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The reel world of Sabu Cyril


Sabu Cyril revolutionised the concept of art direction and changed the look of films.

I am doing what I like the most and what I always wanted to do.


Why is the new generation hooked on to film songs when they are shown repeatedly on television?

Songs in Indian commercial cinema have become a sort of teaser trailer to attract the audience to the cinemas.

Last year's biggest Tamil blockbuster Shankar's `Anniyan' had some of the most gripping song sequences, especially the `Andankakka... ' number. These songs were chartbusters and helped the film to get repeat audience.

Says Shankar: "The songs looked colourful and stunning and all credit goes to Sabu Cyril, the art director who visualised and created the sets."

For that `Andankakka... ' song, Sabu and Shankar adopted a small village near Tenkasi and painstakingly painted all the houses, roads, rocks and even a bridge in varied colours. They also hired hundreds of lorries and old model ambassador cars and painted faces on them.

Hundreds of dancers joined the lead pair and the total cost of this single song worked out to Rs. 1 crore for the producer. But this mass song became a milestone in visualisation of songs.

Sabu has always created magic while working with Priyadarsan, from `Kalapaani' to the latest `Garam Masala.' The song `Dil Samundar... ,' was shot in the backdrop of a fort-like set on the beaches of Mauritius, which made it look like a glamour calendar.

Says Priyan, "I wanted Sabu to create a dream-like set on the beach. The song became a major USP of the film, which helped it to get a great opening, and I have to thank Sabu for it."

Till a few years ago, an average film-goer never realised that an art director was largely responsible for giving the film a chic and sophisticated look.

According to Farah Khan, director and choreographer, "When I decided to debut as director with `Main Hoon Na,' I was hell bent on having Sabu as art director. He provided the perfect milieu for this fun movie which clicked with the audience."

Sabu Cyril has revolutionised the concept of an art director, which is now more on the lines of Hollywood. The art director sits with the technical team of director, scriptwriter, cameraman and the music director and choreographer to discuss the look and feel of the whole film.

The sets of `Asoka' that he created.

Says Sabu, "Earlier the art director was seen more like a carpenter who looks after the set property but today we are considered as people who give life to the film. Today, the colour scheme of a song or scene, to the colour of the lead actor's wardrobe is discussed with the art director to get that perfect look. Like in Hollywood, art directors in India should be called production designers."

Father's influence

Sabu Cyril's biggest influence has been his father Cyril Arthur. Although he was a manager in a tea plantation in Valapara, near Coimbatore, Cyril was always fascinated with electrical engineering and used to tinker with designs and machines. It was from him that Sabu imbibed his knack for inventing essential mechanical items for film shoots. It was Sabu's maternal grandfather, George Vincent, who set up the first photo studio in Kozhikode. And A. Vincent, cameraman and director of classics like `Thulabharam' and doyen of Malayalam cinema, was Sabu's uncle.

Sabu recalls, "I was always fascinated with science and the mechanical side of it. I remember that the first book that my dad presented me was `Physics for entertainment.' But it was a visit to the Vauhini studio in Madras where my uncle A. Vincent was the cameraman of theRajesh Khanna-Hema Malini starrer `Prem Nagar' that gave me the first enticing glimpse into the world of make-believe."

All this had a great influence on Sabu who left engineering and chose to study at the Madras School of Arts and Crafts and passed out as `The Best student of the year.'

Sabu was lucky to get his first assignment with `Amaram' under noted director Bharathan, who himself was an art-director. For the climax of the film, Sabu created a 12-foot long life-like mechanical shark.

Lohithadas, scriptwriter of `Amaram,' points out, "It was one of the highlights of the film and people still believe that it was a real shark."

Says Sabu, "I always use the basic principles of physics, chemistry, engineering and material knowledge that I acquired as part of my growing up."

New materials

Sabu has revolutionised art direction by using new materials for film sets. Earlier, most of the sets were made of plaster of Paris, gunny bags and huge iron rods. Sabu stylised the work and used lightweight materials like fibreglass.

Who can forget films like Priyadarshan's `Kalapaani' (the miniature train and the cellular jail sets) Santosh Sivan's `Asoka' (the period sets created inside a studio floor), Kamal Hassan's `Hey Ram' (the canon and gun made with fibre glass), Shankar's `Boys' (the set made with waste materials for the `Boom..Boom', or Mani Ratnam's `Kannathil Muthamittal' (Patton tank and war scenes).

The hit song `Andankakka..' of `Anniyan' was picturised on this set.

Adds Sabu, "A common viewer who watches a film feels that most of what they see on screen is real. The more an art director makes it real, the less noticed is the work. That's because people tend to think that it is real and not an art director's work!" Sabu says that today with computer age it is possible to recreate almost anything without depending on paper work.

Today Sabu Cyril is being compared to Jim Clay the Oscar winning production designer.

He has become an icon and has not only brought respectability to the trade but also spawned a school of young art directors like Rajeevan, Bava, Suresh, Milan, Sunil and so many others who worked as his assistants.

Sabu has notched two National Awards, State awards of Tamil Nadu and Kerala and innumerable Filmfare awards as the Best Art Director.

At the moment, Sabu is busy with six Hindi films with directors like Priyan, Sirish Kunder, Farah Khan and others and two Tamil films.

On location of `Asoka' with Santosh Sivan, Shah Rukh Khan and Kareena.

He is also experimenting with the use of silicon in Indian movie sets, which can be used as broken glass during fight scenes and some futuristic designs.

Mani Ratnam is all praise for Sabu. He says, "He is the most accomplished and imaginative art director in the country."

After doing more than 500 ad-films and 72 feature films, Sabu remains simple and down-to earth.

"I am doing what I like the most and what I always wanted to do," he says.

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