Artist Interview: Art Director Sabu Cyril

Dream-like reality
Winner of four Indian national film awards  for best art direction, Sabu Cyril recreates reality, flies on fantasy, and all the while, casts a spell on cinegoers making them feel a true part of the cinematic experience. Rajeev Nair met him in Dubai

A submersible shark, all of 12 feet, which dragged the hero into the depths of the ocean pulled Sabu Cyril, its maker, into the world of cinema. Life, breathing life, alone was missing in the model. Otherwise, it swam, flexed its tail and bared its razor-sharp jaws – all thanks to a complex engineering internal mechanism.
Cyril hasn’t ceased to surprise and awe film audiences ever since. He relocates countries, if you may: For Kannathil Muthamittal, a Tamil film by India’s celebrated director Mani Ratnam, he created urban landscapes of Sri Lanka in Chennai, India, complementing the effort with picturesque locales of the island-nation replete with huge Buddha statues placed strategically on the Chalakkudy waterfalls in neighbouring Kerala.
He shifts cities: For Yuva, again by Mani Ratnam, he captured the essence of the east Indian city of Kolkata yet again in Chennai. He recreated the pristine splendour of the untouched Andaman Islands for the film Kaala Paani; and in the same vein, he conceptualised a dream-like farmhouse for Lesa Lesa. For the Tamil film, Boys, by Shankar, he created a dancing model shaped of coke cans, nuts and bolts – and it shook legs to Adnan Sami’s booming music.
Period films (Asoka, Hey Ram), contemporary takes (Pukaar, Hera Pheri, Major Saab, Boys), absolute fantasy (Main Hoon Na, Kakkakuyil) – name the genre and he has done it. He set the stage for Miss World 1996, has created the right mood for a string of ad films, and also does interior decoration.
India honoured him four times with the national film award for best art direction; other popular and critic awards line galore his showcase. And he is nearly set to embark on his first directorial venture.
There is a dream-like reality to Cyril’s creations and that has in no mean measure elevated the art of film art direction from the obscurity of closing titles to the mainstream, leaping without fail into the minds of discerning filmgoers. He would have liked to be an engineer but Sabu Cyril, who has done 74 films, 850 ad films, a number of stage programmes and attention-grabbing entertainment parks, need harbour no regrets: As art director, he wears many hats – not limited to that of an engineer.
Not surprisingly then, it is hard to nail down Cyril for an interview. The man is like one whirlwind – on the move, working like a man possessed, absorbed in his thoughts, speaking out fast – lest the words not catch up with the speed of his creative thinking.
Eventually, when he manages to sit down to talk, he has already forgotten his hotel room key, rescheduled a get-together with a college-friend, and apologized profusely for missing out on the meat vindaloo that his wife had specially prepared. He will make it up tomorrow, he promises, and then he devotes the 30 minutes – all of it.
That is in many ways representative of the man’s functioning: He is occupied with many things at a time but when he does one, he does it wholly and totally involved. That is when he forgets keys, telephone numbers, and well, his very own birthday party.
The son of an engineer, Sabu has fond memories of his childhood in a tea garden, where his father worked. He was a boy of eclectic tastes – doing many things altogether, and doing it all well, as endorsed by his school principal, who said that “anything Sabu does is bound to be good.” That boosted his confidence tremendously, recalls Cyril.
His grandfather George Vincent was a photographer; his uncle A Vincent is a renowned film director, and both his cousins, Ajayan and Jayan, are cinematographers. The boy who aspired to be engineer, giving in to the thick flow of creative energy in his family-tree, joined the Madras School of Arts and Crafts. And he was the ‘best student of the year.’
He started professional work as a graphic designer also working on special effects for motion pictures, when renowned Malayalam film director Bharathan asked him to create the life-like shark. By sheer chance, he was also asked to do some costumes, work on the sets and before he knew it he had turned art director.
His career bloomed with Priyadarshan’s ‘great escape’ movie, Kaala Paani, for which he created prisons, ships, gallows and what not, and the effort was acknowledged with a national award. His first honour, however, was for the Hindi film, Gardish, directed by Priyadarshan.
Today, the mainstay of many Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada film projects, Sabu has his time and work scheduled till 2006. He is in Dubai to design the stage for the Global Indian Film Awards. Excerpts from an interview:

Is this seemingly organised chaos a way of life for you?
I used to do many things at a time even as a kid. I enjoy this madness. I feel I am living it up every minute. I like the challenges in life. You know, I get all the answers for the most plaguing situations early in the morning, from 3.30 to 5 am. Even as I sleep, my mind works in half-sleep mode to give me the answers. But yes, when I work, I forget the rest – telephone numbers and the like. When there is too much work involved, I don’t give priority to other matters. And I have always believed that the busiest people will find time for everything because they make best use of whatever time they get for themselves.

The busy schedules do come at a cost – family life, for example…
They are used to it. But then there is no choice, you see. I too like to be with my family. I too like to sleep 8 to 10 hours. And now, after 40, at work, I have come to realise that the soul is willing but the flesh is weak. But these are little aches that you forget because you enjoy work.
What exactly are you planning for the Global Indian Film Awards?
I can’t give away the details now. The only thing I can say is that it is different from everything that I have done. I have used simple materials to fetch utmost effectiveness. I have already come here five times to visit the site and co-ordinate with the team here.
You are working with a multicultural team here. Do you feel equipped, in control?
I keep no expectations about anything. I only know what I am capable of and with whatever is available I do my best. That is how I have survived everywhere. I do a lot of work in Mumbai; I don’t even speak good Hindi. And I had worked with a foreign crew for Miss World 1996. I don’t think language and the like are barriers; it is more important that your understanding and communication level is good.

You have worked in virtually all media: Films, stage shows, ad shorts, entertainment parks. What gives you more satisfaction? What challenges the artist in you?
Films, no doubt, are challenging because the everyday requirement is more and they expect 100 per cent all the time. If you don’t do this film well, you are not called for the next. You are expected to deliver the best every time. The role of an art director is like that of a race driver: There is a risk factor, you have to win and above all, you are dependent on many things. You have to be on the move to achieve your goals. My advantage, I think, is that I have simple solutions for major problems. The role of an art director in Indian films has undergone a sea-change over the years. From dramatic sets to real-life reality and surreal takes, the job demands eclecticism. What is your evaluation of an art director’s role now?
Yes, there is a tremendous change in the concept of art direction and that change has come about because the requirements and demands of the public have changed. They are exposed to better cinema, better filmmaking and this affects art direction too. You are expected to live up to the challenge offered by the film. Personally, it has only helped me grow. I can deliver what I am capable of only when there is a demand for it. You tell me what you want out of me as an art director: I will never say no. Ultimately, however, it all depends on the director. He has the totality of the film in mind and he extracts from us what he wants. A rapport with a director is therefore crucial…

Does that explain your long-term association with director Priyadarshan?
Yes, but I don’t have problems with other directors either. If I feel my communication level is bad with any one, I won’t do the next film.
Do you feel that Priyadarshan has extracted the best out of you?
I am known as Sabu Cyril, the way people know me now, through Priyan’s films. Kaala Paani was a turning point for me; Priyan indeed had kept aside whole frames saying those were for the art director. That was also a time when I was rather disillusioned with the concept of art direction. There were no awards, and seeing the real-like sets, people would say that was shot on location. I was telling this to Priyan and that very evening I came to know that I had won the Filmfare award for Gardish. That was my first award. Later, again it was for Priyan’s Thenmavin Kombathu (1994) and Kaala Paani (1995) that fetched me the national awards. But then, Mani Ratnam also extracts the maximum. I get along with all directors easily because I try to accommodate myself to their thinking level and style of film-making.

There are sort of two schools of thought in art direction: One is to be totally natural; the other is to celebrate artificiality in an almost surreal way. Which gives you more comfort level?
Personally, I would leave it all to the preference of the director. When Main Hoon Na was being made, I was constantly at loggerheads with the film director, Farah Khan. She would want this pink and yellow and all that bright colours in the classrooms and I would try to tone them down. She insisted on the bright colours and I let her have her way. But it was when I saw the film that I understood its significance. The film was a sort of spoof on the old Hindi films and she wanted it all a bit exaggerated. The art direction too had to reflect it. Then I called her up and told I admired her guts to go with her instincts. Hindi film audiences like to see heroes larger than life; in Malayalam it is more down to earth – the audiences like to identify with the characters. And when you got to Telugu, the actors are like demi-gods. I am a commercial artiste; I deliver what my directors demand.

You were to direct a film, Ananthabhadram, in Malayalam…
I had set aside six months for the project but then the industry went through the actors’ strike and there was a problem with the producer and the (young) hero. I waited for a replacement hero but I wanted a sellable artiste or else I would have had to compromise on the film. No one could be found and with time, I had to shift my attention to the projects I had already committed. The producer had bought the story-rights and so I couldn’t change it either…

From art direction to direction, do you see an easy transition?
I don’t believe that anything is tough because I prepare myself for the big chance that comes my way some day. I have never worked as an assistant art director; yet I am one. I take everything in my stride. I prepare but don’t plan…

How do you go about creating the sets? Do you draw them all to the last details?
I don’t draw; that is my problem. I simply ask the scene and then work from that empty space. I always take photographs; I don’t work without reference when it comes to recreating places. One thing I make sure is that there is enough provision for lighting. Sometimes, it does surprise me too… creating a set out of nothing.

Can you pick five of your favourite works?
Each film is a favourite in its own way – sometimes it is for the hard work I had put into; other times for the awards, and sometimes for the money. I had put in more effort for Hey Ram than Kaala Paani but Kaala Paani gave me more mileage. I never expected Thenmavin Kombathu to fetch me recognition; it was a commercial work, aesthetically done. Well to name five works, I would do it in the context of the film’s totality. They would be: Asoka, Hey Ram, Kaala Paani, Aayudha Ezhuthu (Yuva) and Kannathil Muthamittal…

Are red and yellow your favourite colours?
No, it really depends on the situation. Yellow works well to convey a joyful mood. Red, even a hint of it, can balance out a large area. Priyadarshan likes a lot of red and yellow but then even the titles of his films have a dreamy feel – you need to deliver that mood…

Do you think Indian films vis-à-vis art direction has reached or can attain Hollywood standards?
We have a budget problem but from our limitations we are doing an excellent work. We can indeed do it in their levels too.

Is there anyone who you look up to as inspiration?
I have always admired the works of Thotta Tharani. I also appreciate the people who work on the James Bond films and the works of Steven Spielberg. These people make a fictionalized story real through art direction. Personally, I am a man who believes in today and I believe in doing it well – now, today. I put my whole heart into my work. Sincerity and hard work make up 75 per cent; aesthetics is only the rest.

(Miniature/sets photographs courtesy:


  1. mr nair i happened to see u r write up about me i would like to correct the number of national awards received . i have got 4 national awards pl check my bio data in www sabu cyril .com thanks sabu cyril


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