Showrunner Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Modern Love Chennai is an assortment of love stories set in a modern-day metropolis. But in many ways, the Amazon Prime Video anthology challenges notions of modernity, love and well, the city itself. For starters, it has industry veterans Bharathiraja and Ilaiyaraaja, giving us sophisticated takes on love through filmmaking and music in their 80s. The show’s Chennai, on the other hand, takes us back to a world of nostalgic butter biscuits and calm St Thomas Mount overlooking the city. Gopi Prasannaa, who has served as the anthology’s production designer, says the idea was to treat the geographies as authentically as possible.
“We are used to seeing Chennai in cinemas in a certain way,” he says. Iconic buildings such as Central station, Mahabalipuram, and the LIC Building have often found their way into films looking to establish the city. “But Chennai is much bigger than just these areas. A lot of people aren't even familiar with St Thomas Mount for instance. So, we wanted to capture these nuances. But for people who are familiar with the locality, the effect was nostalgic.” Margazhi, Akshay Sundher’s film on a beautiful teenage romance unfolds amidst the picturesque hillock and pink sunsets. “For Margazhi, even though it isn't a period film, the DOP made sure that the commercial elements on the surroundings such as billboards or cables weren't present in the frame. Because this is how it used to be. We wanted to capture the soul of Chennai,” says Gopi, who was born and raised in the neighbourhood himself.
Working on an anthology as vast and immersive as Modern Love Chennai meant numerous conversations and research over colours, textures, and patterns, which culminated in the creation of a bible. “I did a collage of elements for every film, which basically included everything that the film and its world stood for. For Lalagunda Bommaigal, the first thing I envisioned was the kerosene lamp the biscuit makers use to seal the packets. And then came the biscuit tray, autos and rickshaws.” The collage helped everyone align themselves to the visual aspects of the script. “Once you create the canvas and give it to the DOP, the way they work and light up a scene is just mesmerising,” says Gopi, also crediting the work of art directors N Satheeskumar and Shanmuga Raja.
Since the geographies for each film — all adapted from The New York Times essays — were mentioned at the script level, it was easy for the design team to take it from there. But it’s not always that simple. While Chennai neighbourhoods are tangible in some films — Kaadhal Enbadhu Kannula Heart Irukkura Emoji for instance revolves around an RA Puram household — it isn’t in some others. Bharathiraja’s Paravai Kootil Vaazhum Maangal unfolds in a lived-in middle-class house. But the film was shot on an expansive set. “The entire floor plan was created in 3D, after which we did a walkthrough for the characters. So, how Kumararaja and I work is, I ask him for a seed, for which he'll tell me something a little abstract and I build from there. The seed for the entire house was that book shelf in the middle of the house.” The book shelf is a silent witness to a life-changing living room conversation. “I designed the shelf and then sketched the entire floor plan around it. The shelf acts as a partition and plays a huge role in the scenes with Delhi Ganesh sir, but when you watch the film, you'd hardly notice it.”
It was important to visually transport audiences to love stories emerging from various neighbourhoods. “In Paravai...we could have added a sofa or a dining table, but we made them sit on the floor for dinner. If we had put a dining table and a candle on it, the frame would’ve been different. But when you take Emoji, the family would be seen sitting at a table and having coffee because the house is inspired by art deco style.
To get these layers right, everything from architecture to furniture had to be perfect.” Gopi also remembers receiving the best compliment from Kumararaja for this particular film. It was for his doodles on the wall. “Those are sketches by Ravi and Revathi’s kids. I drew those doodles with my left hand,” he smiles.
But among the challenging aspects of the series was taking a crack at Ninaivo Oru Paravai (NOP), Kumararaja’s dizzyingly brilliant take on fleeting memories and romance. “The house in NOP needed to completely transport viewers into its world. From its tiles, the bougainvillaea above the bathtub, the surfboard to the kitchen elements, everything was created.” Even the wall texture took them three weeks to conquer. “Every room in the house has a different wall texture and if you notice, there’s even a thin gold line running throughout the walls, which also has its own meaning.”
Kumararaja’s brand of films are known for packing in layers of ambiguity with its mise en scene, just as much as they are known for a whimsical understanding of drama. “The script had a Dali bobblehead, but that doesn't exist in real life. So, we had to create that from scratch. And then there was the cigarette packet. We created the cigarettes, the pack and the brand. We thought about every small thing like the material of the packaging, and spent around a month trying to figure it out. If it was there in the script, we had to create it. Such details about the props were in the script, so all the credits go to Kumararaja, and the DOPs Nirav Shah and Jeeva Sankar for fleshing this out.”
Gopi, whose friendship with the director goes back many years, began his journey in cinema along with Kumararaja. A prominent name in the publicity designing space today, Gopi’s door to cinema was opened with Kumararaja’s debut Aaranya Kaandam (2010), for which he designed its poster. 13 years later, Gopi has now opened another door, taking up his first ever production designing gig with Modern Love Chennai. “I was super nervous because I had no connection to production design, going in. But it's the mutual trust and respect we have for each other that pushed me to take this up.”