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Interview Team : Anita

“Art Direction is the way of storytelling through backdrops” acclaims Santhanam, Art Director of Kaaviya Thalaivan. Drowned in the love for art, paintings, sets, set properties and many more visual elements, Santhanam talks about what it takes to depict the script visually. He says “one can write the emotions on paper, but to translate that on screen is the real task of an art director”. While one thinks that art and design is all about the sets and properties seen at the background in a frame, he has more to offer as he relates every tiny detail on the frame to his characters on screen. In conversation with Santhanam, Anita Raghuraman finds more about the techniques and patterns of design used in his recent project Kaaviya Thalaivan.



Exploring the past, visually… 

Surprisingly, ‘visual’ references were taken only by talking to many technicians of that period. The base of drama and theatre started in Madurai. Across many places surrounding Madurai, lived a lot of theatre artists. We spoke to them primarily to collect information about stage shows. I went to those places two months prior to the shoot, spoke to them and understood their personalities. Those days there were many theatre groups and they have displayed plays as a team effort.


I received many photographs from yesteryear stage performers. Our period for reference was between 1930 - 1940, so the material we found was pictures of artists in their childhood and their forefathers’ photos. The paintings and set properties used during those times are very different. Now our technology has improved and to recreate the same ancient mood was a challenge. 

Our period for reference was between 1930 - 1940


Sets, characters, drama and more…

My main lookout in terms of colors was to show the drama from the past. It has to be colorful and vibrant; to an extent we tried to create the same. There are a lot differences between seeing the drama through the eyes of a camera and watching it live.  We have the power of technology today and we use it to correct many errors to make it look better. Those times the plays were seen in real, people watch it live; they expect freshness and brightness to a large extent. For instance, when a king is coming in the city, he invariably wears bright colored cloths to show extravaganza. To show this on stage back then, the designers could just recreate a similar design by seeing their kings in real. But now we don’t get to see kings and queens. We can only take references through books. Most importantly we spoke to many people like costumers, make-up person, artists etc. Little details like the weight of jewellery made a difference because we can’t afford to wear such heavy ornaments like artists did back then. So to recreate that and to make it look like the ancient time was a task. 


The in-depth connect towards stage artists 

In Kaaviya Thalaivan, we have touched the base of cinema - theatre and stage shows. We made this film with full sincerity and dedication. We still have many drama artists from the past in Madurai and other villages for references.

However, we can only recreate but we can’t make it look like them. This film showcases the life of drama artists and we have made a story running along those lines. It is too pure and authentic. 

In Kaaviya Thalaivan, we have touched the base of cinema


Chemistry with Nirav Shah

Kaaviya Thalaivan is my fifth film with Nirav Shah and we have an amazing chemistry that has built over time. We have a pattern in our creation and have a unique touch in our designs and visuals. Kaaviya Thalaivan has been a great challenge for both of us. My main concern was to display its authenticity without making it look like it is taken from somewhere. This was possible only with the right inputs from the camera person. Every time I draw a sketch of a set design I will take it to Nirav to discuss the lighting pattern, tone of the screen and color contrast. Since we are showing stage shows of the early periods, where they didn’t even have electricity, to explore about the stage’s intricate details and depict a story with just lanterns was very fascinating for us to work.

Drama and street plays were the only form of entertainment for them then. We planned extensively about the number of plays that are going to be showcased, the variety of sets that are to be designed and the locations. We always followed the same creative track from the very beginning. 

Kaaviya Thalaivan is my fifth film with Nirav Shah


Simplistic and surreal visuals of Vasanthabalan to magnificent and vibrant sets of KT...

This is the first film I have worked with Vasanthabalan sir. I have watched all his movies like Veyil, Angadi Theru and Aravaan and I know that he is the man with an eye for detail. The subject of Aravaan was a daring effort and he made that film with intense detailing.

The producer gave me a heads-up that the film (Kaaviya Thalaivan) is about stage performers, before Vasanthabalan sir approached me. I knew he expected a lot out of me. When I met him first , he started the script with a one liner from the movie. I think he saw the enthusiasm for this subject in my eyes that made him narrate the entire script in two hours. I loved spending that two hours and decided that I am going to make a completely different design.  We are in the cinema industry and there is a film made to touch upon its basis is definitely a challenging subject.  He told me that for viewers, this film is an entertainment but for us it is more than that. I took 10-15 days time and created a lot of designs. He made sure all the designs were used in the film. I delivered my best for Vasanthabalan

I delivered my best for Vasanthabalan



“The artist in me was revealed when I started drawing for record notebooks in 10th grade for Chemistry and Physics”.

“When we put together set, script and characters, we have to remember three things about design - colors should not be contrasting to the characters even if it blends with the set, it should not disturb the scene’s look and feel and it has to blend with the script”.

“I don’t choose the script, because my job is to blend the story and design irrespective of the genre”.

“I have made close to 18 sets in Aayirathil Oruvan”

“I avoid doing films if the deadline is too tight as I don’t want to compromise on creativity”.

“I don’t look for challenging script; I look for making challenging sets for a normal script”.

I have made close to 18 sets in Aayirathil Oruvan



Are you a strict boss?

Yes. During work, I am worse than a strict school teacher. If I am angry I don’t mind giving my assistants a tight slap. We can enjoy the work but not during the work.

Plans for direction?

Art director itself has the word director. I am content with that.

Director you wish to work with?

Mani Ratnam, Shankar, Murugadoss and many new comers as they are meticulous in their work.

Colors that never go missing in your design?

Peacock green and blue. These colors will definitely be there somewhere in my sets. They are my personal favorites.

Kaaviya Thalaivan for you?

Kaaviyam Padaikum

Your favorite pieces of design from other movies?

Ramleela, Jodha Akbar, Black, Devadas, Hey Ram, Anbe Sivam are my all time favorites

Key quality for an art director?

Punctuality - sticking to deadlines

If not an art director?

An artist or a painter

Faced any name confusion because of the popular actor Santhanam in the online medium?

Well, if you are searching for just ‘Santhanam’ then only actor Santhanam will appear as actors are the face of a film. Try to search as ‘art director Santhanam’. 



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