Apr 10, 2017

Baahubali 2: Production designer Sabu Cyril talks about working on SS Rajamouli’s epic

Five years ago when SS Rajamouli met Sabu Cyril for the first time, to pitch the story of Baahubali, little did he expect that Sabu Cyril, National Award winning production designer with credits including Shankar’s Endhiran, Shah Rukh Khan’s Ra.One, Om Shanti Om and several other Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi films, would be half-asleep throughout the narration.

In these past few years that Sabu Cyril has worked on the film, he has barely slept properly.

With Baahubali: The Conclusion gearing up for release on April 28, the sense of pride which Sabu Cyril has, when he gets talking about making of the the film, is palpable.

In a freewheeling chat with Firstpost, Sabu Cyril opens up about what went into bringing Rajamouli’s vision alive and how the role of a production designer has changed with the advent of visual effects. Excerpts from an interview:

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Sabu Cyril and Rajamouli on the sets of Baahubali.

So, what made you say ‘yes’ to Rajamouli?

It was a sketch of a waterfall, which was nearly 1000 feet, that he showed me during out first meeting that sealed the deal. That’s when I realised the scale at which he had envisioned the world of Baahubali. I get charged up when I have a big challenge ahead of me. And Baahubali was full of challenges right from the first day.

You never say ‘no’, is it?

(laughs) I never say no. This happened while doing Shankar’s Endhiran (Robo) as well. During the shoot, Shankar called me to ask if I can make a robotic lion. I said yes. Five minutes later, he called back asking if I can make two of them. I said yes again. Then, he got back to me asking if it’s possible to make a robotic horse. That’s when I told him that it would be really tough to make it within a short duration because to make a robotic horse balance on four legs is a time consuming process. It’s like writing an exam. You’re judged based on how much you can deliver within that time. Time, money and space are really important for me.

In some of your recent interviews, you mentioned that it’s not easy to work with Rajamouli? Can you explain what’s the difficult part of the process?

In my career, I’ve met people who live cinema, eat cinema and dream about cinema, but Rajamouli’s passion for cinema is on a different level. He is an extremely hardworking person. If you are working with him, you can’t think about anything other than cinema. You can’t expect everyone to be on the same plane. And trust me, it is really difficult to be like him.
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The poster for Baahubali 2.

The best part is that everyone who has worked on this film has worked extremely hard because the captain of the ship (Rajamouli) is like that. Every morning we would wake up by 3:30 am, leave for the location by 4:30 am, reach the sets by 5:30-6 am, and Rajamouli would be there by 6:15 am without any delay. Following this routine for a month or even six months is understandable, but to maintain the same schedule for almost five years is not easy. It requires a lot of discipline. People would run away if they had to do this for so long (laughs).

Does it bother you that people don’t really ‘see’ your work?

    Irony is, when Baahubali: The Beginning released in 2015, a lot of people thought that everything, right from the sets to the animals, was all visual effects. But it isn’t like that.

This is not like The Jungle Book, where except the young boy everything else that you see is created using visual effects. Sometimes, I feel that, perhaps, I didn’t get as much recognition for my work in Baahubali because of this misconception that people had about what’s real and what’s CGI (computer-generated imagery).

Even if something is done using visual effects, the art department has to create the model, finalise the texture and take care of the lighting so that the VFX team can work on the extensions. Only people who have worked with me will know what we have done in terms of production design. That’s the irony of my job. The better you do, you go unnoticed. That’s how it is supposed to be, I guess.

I heard the scene where Kattappa kills Baahubali was supposed to be shot in Chambal valley, but later, you ended up shooting in Hyderabad. How did you achieve that precise look?

We had finalised the location and were all set to shoot in Chambal valley, but a month before we had to shoot, we realised that the entire barren land had turned green due to rains. We didn’t have a choice but to find a different location and finally zeroed upon a quarry near Hyderabad.

We had to fill the quarry with 100 truckloads of mud and we had to construct roads. Apart from all this, every rock in that scene had to be painted with a reddish tinge to get the effect that Rajamouli wanted for the shots. These rocks were all 60 ft tall and we even transported trees from Rajasthan, and then made replicas of those trees with fibreglass. The whole process took about 45 days and more than 200 people worked with me, day and night, to complete the set.

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The iconic cliffhanger from Baahubali: The Beginning.

Everything had to be created from scratch, even if it’s a tree coming out of the wall. It had to compliment the look and feel of the film. It was not an easy job, but when we were done, it was really gratifying.

What were your references for the designs, apart from the concept art and Indian architecture, which I believe played a big role in creating the world of Mahishmathi?

You might be inspired by some design, film, architecture or would have seen something in your life, but once you understand the scope of the job, you automatically get that vision of what you have to do. Everything falls into place once you are in the same page with everyone else in the team. I can’t really pinpoint what inspired us to create such intricate designs. We all go by the director’s vision and then we start brainstorming. Later, the concept artists put it on paper. Usually, either my assistants or I do the drawing for any other film, but this was such a big people that scores of people were working on the design alone.

While shooting a war sequence, you were coordinating with as many as 2000 people. How did you manage all that?

When it comes to shooting a war sequence, we had hundreds of people to repair a lot of props being used in that sequence on a daily basis, and then, we also had to make new things for the next day’s shoot. The whole team worked in three shifts. Meanwhile, there were two other sets that had to be built. On an average we had about 500 people working in the art department alone. Some of the set pieces, which we designed, were so huge that we had to use industrial cranes to move them around.


Baahubali: The Beginning visual sketch by Viswanath Sundaram.

It almost sounds like you were a general in the army while working on this film. How do you maintain your composure when the work is so stressful?

(laughs) Everyday was a war-like scenario. Honestly, when I want to reach a goal, nothing disturbs me. Everyone works hard and I haven’t done anything that’s extraordinary. I’ve been trained that way since childhood. I don’t fall sick or sleep, when work is going on, but once I go home, I go to sleep instantly. When you’re focusing mentally on something so much that nothing else matters. It’s all in the mind. It’s not me alone. It’s true for all those people who worked under me.

As the head of the department I have to appreciate them, keep them pumped up on a daily basis. I was just taking care of my team. Everyone has the same 24 hours, and you probably sleep for 4-5 hours a day. How well you utilise those 20 hours will determine how much name and fame you’ll earn. We had no choice but to deliver in a minimum amount of time.  

    Having said that I have to appreciate Rajamouli even more because he had to co-ordinate with so many departments. Everyone was working for Rajamouli to make Baahubali happen. I’ve always believed that art direction is 50 per cent common sense. It’s like a game for me.

Apart from the Mahishmathi kingdom, you’ve also created the architecture for the Kunthala kingdom, which is the citadel of Devasena (a role played by Anushka), for Baahubali: The Conclusion. Was it very different from what you had been doing for Mahishmathi?

The primary goal was that the look of Kunthala kingdom had to be in complete contrast compared to what we have done for Mahishmathi kingdom. Kunthala kingdom is ruled by women, so we wanted that sort of feminine quality to come through. The designs are more intricate. The trailer has the shot of a ship, which shines almost like marble. I don’t want to reveal much about it. Honestly, the magic of cinema will fade away, if I go into the finer details about my job. Let it be a surprise for the audience (laughs).

As a production designer, you are known to be pushing the envelope every single time. Did you get to experiment with something, in terms of material science for this film in particular?

I love science and technology and we might as well take advantage of what we have right now. We used a lot of carbon fibre to make armours and other stuff, because they had to be light-weight yet feel sturdy for the actors to use them during scenes. For the first time, I started using integrated rubber for this film. I did lot of research to get the best of materials. We also experimented a lot with Aluminum hydroxide to recreate the marble-look, especially in the song Hamsa Nava, for some of the stuff we have worked on. Full credit to the director and producer for letting me do what I wanted to do. They trusted me so much.

You’ve spent almost five years on the sets of Baahubali. What was your equation like with Prabhas?

Prabhas is like a kid at heart and he sees things from a kid’s perspective. He gets fascinated by things which he sees for the first time, and makes it a point to appreciate everyone around him. He used to tell me that he couldn’t make out what was real and what isn’t. For that matter, even the rocks, that you see in the film, were so soft that made it comfortable for him to shoot. He’s shy, but a thorough gentleman.
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Image courtesy: Twitter

The whole unit of Baahubali was almost like a family and I believe you have even moved to Hyderabad. Now that you are done with the film, are you feeling the withdrawal symptoms already?

Not really! I’ve already started working on the next bilingual film Sangamithra, to be directed by Sundar C, which is again a period film which will be made on a mammoth scale. I miss the people who I worked with. We became like family. After five years of living and working together, we understand each other so well. That’s one of the reasons why I’m still staying in Hyderabad because I wanted to stay in touch with the whole team which worked on Baahubali.

Hemanth Kumar