The man behind the make-believe

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Mr Thota Tharrani, art director
Mr Thota Tharrani, art director

Nina Varghese
Raja Simhan T.E.

Chennai, Jan. 9

IT is a world of make-believe. Sometimes it is the Madurai Meenakshi Temple, at others a street in Mylapore or a railway station.

It is all put together inside studios or outside on locations, with plywood, jute cloth and casuarina poles to create a realistic backdrop for the story.

In one of the many floors at Chennai's AVM Studios, the set for a Romeo and Juliet scene is being readied at one end and at the other a courtyard of a stately home. Both these sets are for a dream sequence of a low budget film.

Mr Thota Tharrani, art director, painter and national award winner, points to unfinished walls of the old world building and says, "There is no change in the material, we are still using plywood, plaster of Paris, gunny cloth and casuarina poles to create these facades. Technology has not made much of a difference to me. I still use the conventional methods that have existed for 40 years. Occasionally I use fibreglass and vinyl if the budget permits."

Mr Tharrani, who started his career at the age of 14, is one of the leading art directors in Indian cinema. He has more than 100 movies to his credit, and does one or two major projects in a year.

Talking about art direction in movies, he said that very few producers come to him and say "this is what I want, cost is not a problem''. Most times, art directors have to work on very tight budgets. "This is torture. Producers want the best of both worlds, creative as well as cost effective, which is taxing for an art director," he said.

Typically, a script is accepted, then the art director sketches the scenes and tries to fit them into the budget of the film. Nowadays, some of the art directors do not take the trouble to sketch the scene. (Mr Tharrani continues to use his quill for ink drawings while others use personal computers or laptops for the designs.)

The sets (a street of hitech buildings) in the Tamil movie

Kaadal Desam

cost about Rs 1 crore and that of Meenakshi Temple in the Telugu movie


cost Rs 3 crore. The temple set was created near Hyderabad, and it was built to scale with plywood, plaster of Paris and gunny cloth, he said.

Talking about the sets of the Tamil blockbuster


, directed by Mr Mani Rathnam, Mr Tharrani said the apartment set was completed in five days. It cost Rs 5 lakh in 1991 while a similar set would cost a few crore now. Mr Tharrani said that one of the great thrills of his job was when people exclaim "is this a set, I thought it was real''. He recounted a never to be forgotten moment when a search helicopter zeroed in on an aircraft down in a paddy field and the rescue team scurrying down the rope ladder found that it was a prop for a movie.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated January 10, 2006)
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