Please tell us about yourself
As a child, long before he pursued a degree in fine arts, one of Viswanath Sundaram’s hobbies was to draw sketches inspired from films he would watch. Some of his favourite films include the likes of Jurassic Park and Terminator 2. It was his father, who was an artist himself, who encouraged him to turn his hobby into a profession. And little did he know that his life would change the day he went to watch Eega in 2012. “After watching the film, I couldn’t stop thinking about what Rajamouli had done and achieved through the film. I was almost in tears the first time I saw the film. And then I watched it a couple of times again. If someone can make you empathise with and root for a housefly that’s avenging its death in its previous life, he can pull off anything,” Viswanath concludes.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
In 2012, when Viswanath Sundaram heard about SS Rajamouli’s Eega, he had no idea who the director was or what his previous hits were in Telugu cinema. A Fine Arts (painting) graduate from Bharathiar Palkalaikoodam in Puducherry, Viswanath had just begun seeking opportunities in the film industry on the insistence of his friends, who were mighty impressed with his penchant for digital art. And then, sometime in 2013, soon after Viswanath had collaborated with Balaji Kumar for the Tamil film Vidiyum Munn, he got a call from production designer Sabu Cyril, who wanted to work with him. “It was a dream come true. Sabu Cyril is one of the best production designers in the country and when he told me that the film he was working on was 10 times bigger than the norm, I was intrigued,” Viswanath recalls. And thus began the youngster’s journey into the Mahishmathi kingdom, the citadel of SS Rajamouli’s magnum opus Baahubali: The Beginning.
How was the experience working on the film?
Initially, Sabu Cyril offered him a three-month gig to do the concept art for Baahubali; however, it wasn’t an easy task for the young concept artist. “I was completely lost in the beginning. I didn’t understand what they were saying and it took me a while to even be on the same page as Sabu Cyril and SS Rajamouli,” Viswanath says. And then, the prospect of working with Rajamouli himself is as daunting as it can be. For the uninitiated, if you offer your 100 percent to Rajamouli, he’ll expect 200 percent. It’s not easy to please him; however, when he says ‘yes’ to something, writers and technicians can be assured that they have outdone themselves.
“It’s like discovering a part of you which you never knew existed,” Viswanath laughs, adding, “Sometimes, he doesn’t even tell us 10 percent of what he has in mind, but he’ll expect you to deliver a really good product within a short duration. That’s the biggest challenge of working on a film like Baahubali. How do you deliver an outstanding sketch within such a short span of time? I’ve been working on this project for the past four years of my life and I’m amazed that I’ve done so much, all thanks to Rajamouli and Sabu Cyril. They make you excel at your own craft. It’s sheer magic.”
What is concept art?
Concept art, as a profession, isn’t in vogue in the film industry, unless of course it’s a period drama or a futuristic thriller. This is perhaps why the likes of Viswanath Sundaram are rare to find in the film industry, although there are quite a few working in the animation and gaming industries. Viswanath credits his friends as the driving force behind his foray into films. For that matter, he didn’t even know what digital art was until one of his seniors from college introduced him to the works of renowned international digital artist Craig Mullins and concept artists of films like Star Wars and Gladiator. “It was like a bolt of thunder. Digital art offers you so much more scope to express your ideas compared to what you can do manually. I began my career in an animation firm in Chennai and one fine day, my friend and production designer, Suresh Selvarajan referred my name to Sabu Cyril. Three years later, I got a chance to work with him on Baahubali,” he says.
Tell us about your work
In the past four years, Viswanath has drawn over 400 sketches for Baahubali, including the iconic scene where Kattappa kills Baahubali. Ask him more about that scene, he confesses that it was he who suggested to Rajamouli that they could play around with silhouettes, instead of showing the faces of Kattappa and Baahubali clearly. Rajamouli was so impressed that instantly okayed the idea and it was reproduced exactly as the shot was sketched by Viswanath. “Don’t ask me why Kattappa killed Baahubali. You’ll get all the answers in Baahubali: The Conclusion. All I can say is that whatever you have seen in the trailer is not even 5 percent of what Rajamouli and the team have achieved in the film,” he says.
He describes himself as a connoisseur of period dramas, although not many filmmakers in India take up the genre on a regular basis. For the Baahubali series, he drew inspiration from Indian architecture and Western Renaissance paintings to work on the concept art; however, everything had to be built from scratch. “My job falls in between the production designer and an art director. When you have the concept art, it’ll give you a clear idea of the look and feel of the scene, the crowd that’s required for that visual, the props, the colour palette. It becomes a visual reference for everyone to build upon. The scale of Baahubali: The Conclusion is much bigger than what we have seen in the first part and it was quite challenging to draw the key sequences like the visuals of the palace and the war,” he adds.
Apart from Baahubali, Viswanath Sundaram has also worked with director Shankar on films like I and 2.0. He had designed the character sketches of Chitti (Rajinikanth) and the villain, long before the film went on floors. Having worked with two of the biggest directors in India, we couldn’t help but ask him how do these two visionary filmmakers differ from each other. Viswanath is, admittedly, in awe of both of them and he puts things in perspective saying, “It’s hard to compare both of them and they are pushing the envelope with every film. From what I’ve seen, it’s harder to impress Rajamouli because he keeps pressing you to do more and more. It’s also challenging because he doesn’t tell you exactly what’s in his mind and that makes us excel in whatever we are doing. I would love to work with both of them again because they are among the very filmmakers who are doing period films and futuristic action thrillers.”