrani created the sets for Nayagan, Anjali, Thalapathy. “But I had to show each of them differently,” he explained.

As an artist who had to “give a realistic feel to designs with non-realistic material,” Tharrani has worked with all sorts of material — this includes thermocol blocks from TV shops. Frustration was part of the job. Tharrani recalled instances where he conceived the design for a set for Rs. 35,000, but was told to do it for less than half the cost. Once his work on a set is over and the bags are packed after the shooting, there’s one thing that Tharrani does with diligence — he keeps away from the shooting spot the day the set is dismantled. “True, one cannot use all that. But I will not be there to see it destroyed.”

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 4:03:29 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/events/madras-through-the-films-of-thota-tharrani/article6353583.ece

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