Part Hard Work, Part Magic: Ajayan Chalissery On Designing Manjummel Boys’ Guna Caves

The production designer tells us about creating three sets for the interiors of the pit, recreating the dampness of Guna Caves and letting way for some inexplicable magic
Ajayan Chalissery on Manjummel Boys
Ajayan Chalissery on Manjummel Boys

Ajayan Chalissery mentions the words ‘magic’ and ‘time’ — in the context of things falling into place — quite a few times in this conversation, and it's easy to understand why. The art director has designed the sets of Manjummel Boys, a film that not just involves an unexplainable force that is the power of friendship to create miracles inside the dangerous Guna caves on screen, but also sort of a sublime feat off-screen — apart from being the fastest Malayalam film to cross 100 crores at the box office, it has found unconditional love in Tamil Nadu, becoming the highest grossing Malayalam film in the state.

The film follows the lives of tight-knit friends from Manjummel in Kochi, who battle the forces of nature to rescue their friend Subhash (Sreenath Bhasi) from a deep cavern at the Guna caves (named after Kamal Haasan’s 1991 film of the same name). Chalissery, who designed the set (“sets,” he delightfully corrects me; but more on that later), knew they were sitting on a winner right after the Guna Caves were designed in a warehouse in Perambavoor.

A still from the film
A still from the film

“Sometimes when I'd look at the set, I'd feel, "Did I do this? Or did someone else?” he laughs. The designer, who took about two-three months to recreate the Guna caves, tells us that the success was a product of sheer hard work. But sometimes, things just fell into place. In an interview with us, he takes us through why it was important to recreate the tiniest detail (from insects and creepy crawlies to the temperature and smell of the caves), happily fielding calls from fans refusing to believe that it was all a set and basking in the success of creating joy in the theatres.

Excerpts from an interview:

Tell us about recreating Guna caves 

The main set where Subhash falls into the pit took us two months to crack. For the interiors of the pit, we put up three sets which were about 50 feet high. Every pit has a character — for instance, the pit where you see Subhash having fallen down, has paasi (algae) in it. Another one was designed to show Subhash and Kuttan jammed inside, where the friends have to finally loosen the rope, and another one where he [Kuttan] gets down. So we had three halls for all these sets. These sets had to be big enough to accommodate the actors to get in and out easily. 

We collected moulds from around 30 types of rocks near the Guna caves using fibre to get the texture right. We wanted the exact details. The goal was that no matter how much we zoom in to capture the details in a shot, it had to look real. Hyperrealism is what we were going for. 

A behind-the-scene still
A behind-the-scene still

Tell us about your conversations with Chidambaram. Did you discuss the intricacies of the sets?

Soubin, Shawn (Antony), and a few others on the production team are all my friends. We used to talk about this film earlier and would discuss the possibility of having a meeting whenever I came to Kochi. They had initially told me that it was a cave film and I understood that it would require a set where a man falls inside a pit. But only after meeting Chidambaram did I realise that this was Guna Cave's story and a real story at that. I remember reading about the real story as a small news item back in the 2000s. 

Chidambaram and the DOP Shyju Khalid are extremely smart and I needed to make sure that everything was perfect. For instance, even the light on the set falls exactly like it falls in Guna caves. The light dulls a bit before the rain, and then it rains. After the rain subsides, there will be a constant water flow in the background. The Guna caves have a lot of black mud with a lot of dirt and we had to recreate it too. 

Although you couldn’t shoot at the Guna caves, you went there to collect references. How was that experience? Did you feel any fear like the boys do when they are explained the roots of Devil’s Kitchen?

The cave is now completely closed and since accidents have occurred there in the past, we weren't allowed to shoot. For the past 15 years, it's been cordoned off. It's so dingy with leaves, mud and stones that now you just cannot spot the pit itself. So that makes things difficult. So, we eventually got permission to enter for five minutes to take pictures. We were initially asked, "Why do you even need to go inside?" We had to go before visitors were allowed to come in. So we took a very experienced forest guard along with us. Since it was a very different structure, it was a challenge to measure it and get the textures, colour and aging. It also had a unique stench to it. 

We were scared because we were told that there would be bodies inside and that the pit would be around 1900 feet deep. We had kept lemon in our pockets to apparently ward off evil spirits on advice from the guard, who also had an iron rod in his hands. They did scare us, but once we got inside, everything was fine (laughs).

Tell us about some of the craziest things you had to recreate for the film. And of course the challenges involved. 

For the climate, we had a fully centralised AC on set. For the rain, we got a big ice cube that is usually used to transport fish and got around 160 such blocks every day to recreate rain and mist. 

At the entrance of Guna caves, there used to be this plaque of Shenbaga Nadar, a merchant from Madurai, who had fallen into a cavern outside Guna cave in 1955. The plaque was there for a few years, but it somehow got displaced with time and climate. It had somehow gotten inside the cave and when we found it, we clicked pictures and recreated it. But nobody knew about this and the general public started clicking pictures next to it thinking it was the original. 

Once you go inside our set, you wouldn't even realise that it was one. Even the tree you see the friends climb was created by us, and so is the stone used to support the camera. It's all about the time we get. We rarely get this much time to work with films. If we tell production that we need ten days to make a set, the company will tell us to wrap it up in five days. And when we rush, we don't capture the details. We needed two months for this film because our goal here was perfection. 

A few people still don’t believe me that it's a set. They tell me I'm lying (laughs).

How satisfying did it feel when you finished the set and began shooting?

Once the work was over, we knew the film would become huge. We were super confident. It’s challenges like these that give us confidence. We all first realised how small we looked standing beside a 60-feet set. It was difficult to climb atop, but we did that through hard-working painters, carpenters and safety gears. When I think about it now I think it was part work and part magic. I am not an engineer or an architect, so when I saw the set in the end, I was just mind-blown because a great deal of engineering went into the construction.

I assisted production designer Sunil Babu (the veteran technician passed away last year). I haven't revealed this to anyone, but I wrote his name somewhere in the set near the pit after we finished. I wanted to do something for him. His instincts keep coming to me and I am grateful. 

Since nobody has actually ventured into the Devil’s Kitchen and come back, how did you envision the insides of the pit without references?

Every artist has imagination. And you only need funds to make that into reality. Malayalam cinema is a small industry. Here, we have so many art directors and production designers, but we haven't had so many such films to imagine. In Tamil, the budget of a film might be 200-300 cr, but the budgets here are only a fraction of it. 

Like the Rajinikanth dialogue that goes “eppadi varuvennu yarukkum theriyadhu, aana varavendiya neratthil correcta varuven” from Muthu, imagination arrived when it had to. 

Finally, can you tell us about shooting the climax? Was it as emotional for the crew to shoot as it was for audiences to witness?

The first thing Chidambaram told me about the film was that he needed the song Kanmani Anbodu in the film. And that the song was the film's story. When we shot the scene, we got very emotional. I watched Guna in a theatre near Guruvayoor when I was in third grade. Kaalamum kalayum nammale palathum cheyipikkunnu — time and art keep making us do things. We just need to be sincere in whatever we do and time will take care of the rest.

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