Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy, produced by Ram Charan, is one of the most eagerly awaited films of the year. It boasts of a massive star cast, lavish sets, grandeur, and a story which has never been told on the screen before. Ahead of the release, the crew reveals how they brought alive the story of Uyyalawada Narasimha Reddy.
Megastar Chiranjeevi has an enviable resume, spanning 150 films over a period of the past four decades, to his credit. However, he has never done a full-fledged period drama in his career, until Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy came to him. One of his longtime dreams was to play the role of freedom fighter Bhagat Singh. Despite evincing his interest to portray this character for several times, the actor admits no one came forward with a story. And then, sometime in the mid-2000s, something happened, which kept the fire burning. Acclaimed writer Paruchuri Venkateswara Rao told him the history of Uyyalawada Narasimha Reddy, a Polygar who lived in the Kurnool region in the first half of the 19th century, and how he fought against the East India company. But even after he fell in love with the story, the film almost did not happen owing to its high cost of production.
It took more than a decade before the idea of making a film on Reddy took proper shape, and part of the reason was SS Rajamouli's Baahubali: The Beginning, and its phenomenal run at the box-office. The only problem was Chiranjeevi had taken a long hiatus from films to focus on his political career. By his own admission, he had his own share of doubts if people will still be eager to see him on screen once again. "The day I saw how people responded to my comeback film, Khaidi No 150, is when I got the confidence that my image was intact," Chiranjeevi said. The time was right to tell the story of Reddy. Ram Charan got Surender Reddy (the two had previously worked on Dhruva) to direct the film. All of them wanted to make a big film, but it took them almost six months to finalise how grand they wanted the film to be. That was, however, only the beginning of a challenging journey ahead.
In March 2017, when Surender and Ram got Rajeevan on board as the production designer, the latter, to his surprise, was told that they intend to start the film's shoot in mid-2017. "A film of this scale requires a lot of preparation because right from the costumes to weapons, everything has to be created specifically for the film. It took us almost a month to design the look of Narasimha Reddy, and thereafter, we began focusing on designing the sets, weapons, among other things," Rajeevan recalls, adding, "Surender Reddy wanted to make a big film. At times, the visual I had in mind wasn't big enough for him. It was my job to deliver what he expected from me, while retaining all the elements from a design perspective."
In July 2017, when he met Chiranjeevi to apprise him about the work that has been done till then, he recalls the actor being quite restless. "Time is such an important factor for Chiranjeevi sir, and he was eager to start shooting soon. I requested him to pay a visit to my office to see what we have been up to. To give him a complete picture, I turned the whole office into a museum, and displayed every single concept art, design that we had been working on. That's when everyone understood the quantum of work that this film required. We built two huge sheds to just store costumes and other props. I had four art directors, six art assistants, and about 60 other people helping the art department for about 250 days over a span of two years to do the job properly. Everyone worked really hard," Rajeevan says.
Elaborating further on the quantum of work he had to do for the film, Rajeevan adds, "To create the world of Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy, we had to build palaces and forts, both exterior and interior portions, for not just the lead character but also the other characters in the film, including Gosayi Venkanna's ashram, Avuku Raju's palace, Veera Reddy's house among several other sets. At times, we would shoot in these sets for just three to four days, but it was essential to do all this instead of relying too much on CGI every single time."
The extensive pre-production, especially in terms of production design, and post-visualisation came in quite handy for Kamalakannan, the VFX supervisor of the film. "Each set was so meticulously designed that it made my job easier. The total number of VFX shots came to 3,400 by the end of the film, which is a lot more than what I handled for Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. Nearly 28 VFX studios worked on the film from all over the world. The biggest challenge, for me, was to meet deadlines and deliver a quality output," Kamalakannan says.
Majority of the film was shot in Kokapet (where Chiranjeevi has a farmhouse) and Dandumailaram, a village near Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad, apart from Georgia, Gandikota, Hogenakkal, and Mysore. "We were working for a huge cast and crew, and shooting most of the film on a set made sense from a logistics point of view. Moreover, the only monuments which have survived from that era are now either museums or government buildings, and to redo those places to suit the film is a cumbersome process. The whole film was a challenging process because both art and costume departments are worker-driven, and it's essential that all of us were on our toes every single day to ensure that there are no major delays because of us," Rajeevan explains, adding, "It was a process of self-discovery for all of us. Chiranjeevi sir lived the character each day, and Surender Reddy's vision kept getting bigger and bigger. Striking a balance between grandeur and realism was the biggest challenge for all of us."
Chiranjeevi's character goes through a major transformation. So does the costumes that he wears over the course of the film. Sushmita Konidela, one of the costume designers of the film, says, "We had to use our own imagination because we didn't have specific documentation or as many pictorial references. As a result, we took the general overview of Indian textile history at that time to create the look of Narasimha Reddy, and then mixed it with our own cultural history, in terms of panchekattu, kanduva, turban, bottu, which is all very South-centric. One of the references of Narasimha Reddy that we came across had him wearing a long sherwani and a panche (dhoti). However, I've worked with my father (Chiranjeevi) long enough to know that he wouldn't like any fabric that's stiff or thick. So, we found a fluid version of kurta and panchekattu, and also added a few other elements to give a pan-Indian appeal to the costumes."
The team had already decided they were going to use earthy colours for all the costumes. So Sushmita avoided strong primary colours while designing the costumes for Chiranjeevi. For Amitabh Bachchan, she chose fabrics made out of Bhagalpuri khadi silk, which would suit his character as Narasimha's mentor. For Nayanthara and Tamannaah, Sushmita chose saris which were almost 12 metres long. "Each costume has a story of its own, and says a lot about the transformation which the characters are undergoing. I've learnt so much about fabrics, dyes, and how each fabric or dye behaves under specific conditions. I'm a huge fan of cinema, and being part of a film like this was a magical experience," she adds.
Meanwhile, the styling for the other key actors and supporting cast was handled by Uthara Menon, who had previously worked with Rajeevan on quite a few Tamil and Telugu films. She was part of the team which designed the look for Chiranjeevi. Uthara says, "Creating the perfect look for Chiranjeevi was crucial because he has to look flawless, and at the same time, he has to look different from his other characters from the past."
Once Uthara came on board as the stylist, she went on to do a lot of research about creating the look for different tribes in the film. "The discussions were more about what would be their mannerisms, diet, and way of life. If their diet had more to do with plants and fruits, then their costumes too will be eco-friendly, and a similar logic was applied for other tribes," Uthara says, adding, "Narasimha Reddy was a rich Polygar who had several villages under him. So, we graded the villages and the people living in each one of them. Right from the rich noble men to the poorest of the villagers, everyone had a unique look, and even the way they drape their dhotis changes as per the grade we gave them. I've learnt so much about ageing the costumes the right way. We used a lot of tea, boiling water, and gold dust to give it the costumes a distinct look." On creating the look for key characters, like that of Sudeep, Uthara says, "There's a shot in the film where fabric, which Sudeep wears, has to fly with the wind while he's riding on a horse. But to drape the fabric on him was a tricky process, and initially, he asked us if he really needs to do the drape (laughs). We spent an entire day experimenting on a mannequin to figure out how to achieve that dramatic effect, and it looked pretty cool on screen."
Ever since the posters and trailers were unveiled, the visuals have been the talk of the town. The massive scale of the film, apart from how the actors were portrayed, is testimony to cinematographer Rathanvelu's mastery over his craft. "If I'm looking this good in the film, the credit goes to Rathanvelu," Chiranjeevi remarked at an event prior to the release. The duo had worked together in Khaidi No 150. Rathnavelu had a great rapport with Ram as well, after working him in Rangasthalam. "As a cinematographer, one needs to be very careful about the larger-than-life image of stars like Chiranjeevi sir that too, in a film like Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy, where the lead character himself is quite heroic. There were a lot of emotions in the story when I heard the script, and I wanted to give it an earthy feel because Narasimha Reddy is from the Rayalaseema region. Executing a film like this is a Himalayan task because the light and weather conditions are never under our control when you are shooting outdoors, especially when you have 2,000 people in a frame. By the time everyone gets ready for the shot, we end up losing light, but at the same time, we can't stall the shoot. I had to keep all this in mind while shooting the film," Rathnavelu explains. "I'm quite thrilled with what the work I've done to portray a battle sequence in night effect. There were shots where I used only a fire torch as a light source for Chiranjeevi sir. It's quite a risky thing to do because we might not get enough exposure or the image could get burnt out. All this was possible because of the rapport we have with each other. The action sequence that we shot in Georgia was another unforgettable experience. Full credit to Ram Charan for supporting the whole team to make an ambitious film like this."
For the past two years, Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy kept everyone guessing if it is going to normalise the idea of making a pan-Indian film that Baahubali started. The answer is just around the corner.
Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy, starring Chiranjeevi, Amitabh Bahchan, Nayanthara, Sudeep, Vijay Sethupathi, Jagapathi Babu, and Tamannaah, is slated for release in Telugu, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, and Kannada this Wednesday on 2 October.