From 1940s To 1980’s .. Here’s How ‘MAHANATI’ Production Design Team Took Us To Her World!


If there’s one department that rarely gets a recognition for a movie, then it is the Production Design Department. A production designer is in charge of making sure each shooting location is perfect, prepared, and on point with the vision of the film. Production designers may not be as well-known outside the film industry as directors, writers, and music directors, but movies can never go from the scratch to the big screen without a talented production designer. The PD team’s work is to read the mind and come out with a visual output the director dreams of.

MAHANATI – The movie that came as a surprise and took the industry by storm – has been in news for all right reasons. A movie of such magnanimity is impossible to convince the audience unless and until there’s a dedicated team that works round the clock to achieve this phenomenal success. From the PD team to the ART team, Costumes Team and the Cinematography team – the collaborative work made the movie achieve something that is beyond words!

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Mahanati’s Production Designer Shivam spoke at length to ChaiBisket about how he prepared for the film, resourced the properties besides other important tasks like designing the look for the film, setting the colour schemes and working on the set designs. Shivam, who worked for Ghazi, said that he and his team extensively watched old movies for a couple of months.

After director Nag Ashwin briefed him about the biopic, Shivam took it up as a challenge and did extensive research as to how to reconstruct a story of four decades. He was told that major sets/ scenes from the past will be recreated – i.e cinemas within Mahanati. To give the audience an experience they’ll cherish – Shivam says tedious task went into balancing the ‘color shift’ scenes : The recreated scenes that are in black and white and when zoomed out, they will be in colour. Scenes that the black and white scenes where you’ve to quickly convince the audience with the colourful scene that follows. For eg., while imitating a scene from Mayabazar, when the director in the scene says “cut it”, the entire Mayabazar set is seen, with the film equipment, crew and lighting. Shivam says the trickiest part was to achieve both black & white and color at the same time. To achieve this, the PD team worked on props, costumes, set lighting – all of which should fall in line with two scenes seamlessly.

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FOUR PHASES OF ‘MAHANATI’ and the use of colours:
In the movie, we get to see four phases in Mahanati Savitri gari life. Without explicitly mentioning it to the audience and making them travel with Savitri garu is the greatest collective achievement of PD, Art director Shivam and cinematographer Dani Sanchez Lopez. The colours used in the film were all well thought out. The colours in the movie show the evolution of Savitri’s character.

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In an interview to a leading media house, cinematographer Dani said, “As the story begins with Savitri as a child, there are a lot of greens and browns – the colours of the earth. Once Savitri moves to Chennai to become an actor, colours start to show up and as she starts growing as an actor, warm tones are seen around her. When she hits the pinnacle of her career, there is more gold and brightness. When the grandness of Savitri becomes a little too much for Ganesan to take and he becomes jealous – the colour becomes green, to represent envy. Once her downfall begins, it’s all blue, which is a colder colour, representing her frustration contrasted by layers of darkness.” Talking to us, Shivam said that to achieve this, it was a tricky task to have everything on the set – from costumes to props and set – everything in one line as “we subconsciously moved the audience from one phase to the other without them knowing about it.”

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An interesting & challenging part he mentioned was in the fourth stage – where two parallel stories go hand in hand. One is that of Savitri’s downfall and the other is a love story of Vijay Anthony and Madhura Vani. He said that they used a little desaturation so as to balance the two stories and not disturb the visual experience of the audience. To bring about the feel of the 80s, all the sections with Samantha and Vijay Deverakonda were shot by Dani on 16 mm on a camera from that era. “If you observe, we used more of grey and blue in the fourth stage. Imagine having white or red colour ..It would completely disturb the mood of the viewer and takes him away from the story… The transition from Savitri’s life to Anthony – Madhuravani’s life was something that was carefully dealt with,” added Shivam.

Once the briefing is done and the idea has been conceived, the first questioned that the PD team thought of is to whether they should buy the props or prepare the props? 50% of the properties were brought from a furniture house in Bombay. Research head for the film SANDEEP CHOWDARY did extensive research on where all can the props be resourced from and what all props can be resourced. As the movie talks about the past and cinemas within, the team had one underlining idea for the properties – Any visual element which tells a story. “One of the best moments during pre-production was digging out the old props from our houses,” said Shivam. “From an old inland letter to 1980’s Milton water bottle, most of the props came from our houses and all of these carried memories. There’s an attachment and every such prop carried a story with it,” he added. The amazing part was the production house Vyjayanthi Movies which has been in the industry for a very long time – was the think tank for the film equipment sources. Producer Priyanka, who has an eye for detail, joined Shivam for prop sourcing – especially the furniture and antique markets. She even guided the PD team with info for the film props other production houses – Prasad, Annapurna and Chennai Gemini Studios, etc. “Interestingly, the film was about movies and sets, and luckily we had our own production house for most of these props.” Once everything is done, this database was given to the art department which was helmed by Avinash – the art director of the film.

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The team used locations in Mysore, Chennai and Delhi to show various events in Savitri Gari life. The childhood scenes were shot in Palakollu (Rajahmundry). “After sitting with the DUTT SISTERS, and discussing the budget and other constraints, the team decided to go ahead with sets,” Shivam stated. A total of 32 sets, except Savitri’s main house, were erected for the film. The main house exterior scenes were shot in Delhi. Any scene that has a lead character moving or talking, we used a real location and rest of the part around that character is either a set or done over CG.

“Whether it is a set or a real theme, the process was to arrive at a common theme,” says Shivam. The movie being a multi-starrer with huge star cast, Shivam says, sometimes they would get confirmation from the actors at the very last moment and within a couple of days, they had to create an entire set for them. In order to have a solution for this, they’ve leased out a studio for 6 months so that, anytime they get a call for a set, they’re ready to go for it. “Senior art director Thota Tharani garu helped us with a wide range of inputs,” said Shivam.

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From the jimmy to the camera, the team didn’t wanted to compromise on giving the realistic feeling to the audience. So, they went to every major production house and searched their godowns and warehouses for equipments that were used or came close to what were used in the classic film. Interestingly, the team managed to talk and bring in a technician who actually worked for the old classic Mayabazar. This person, who is in his late 80’s now, has helped the MAHANATI team with recreating the sound department equipment for the Mayabazar scenes shot in the film.

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“Those days when sets were not possible, they would create depth in painting. They would paint on wallpapers/paper pulp and that’s what we did even here. If you see the window, mountain, clouds to the right corner, that’s actually a painting – which was how scenes were shot during that time.

Vijaya Vauhini Studios:
Based out in Madras, VV Studio is the largest film studio in Asia back then. The sight of bulls at the entrance has an emotional connect with every yesteryear actor who’s been to the place. The team set up a 4-acre Vijaya Vauhini studios which is no more today. Not just the studio, they also created a Chennai Street art, where there’s a theatre, a tram and for scenes which had no characters, the team used CG.

When a scene is briefed, Shivam says the first thing he considers is the “Mood & Location?” and then come up with costumes accordingly. In this scene, we see her posing for a camera (a scene for a brand endorsement). Shivam says, this one shot is a special one as it has only 3 or 4 elements, but the color made so much impact that it shows us that actress Savitri has hit the golden phase of her career. The color of her saree and the background – with more of red – shows us the ROYAL SAVITRI.

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Shivam Rao -Production Designer 
Avinash Kolla -Art director 
Production Design Team:
Research – Sandeep Chowdary  
Concept & Story Board Artist – Anish penti 
Architect – Chandrika Gorrepati. Well, this young talent is behind the “MOOGA MANASULU” song set and the beautiful staircase that everyone literally ‘fell’ for.

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Ayan, was the one with the direction team, while Arvind Mule handled special properties. Hemanth, Akhil, Rudra, Ramesh, David Kumar completed the remaining creative team from the art department. One person, who deserves a special mention is Faisal Ali Khan – who is an antique collector, who helped giving his props for the film – especially the Gemini Studios Scene.

This team deserves every bit of appreciation for the rave reviews the movie has been receiving. A bunch of the young talent, came together, to create the WORLD OF MAHANATI and gave us an experience of a lifetime!


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