SJ Suryah and Vishal’s Mark Antony is a time-travel fantasy that takes us through an atrocious number of eras and versions of its two leading characters, warping our sense of time. While this might mean either unfiltered amusement or daze for viewers, the premise was a creative exercise for its production and costume designers. This sense of duality is what drives the very textural and brilliant production of Adhik Ravichandran’s Mark Antony. The idea was to stay true to the time yet stay away from the stereotypes. So, if we’re used to watching a cinema gangster don lungis and crumpled shirts, Mark Antony gives us carefully designed printed and silk silhouettes instead. Groovy retro colours of the 70s are instead replaced with warm browns and off-whites. The film’s production designer and costume designer take us through how they treaded carefully to create a world that was authentic to its time and script.
What were your conversations with Adhik before you went ahead with the design?
Vijay Murugan, Production Designer/Art Director: Generally when you listen to a script, you read, mull over it and decide. But with Mark Antony, that's not what happened. Adhik even acted out a few portions while narrating and I loved the way he did that, which immediately got me on board. We decided that the film should have a retro look, but should still be modern in a way and relevant today. Because sometimes when you work with period stuff, it looks too old.
We first worked on the set for the club. Adhik used to keep telling me that the club was important to set the mood of the film in people's minds right from the opening stretch.
Sathya NJ, Costume Designer: The film takes place in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 90s. This is my third film with Adhik and I am used to his briefs. He wanted me to depict various time periods through the costume with a touch of fantasy. Every character and their younger and older versions are different according to their place in Mark Antony, and Adhik was particular about wanting this variation.
He didn't want the colour palette to be live, but very cinematic. How do we show a person's wealth? In this film, we showed it through SJ Suryah's costumes, accessories and his house. As for his costumes, Adhik told me that his looks must make audiences want to look up the prints and buy his shirts.
How challenging was it to crack the balance between old and new?
VM: All the sets used in the film would still look pleasant for the eyes. If you are familiar with Kamal sir or Rajini sir's films of the 80s or 70s, you would have seen the way clubs are been depicted. That's the image that people have in their minds when they think of those times, but I wanted to depict that era with freshness. The olden days didn't have that much richness. They used a lot of paint for instance, but we used a lot of wallpapers. In fact I didn't even want the wallpaper of the club to look modern or customised. So, I looked through old stock and went through vendors and got papers from the 70s. The lights, on the other hand, are soft, but are large in quantity, to get a classy feel.
SNJ: Despite this being my 43rd film, I can say that I haven't experienced this amount of recognition before. Staying true to a time period, while trying something new was extremely challenging. We usually show dons in a rugged fashion. But we didn't want to do this with Vishal's character. We did away with double-pocket shirts and lungis and gave him tailored kurtas and veshtis, which we made from scratch, along with matching borders and everything. The veshti too is ankle length because we needed his thanda (anklet) to be shown. It needed to look colourful, but at the same time evoke the feeling of a gangster. But my only fear was the audience not able to make out the time period. So, I had to go by a certain metre. It shouldn't look over the top like a school annual day's costumes as well.
Did you play around with any references for the film?
VM: This is a separate world. Just like how the story was created, its art world was created. I am quite fond of period films. Enakku kai vandha kalaine sollalam. Vasanthabalan's Aravaan was set almost 350 years into the past, for which we had no references. But I had a lot of fun creating details for that world. Actors might act out what's there in the script. But we decide the background, and if the background is lacking in any way, the acting might get disturbed.
SNJ: We did refer to Bruce Lee's style for SJ Suryah's garage owner character. This was the only character for which we had a reference. We gave velvets to the older Suryah, but went with mattes and some textured shirts for the younger Suryah. And we went with bell bottoms and silk printed shirts to show his wealth when it came to his portions in the 70s.
Even if the film is essentialy a madcap entertainer, nothing about its production is frivolous. From the minutely different number plates on cars that depict the changing of eras to the tailored bellbottoms of the 70s, every detail is intentional.
SNJ: The audience needed to feel the time period for them to connect to it. So, costumes such as gold-on-gold and production details such as the club lights needed to be perfect for audiences to make a connection. No matter what, our aim was to keep retaining the film’s time period in the mind of a viewer. Small touches like shirt collars and bell-bottoms helped us do this, even when we were playing it big with fabrics and prints.
VM: You might value production design after watching the film, but there are things that I still feel could've been done better. (laughs). Once we readied the set, Adhik gave me the full freedom to do what I liked. He was like, "Naa edhavdhu sonna kuda kekadhinga sir" because he liked the style. Design involves a lot of things like finances, timing and such. But after you do something, you sometimes get the feeling that you could've done more. But at those times, Adhik would come to me and be like, "Sir, ponga sir super ah iruku." His support was one of the reasons why the film’s art is being talked about.
As much as the film revolves around phones and guns, another staple in the film is cars. Did you actually source vintage cars to get the makes right?
VM: Selvaraghavan sir's car gets destroyed in the accident. And since it's an antique car, the value of it is unimaginable. It was so difficult for us to even find and hire such a vintage car. But you cannot break down such a car. So, we created a dummy car just to destroy it. I still have the car with me (smiles). The car doesn't have an engine though. It's difficult to create, but to copy something to perfection is super difficult. But I enjoy doing all of this.
A gangster film like Mark Antony allows one to really play with the art design. We can incorporate this amount of detail only with scripts that value and allow freedom in design. Similarly, in Jigarthanda, the song ‘Pandi Naatu Kodi’ happens inside a well. But generally these songs happen in a thopu veedu or a guest house. But once I listened to it, I thought it would be nice to place it in a well and let them party. Since it's a gangster film, people accepted this, but in a normal film, people would be like "why did you place a song in a well?"
Can you tell us which was your most favourite and challenging set or costume to design?
VM: The time-travel phone was quite challenging to pull off. Ideally, one would modify the phone itself to start working on the brief. But we went through a lot of designs because we considered it to be a character in itself. The tube and boxes on top of the phone were all made to order, unlike our usual way of working with things we have.
Working on the club was something else. I finished creating the set, but was roaming around to get the wallpapers. A few would be like, just colour the walls or use the papers you have. But I wanted this to be right. I put up the set only during the Pongal leaves in the beginning of the year. We were supposed to shoot the film on 18th or 20th of January, but I didn't have the manpower to finish the set because of the holidays. There were also so many bulbs used in the club, which were mostly inexpensive. Generally, people hang bulbs from the top, but we drilled holes to make sure that only the bulb was visible. Imagine doing this for around 8500 bulbs or so. This was super memorable.
SNJ: My favourite was Suryah sir's younger portions. Since Vishal had solid, plain colours, we wanted SJ Suryah's look to be in contrast. Even in terms of print, we wanted to stay away from the generally associated prints of the time like checks. So, we went for whacky prints like cheetahs and so on. We actually designed those prints and commissioned it to be made in Tirupur. We concentrated quite a bit on prints like the cheetah one. It might just be a pair of simple shirt and pants, but a lot of detailing went behind it.
SJ Suryah's coolers are all vintage ones and we tried to give him one pair of sunglasses each for one look. But we also had to make sure that the glasses were colourful yet transparent, because his eyes are expressive. And the frame had to convey the time period. We had such a hard time sourcing these frames.
We have taken a lot of risks, but since audiences are accepting the film's world, they are able to accept the costume's vision. One designer called me and asked me from where I sourced a particular fabric from. I look at that as a success.