At the heart of Hanu Raghavapudi's Sita Ramam is the charming romance between Lieutenant Ram (Dulquer Salmaan) and Sita Mahalakshmi (Mrunal Thakur). The film catapults its viewers into their engrossing worlds not just through two time periods — the 60s and the 80s — but also through the eye-watering scenery of two landscapes — Kashmir and Hyderabad.
For production designer Sunil Babu and art director Vaishnavi Reddy, it was not just the aesthetics and authenticity that were important, but also the ability to marry the film's script along with its art in a seamless fashion. From sourcing 60-year-old envelopes (writing letters forms the essence of Sita and Ram's romance in the film) to converting a rundown silk factory in Kashmir into an army regiment, the duo breaks down their process in the film.
What were some of the conversations you had with Hanu and the makers before you began the process?
The filmmaker is a story-oriented director. The current generation doesn't really understand the concept of letters. So, when young audience member watches the letter sequences in the film, they might question its authenticity. I still remember my parents' handwriting. But the same cannot be said of this generation. But Hanu was successful in getting through to the audiences with such an ancient form of communication like this. He had such a clear picture of what he wanted. The energy of recreating such details comes from the production's side.
We discussed everything from the colour and texture to the film's treatment. Hanu sir is a visualiser. He had a clear vision of what he wanted and the spaces he wanted to place the film in. Sunil sir and I were committed to getting that vision out on screen. We like to add to the script and not just highlight the art. Your treatment in general should not overpower the story. So, the art design is not stylised, but is real. You never walk out of The Godfather and think 'wow, that's a nice set'. You're just blown as to how they got everything right. That's what we strive for.
The film's production design is quite rich, in that it covers two different time periods simultaneously. How did you approach that aspect of the film?
SB: The landscapes of Kashmir took care of everything because it was so beautiful. But Kashmir in the 60s was a challenge to capture. We had rounds of discussions as to whether we needed to shoot these portions in Kashmir or Hyderabad. But I felt that the landscape of Kashmir had a unique look. So, we converted an old, rundown silk factory in Kashmir to recreate Ram's Madras army regiment.
Could you take us through your research and references for the film and the two time periods – 60s and the 80s?
SB: We did a lot of research on the army regiments, and in particular the Madras regiment (which is featured in the film). We reached out to a lot of army people to get the logos right. We did all of the preparation in Hyderabad. Vaishnavi has done all of the research for the film. We somehow sourced the stamps and covers from that period, and recreated it.
We earlier had a plan to shoot the 80s portions in Sri Lanka. But the city (Hyderabad) luckily has so many structures that retain the same architecture. The 80s portions are mostly moving montages, unlike the 60s portions.
VR: We had to do a lot of factual research about guns and artillery. The research was endless. We studied the camps in Kashmir and spoke to colonels from that time. I spent so much time finding the envelopes. I got the envelopes from a collector in Cochin, the stamps from Bangalore, and the coins from a jewish person in Mattancherry in Fort Kochi. This is a genre I love because I like the fact that you don't find anything (laughs). We had about six months to prepare. And then the second wave hit. So, we got more time to work on it.
Mirrors and trains play a huge part in Sita and Ram's romance. Tell us about that.
SB: We thought of using real trains and looked into options in Darjeeling and Coonoor. But unfortunately it was not practical. So, we recreated the trains in film city. As for mirrors, it is always difficult to shoot with them. Mirrors can signify many things. In cinema, a mirror can depict old-time charm, and the same mirror can also be used to signify modern times.
VR: Mirror shots are technically challenging. There was an immense use of mirrors during those times. Every house would have at least 4-5 mirrors. We use mirrors for decorative purposes today, but those days, it was a luxury. Durjoy's place in the film is a place where you get everything, like almost an antique shop. Most of the paintings in the past have also featured women with mirrors. So, although Ram sees Sita in the train for the first time, he really sees her and her beauty in this shot of a mirror. So, it was a realistic metaphor for us. And another time the mirror is used is when she wakes up from bed and looks at herself.
The film is also stunningly silent when it wants to be and lets the mise-en-scène do all the talking. This is apparent especially in the scene where Ram gets into a bathtub for a crucial scene. How do you work on such sequences as a production designer?
SB: Initially, we were planning to shoot this scene in a real location inside a fort, somewhere on the border of Hyderabad and Karnataka. But it was practically not possible to shoot there. So, we decided to put up a set in Hyderabad. The set had to match with Kashmir's exteriors as well. The mise-en-scène was completely the director's call. We put up this set in a limited time, but it was very nicely choreographed. We also had to get Kashmir's vibe in the interiors.
How much of the film was shot in real location as opposed to sets?
SB: All shots that depict nature were shot in real locations. And we did a lot of mixing and matching. The snow you see outdoors is real snow. But the snow in the interior is snow that we recreated. So, for instance, if you see the snow through a window from an interior sequence, it is recreated by us.
Snow is the main visual element of the film. How important was it to get it right?
SB: We wanted snow as the backdrop of the story. We shot the Kashmir portions during the months of March and April, at a time when we were running out of snow. But the season got extended, and we could finish the shoot with real snow. But it was difficult to shoot there because the weather kept alternating between rain and snow.
Sometimes we were even angry with the director because he wanted snow in many sequences (laughs). We had to recreate snow even in the interiors of the army regiment. But when you see the film, you realise the importance of this. This way, the credit goes to Hanu and Swapna (Dutt, the producer) who made it happen.
The film's geography is quite rich. Tell us about your approach in designing and recreating places such as Kashmir and Hyderabad from different time periods.
SB: It all comes down to research. There are some states that have no recorded evidence before the 1920s and 30s. But whereas for places like Calcutta, Bombay and Hyderabad, there are many references. The British council has a lot of images and history of the place. Kashmir still has so much character and has the same look and style. For the Noorjahan Palace, we looked at many places, but we were not happy with the look and feel of any location here. We finally shot it in Russia.
VB: These are the physical geographies of the story. But there is another geography to a film like this — the emotional one. Geography, for an art director, is how many times you revisit a place. When you're coming back with different emotions in the same space, or if you're coming back to a space after 20 scenes, the vibe is different. This is what we understand as the graph of a film. For example, when Sita doesn't give Ram an answer, he walks through the same corridor, and the space looks very different and not as vibrant as earlier. It's subtle things like that.