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Interview Hindi

Suraj Chavan: Meet the artistic sculptor behind the grand sets of Baahubali

An exclusive interview with the head of design and sculpture who led his team to make everything from the armour, to chariots and statues for the epic films, Baahubali: The Beginning (2015) and Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (2017).

Courtesy: Suraj Chavan

Sonal Pandya

By now, millions of people have seen the Indian global blockbuster, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, the thrilling follow-up to Baabhubali: The Beginning which released in 2015. The film has grossed over Rs1,000 crore worldwide and everyone has been hailing the achievements of director SS Rajamouli and his cast and crew.

Sculptor Suraj Chavan is one such member of Rajamouli’s crew. You may not know his name (yet) but you have surely seen his work. He is the man behind the elephant figures, the majestic thrones of Mahishmati and the towering gold 125-feet statue of Bhallala Deva (played by Rana Daggubati) that looms large over the kingdom.

Working in the film industry now for nearly 16 years, Chavan is the kind of talent one should know about. A graduate of the JJ School of Fine Arts in sculpting and modelling, he has been toiling hard behind the scenes since 2013 on the two Baahubali films. He says he has worked on smaller films before (of course, everything’s small when compared to the scale of Baahubali) and with these films, he rose to the title of head design and moulder under National Award-winning production designer Sabu Cyril.

Chavan signed onto the Baahubali films through Sabu Cyril with whom he had worked with earlier. He recalled, “I had made a statue in Krrish 3 for Sabu sir of Hrithik Roshan. It was for a fight sequence in Ramoji Rao city. I made [it] and sent everything from Mumbai. We kept in touch after that and [Cyril] had said, ‘If I have something after this, I will call you.’”

When the team began work on the first Baahubali and high quality work was required, Sabu Cyril recommended Chavan's name to Rajamouli and talked about getting in a team from Mumbai to Hyderabad. Chavan says they checked out his work for a month and soon he got settled with the rest of the crew.

There were around 300 to 400 people working only on the production teams and Chavan had up to 50 people working under him in his immediate team. In 2013, the production team began work on the property (more popularly known as props) which were to be used in the film. Helmets, swords, weapons used in the warfare sequences, all had to be made.

Chavan said this took around four or five months to complete. Then they began work on the interiors of the sets (from the kingdom of Mahishmati to Devasena’s Kuntala palace). The team also made replicas of most of the animals as real animals are not used in the films.

Suraj Chavan working on the set of Baahubali 2: The Conclusion.
(Courtesy: Suraj Chavan)

The final work on the second film finished only in January this year. The grander sets of Kuntala palace and the 120 feet ship created for a song sequence were challenging for Chavan, simply because the artwork and the detailing had to be just right.

The Mahishmati throne and the chariots had already been made them in the first part. An additional hurdle was filming the destruction scenes where everything the team built has to be destroyed. Yes, visual effects (VFX) is a part of the film but the Chavan’s team also made miniatures and portions of the real set for a mixture of computer wizardry and good-old fashioned hard work.

Chavan built up his team from the first film so that by the second everyone knew their job. They even worked out a proper schedule so that no one felt overburdened. “There is so much to do — you have to do armature, get work done by carpenters, do clay work, add dye to it, get casting done, send it to the painter — there are so many parts to it,” he said.

Suraj Chavan with his artwork. (Courtesy: Suraj Chavan)

The team learnt from real references, even visiting the zoo to understand an animal’s look and behaviour. They also travelled to Kerala to study the shivling that was used in the first film.

“Sabu sir would give us the references [on] what has to be made. The designing team would draw and prepare it beforehand to give it to us. We would work out the sizes. Sabu sir and the director, SS Rajamouli, would come to check and finalise it, if that’s what they finally wanted,” he said. It was like a big factory, making all these elements.  We took the designs and made those from clay and then did them in fiber. We made them as realistically as possible, even added fur where necessary.”

To create the grand palaces and courtyard spaces of Baahubali, not to mention the war scenes, the teams worked day and night for months and gave it their all. Chavan said both the director and the production designer told him that he helped create an environment of “a whole school of art.”

The two would give them feedback on their work and let them know what extra detailing might be required. In certain cases, they had to go back and remake something if it wasn’t up to the mark. “For instance, certain weapons and swords, we had to use another material to make it lighter so it would be easier for the cast to use. So we had to work on material development,” he explains.

“Even the cast, [actress] Anushka Shetty and [actor] Prabhas, used to come to check out the work that was going on. They were also practising at that time, the shooting hadn’t begun as yet,” he said. We were all in a big godown, a big space that was converted into a studio — entire teams of artists were working there. It was like an introduction to everyone.”

The most visible statue in the film — the one of Bhallala Deva was made in three parts. Chavan says they had to get it ready for shooting in 22 days. “That was most challenging as no one had made anything of that scale until then. We had to achieve a look of glossy metal and have proper proportions,” he explained. Reportedly, the actor Rana Daggubati was highly impressed with his likeness.

However, when asked about which scene he was most happy with, when he saw the film, Chavan said, “In Bhallala Deva’s palace, there is a lion head, the framing of [the shot], with the throne and [Rana Daggubati] is seated there, the look is very international. People think that everything in the film is [done by] VFX, especially in the long shots. Then you do not get any credit. But when the camera comes in the interiors and small details are noticed, then you can tell that all this work [has been done by someone].”

Suraj Chavan at work (Courtesy: Suraj Chavan)

It is extremely evident that Chavan is dedicated to his craft. He stresses the importance of learning from the past to incorporate it into the artwork. “It’s important to have architectural and aesthetic sense in your work. Depending on the time period, you have to study it. For example, you can see the importance of Yali [a mythical creature seen in Hindu temples] in the artwork,” he explains. This is more prevalent in southern India. You have to see that because they believe in it. It has to be placed there like an ornament or a statue in the designs.”

Chavan says he was always interested in sculpting. After watching films like The Lord of the Rings series, he thought these are the type of films to work on and he made up his mind to work in the film industry. He explains that most people don’t necessarily choose this as a profession. “You have to get up at 7 am and work continuously till 9 pm. You only get a break in between. Most artists don’t work like that, they work up their mood or how they’re feeling that day. It’s not like old times where we can work in leisure. We actually don’t know what our future will be like,” he said.

He insists there is scope to develop this profession for the future. It is up to artists like himself to convince the world through their work in films like Baahubali. Though he does agree that steady jobs are hard to come by for fine arts students.

“There are artists who showcase their work in galleries, [but] how much will they earn, what kind of a future will they have? Marketing and sales is not taught to students of fine arts. When they come out in society, their development versus the rest of the people’s is quite different. You need a proper income source to continue on in life,” he said.

On the sets of Baahubali. (Courtesy: Suraj Chavan)

Furthermore, he confesses that, “I have been at this for nearly 20 years, but I still wake up in the morning, make something out of clay or watch videos about art and techniques. I can’t live without that.” The drive to keep going and make something that is even better has to be within you.

For now, as the chapter of Baahubali ends, Chavan is spending time with his wife, Pratima to make up for lost time. “I used to go [live in Hyderabad] for around six months at a time. My wife supported me a lot, it wouldn’t have happened without her help,” he said.

Chavan says it would be nice if he worked on an international project but it would be better if he worked for an Indian production. “I have worked overseas before (in Dubai), I have done good work, but never got the credit. We work for other countries, we get money, we feel happy. But here I have gotten both — money and name. My aim is to work hard here so that people from outside also see that there is good work being done in India,” he concluded.