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Kollywood banks on wood and plaster. Today, it needs the banks more. SUDHISH KAMATH checks into the almost-real world of make-believe and sets

Set for "Madurae" by Rajeevan. Pic by R. Ragu

EVERY TIME I call someone in the industry to say: "Hi. I'm doing this story on the changing role of sets in today's films," I hear something on these lines:

"Oh, big. Big role. Most movies today sell because of sex. `Jism' started the trend. We had `Khwaish' with 17 kisses and now it is `Murder' of the art with rehashes of `Unfaithful' releasing every month."

When I finally get my chance, I clarify: "Er... Well, I'm not talking about the films that are running `Hawas-full.' I'm not talking about the `item' numbers or the glam dolls, the `set-ups' or the `prop' people who pep up the proceedings. I'm talking about the real furniture, the real props, the near-real sets and the role of art direction in the art of filmmaking today. S-E-T-S. Sets." (Note to self: Must write another story on trend of glam and sex in films. Will not find a better excuse to watch them all!)

Obviously, people today are looking more at people in the film than the sets in the frame. But that's the good news. Sets aren't supposed to be noticed. As Sabu Cyril always says on art-directors: "The more they do their job, the less noticed they are. That's because people tend to think it's real and not a set."

Well, let's test this statement.

Which of these did you know was a set?

The wood-house in `Kaakha Kaakha.' (Rajeevan)

The train-accident and the Bhubaneshwar floods in `Anbe Sivam.' (Prabhaharan)

All prison and village sequences in `Virumaandi.' (Prabhaharan)

The Pudupet motor spares market in `Thirumalai.' (Kathir)

Most of Sri Lanka in `Kannathil Muthammittal.' (Sabu Cyril)

The devil, as they say, lies in the detail. Which is why Kamal Hasan and Prabhaharan checked with the Railways "on where coaches would crack when trains collide" for `Anbe Sivam.' Rajeevan, with just a literature degree, consulted construction experts before drawing out a plan which civil engineers wouldn't dream of executing, for the upcoming Vijay-starrer `Madurae.'

Usually, sets look convincing only on camera. But step into `Madurae' and you will not for a second suspect that it's a set. The vegetable market is at its dirtiest best with month-old waste strewn all around. The paint has worn out of Om Medicals on the same street. The provision store is packed with real provisions, the utensils shop actually stocks stainless steel vessels, readymade shops can't look more real and the saloon does have real barber chairs. The temple gopuram is thatched since it's being renovated, we hear. "We bought two truckloads of vegetables for the sets. And on everyday of shoot, we get a hundred kilos of fresh stock to fill up the frames," says Rajeevan, standing in front of Suseela Kai Kani, the corner-shop that belongs to Maduraevel (Vijay).

"It is easier to control crowds. Then, you can create whatever you want. I can have a wall removed to take a shot," says Rajeevan, who will next be putting up a huge building that will be demolished for the Srikanth-starrer `Sathurangam.'

The entire first half of `Madurae' will be shot on the set. `Virumaandi' was shot 95 per cent on sets. "We shot only five days in Theni. We were not allowed to shoot after that. So we put up everything on Campa Cola grounds. The set is still there," says Prabhaharan, who still considers `Anbe Sivam' closer to his heart because of the complexities - while the Bhubaneshwar floods were created inside Vijaya Vauhini studios with a 140 lorry-loads of water, the train accident was fleshed out in Pollachi, the corporate office with the huge communist-Shiva-Kamal Hassan mural painting put up at AVM and the bus going off the cliff created on miniature.

"It's not only convenient but also makes shooting controllable for the entire unit. We don't have to worry about crowds," he explains. So, Prabhaharan's prison had authentic versions of 68 cells, a hanging area, kitchen, corridors, the jailor's room, prisoner's toilet and the entrance to the jail modelled on the Central Jail.

Incidentally, Prabhaharan also worked with Sabu Cyril on Kamal Hassan's currently shelved project `Marudhanayagam' touted to be the greatest challenge for an art director with its period setting and huge scale.

Sabu's latest project with Mani Ratnam `Ayitha Ezhuthu' will be out in May. And currently, he's busy with Shankar's `Anniyan' starring Vikram. For long now, Sabu Cyril and Thotta Tharani have dominated the industry. And they continue to.

Thotta Tharani's version of the Madurai temple in Hyderabad, a part of the Rs.4-crore set, stands tall at 125 feet (only 25 feet lesser than the original) in the Mahesh Babu starrer `Arjun' directed by Gunasekharan.

"It depends on the director and producer on what they want and how much they want to spend on it. For `Peralagan,' we have put up 4-5 houses on the banks of the backwaters, a semi-rural set-up. There are also a couple of sets more left - one is a hospital and the other is for the songs," he says.

There are more coming up.

Prabhaharan is now working on `Viswa Thulasi,' a period film with Mammootty and Nandita Das. Rajeevan will be recreating the wood-house at the remote lake 80 km away from Kandy, Sri Lanka, for the Telugu version of `Kaakha Kaakha' and wrapping up Simbu's `Manmadan.'

Art director Mohana Mahendran is putting up a driving school set for Saran's `Attakaasam' at Foreshore Estate. And Thyagarajan is turning art director for Prashanth's `Shock' - a remake of Ramgopal Varma's `Bhoot' - putting up a high-rise building.

To twist Shakespeare a little, all the stage, is a world.

The stage is set again. And the show, will go on.

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