Art director Ramalingam is a happy man. Even before the release of the film, the Dharavi sets in Kaala have garnered several eyeballs. The sprawling set was erected in Chennai employing hundreds of workers to create a version of Asia’s second largest slum. “Film sets are recognisably temporary — the minute you physically enter one, you will know that it is a set.” But for Kaala, the crew made sure the set feels real to the people who enter, in terms of structure and the look. “We have recreated the structure of Dharavi as close to the original possible. The entire set was erected instead of working in patches and that is what makes it unique.”
To ensure that the set breathes life, high standard materials were used to build the sets, says Ramalingam. “A lot of research went into to deciding the materials and the paints we used, based on its longevity. We gave the regular Koni or plywood a miss and opted for customised thick cement sheets to build the walls. The structures all had a complete iron frame.” With confidence, Ramalingam states that despite several months after the shoot, the set still looks the same.
As part of the Dharavi set, Ramalingam had to recreate Dhobi Ghat, a UNESCO certified heritage site. The place is a source of inspiration for any artist states Ramalingam. “The urge to whip out some paper and sketch the Dhobi ghat is irresistible if you are an artist. The ghat is a space of pristine white amid the dirt and garbage the city has around it – it is beautiful.” He also mentions the potter’s space Kumbherwada, the Dharavi market and a mosque as some of his interesting recreations.
The love Ramalingam has for his art form shines through as he speaks about it. “I was craving for a project like Kaala and I immensely loved every single moment we spent working. In my opinion, it is a challenge only when you feel you can’t do it; or when you attempt something that you don’t know. Kaala was an opportunity – a chance for me to excel and to innovate.”
It was also an opportunity to work with Rajinikanth once again. An ardent fan of the Superstar, Kaala is Ramalingam’s second project with Rajini after Kabali. “There is no one who can deny that Rajinikanth is an important figure in cinema. Even people who aren’t a fan, can’t ignore his talent and his success. From being a fan to working with him as a fellow technician is a journey that I am proud of. And also, I consider it as a success that a film like Kaala happened with an actor that I admire.”
Ramalingam credits his Therukoothu (street theatre) lineage for his aesthetics, calling it the place where he learnt everything about art and colours. “I found my sense of colour from the paints artistes used on their faces. I instantly took it right from childhood. I was fascinated by the glittering crowns, the shiny dresses, the face paints and it all filtered down in shaping me as an artist.” His father, a street theatre artist as well, was Ramalingam’s first muse when he was in school. As his contribution to the art form that is being eclipsed out, he runs a street theatre group to ensure there is fresh blood invested in the art. “The first image I tried to draw was my father’s face in costume. I feel art direction is the continuation. It stems out of my experience with Theru Koothu. In every structure and set I build, I strongly believe that Theru Koothu as an art form exists.”