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God’s ways are truly strange…and pre planned of course! Only thing is we don’t realize ‘every move we make and every breath we take’ is ordained!! At least I believe so.

When I was a kid, I remember this old bungalow we lived in (which is now AVM’s Mena building) with my great grandmother who went to bed at 7 PM! My parents with this social service fervor running deep in them would come back home not a minute earlier than 9:00 PM. I was often petrified with the winds rustling the trees and the weird night sounds from our garden, which to me then seemed more like a forest!

When I shared this fear with my mother, she said, “talk to God Krsna in our garden, HE will keep you company till we come” She was of course referring to this silver painted Krishna statue, blissfully playing his flute to his cow in the center of  a small pond in our garden. Thus started my animated soliloquy with the Lord…imagine my surprise when I met Thota Tharrani last week, right beside a Krsna in his office regarding next year being the 100th year of Indian cinema. We instantaneously connected.

This is why I keep saying life is all about serendipity and destiny. When I spoke to the renowned DoP P.C. Sriram sometime back about my ‘talkie with rekhs’ column, he said, “why don’t you interview Tharrani?”

And bingo here I was with a pencil and paper right in front of him, all agog at how his hands fly across the paper…A genius with an eternal love-affair with lines that flow from his long slender fingers!

His biggest advantage was he grew with cinema in the world of cinema. Since his dad Thota Venkateshwara Rao was an art director Thota Tharrani as a young kid frequented studios and the sets were a natural ambience for him! He remembers 5 and a 1/2 decades ago, as a small boy, scrambling into Venus studio through a barbed fence and tearing his shirt in the bargain all because he was petrified of the watchman a la Goliath! As an eight year old he remembers walking bare feet on the sets that were sprinkled with tinsel powder by his dad, that made his soles glisten!  Little did Tharrani know, that was the ‘mission’ God had already painted on his canvas…to leave his soul-prints in the reel world!

His 1st drawing was when he was 4!! That of a Buddha torso in the almirah in his hall which captivated his heart and beckoned to his young fingers to be captured on paper! His mother used to close the doors whenever there was a funeral procession on the street. But a ray of light that slanted across the floor through a pin hole provided him the image on the streets he was deprived of. Undeterred this young boy copied the reverse image faithfully, right into his memory cells as well as on paper!

It was Mani Ratnam’s Nayagan with the ‘awe-some’ combination of Kamal - PCSriram - Maestro Ilaiyaraja, Lenin -V.T.Vijayan that fetched him his 1st national award for best art direction. When Mukta Srinivasan held his press meet (I didn’t know he was the original producer and that GV bought it from him) to announce such a bio-pic or when a random man watching Tharrani walk up and down Venus studio for 10 days clicking snaps mocked at him…no one knew God’s grandiose plans for Tharrani whose brain was clicking at its own furious pace (and still does!)…to give the best results at the least cost! And the result was realism personified and recognition worldwide.

When D.N.S called from actor Kamal Hassan’s office saying he heard that Tharrani is the recipient of a national award (a commercial film being awarded this created a buzz) Tharrani just took it in his stride and asked ‘is that so?’…Soon calls came pouring in and Tharrani started thanking the callers, his mother wondered why he was thanking so many people…when it was not even his birthday!  

Anjali was the next ‘pearl in his treasury’. No one believed that the road and apartment we see in this film was done to perfection in just 5 days. When he showed the stills of the sets at ILM (Industrial Light and Magic, started by George Lucas, the ‘Star wars’ and Indian Jones creator) their pupils dilated in disbelief,  to convey, ‘no way this could have been completed in such a short time span’. In fact more than 20 architects used this as their blueprint. Prior to erecting the sets, Thota Tharrani stayed in a flat to experience the plus and minus, while his mother was alarmed he had run away from home!

Just like how, for Kamal’s ‘Raja paarvai’ he put himself in a visually impaired soul’s shoes! A court-scene set was converted by his creative genes and quick planning into the beautiful church interior of ‘Raja paarvai’ which no one would have guessed unless told. With Kamal he has also shared his vision in Salangai oli, Indian, Naayagan, Pushpak, Aboorva sagodharargal, Sathya, Dasavatharam…a special rapport evolved. About Kamal, he says “he is always willing to learn, with an ‘anything for cinema’ motto and listens when I suggest a completely new idea, however whacky or impossible”!

He got to know of his next national award for ‘Indian’ on the sets of K.T. Kunjumohan’s Rakshagan…though his tryst with director Shankar started much earlier in Kaadhalan thanks to Jeeva. And Farah Khan who was choreographing a song for Sushmita Sen (with Ajayan Vincent the DoP) was so happy for him, she declared herself as his lucky mascot!: ) But Tharrani says, “every work of mine is an award to me, I am proud of them all”

‘Shankar has clarity of vision and plans meticulously from A to Z. Once I give him what he has seen in his mind’s eye, a satisfied smile flashes across his face and I am left uninterrupted to work in peace” says Tharrani, of this ace director, known for showing our Thamizh films as a ‘jewel in the crown’. It is this combo that has transported Shankar’s vision to reality in Sivaji which will soon be not just a treat, but a gourmet feast to our eyes. Tharrani’s hands have lent their support, in fact I’d say the foundation for the 3D effect to be realized, besides the experts who have worked 24/7 to make this dream come true. Tharrani believes that a good art director’s sets should show realism using non-realistic materials. He/ she should be adept at showing an ageing process on the materials to give the required authenticity. He spent a great deal of time with K.V.Anand, (then DoP, now a director held in awe) on the sets of Sivaji who marveled at his master strokes. Tharrani in turn describes K.V as an intelligent man who wants to make a deep impact with our Thamizh films in the celluloid world. I can’t help adding this, hope Sivaji 3D gives Tharrani his 3rd national award for the grandiose sets, though Wikipedia has pre-empted the National awards jury in doing so!! ; ) Full kudos to AVM for this endeavor.

For director P.Vasu, Tharrani worked night and day on the sets of Chandramukhi. “Can you believe that the house that was shot was actually in 8 different locales?!” asked Tharrani with a pleased smile.

Director Priyadarsan he says is the easiest to work with, he gives a lot of freedom, knowing Tharrani will express his ideas to the fullest.

Of Mani Ratnam…’He knows the pulse, heartbeat, thought process of every viewer, so his needs are like a well punctuated sentence, every comma and exclamatory mark in the right place” His 1st film for Mani was ‘Pallavi Anu pallavi’ with Anil Kapoor in the lead, way back in 1983 with National award winner Balu Mahendra capturing his set so effectively.

Tharrani has a special and soft corner for the late director and renowned DoP Jeeva. “Working with him was a unique experience, he introduced me to Shankar…and helped me create history!” His eyes sadly smile…and we move on to take a walk down (his) memory lane.

He and his wife Saradha share a special rapport, having experienced different strokes of their life together for nearly 20 years. She roots him down to reality with her practical down-to-earth attitude and ensures he also ‘lives life to the fullest’ despite his first wife being ‘painting, perspective, pencil, palette, paint brush’! Once Tharrani was annoyed with their 4 year old daughter Rohini for having disobeyed him. He said, “I thought I told you not to do this…” The child turned and asked him, “did you think or imagine, appa?” This fuelled his temper even more. But Saradha intervened and said, “wait, let’s ask her what she means” The child replied, “to think is to use the brain. To imagine is to picturise it” Wowwww! The apple does not fall too far from the tree!

Let us wish this ‘creator of realistic magic’ the best of health and least of hassles to continue his aesthetic journey of contributing to the reel world and Indian cinema’s history. He is an art director who believes in the richest of expression with the least cost with novel ideas springing from the mind before a flash of summer lightning…and that too repeatedly original!

Let me sign off with this trivia that specially applies for every Indian, anywhere in the world, today! I never knew that the flag used in Bharath Bala’s (who is now busy directing a Dhanush starrer, Mariyaan) Vande Maatharam, which with the A.R.Rahman chappaa and magic is the largest selling Indian non-film album to date…that the flag used in this is Thota Tharrani’s ode to ‘maa tuhje salaam’!

Jai H(o)ind!


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