His Versova flat is sort of a bachelor’s pad. He isn’t one though. “My wife and children are in Chennai. I live all by myself,” he reasons.
Tastefully done, it looks every inch an artist’s abode..there’s mirror all over, artefacts adorn the walls..and there’s a room full of books (whew!).
At 11 pm, I pester the media-shy, twice National Award winner Sabu Cyril with questions galore. I begin with:
Changing or shortening one’s name is a regular characteristic in Bombay. How did you become Sabu Cyril in Chennai? (Scratches his beard) No one has ever asked me this question. (Laughs) How should I answer it now? I grew up in Waynad, a hamlet on the border of Karnataka and Kerala. There was a mahout named Sabu there. My grandfather obviously got inspired by him and named me after him.
The mahout went to the US..later I heard that he became a huge star there. He worked in Thief of Baghdad in 1940.
The name suits you.
Yeah, it does. I may not have had a brush with Hollywood yet like my namesake, but I have done some super work here in India..that gives me a satisfied sleep.
Alright, let’s talk about your current projects..start with Om Shanti Om.
I’ve known Farah (Khan) for a long time. So Om Shanti Om is like my own project. Since it’s based on the film industry, it’s not been that difficult to design the sets. My other completed projects are Dhol and Bhool Bhulaiya.
Why do you always work with Priyadarshan?
Priyan understands my sensibilities as an art director. Our first collaboration was the film Muskurahat (1992).
Ever since, Priyan has never worked with any other art director. And yeah, by the way , I’m a regular with Mani Ratnam too.
Why didn’t you do Mani Ratnam’s Guru then?
I was offered the film first but Farah’s Om Shanti Om was being planned. I had made a commitment to her. I was also supposed to do Aamir Khan’s next film but that too didn’t work out because I hadn’t completed projects I had on hand.
Why have you stopped doing South films?
(Laughs) I guess South filmmakers can’t afford me anymore! Just kidding. Actually not..I do charge an astronomical fee. But the real reason is that the existing art directors there are mostly my assistants. Currently, in Tamil, I have about 16 assistants and in Malayalam there are over 10. I can’t be competing with my protégés, can I?
Are art directors taken seriously in the film industry?
Down South, art directors are as indispensable as directors or actors. In the Hindi film industry, I somehow feel that we aren’t considered important. People think that we are only there for crisis management..some feel that we don’t contribute to a movie.
Art direction is not merely about constructing a set..it goes beyond that. Speaking about myself, I work more for recognition than money..(laughs) my hefty remuneration notwithstanding. I lost out on a few National awards. But I have no regrets. If I couldn’t win, what’s the big deal? For me, the past is not important.
I’ve always believed in one of Abraham Lincoln’s sayings, ‘I will prepare and some day my chance will come.’
Which films according to you should have won the National awards?
Hey Ram and Kannathil Muthamittaal for sure.
Critics feel that after Kaala Paani and Thenmavin Kombathu, you lost your way. I mean your recent films.. and some of them with Priyadarshan.. were not impressive design-wise.
One gets criticism every step of the way. One has to live with it. I remain unfettered. My directors are happy with my job, so am I.
Cinematographers Santosh Sivan, Ravi K Chandran and Rajeev Menon are your close friends. Do they ever criticise your work?
There has never been harsh criticism from them, but we often meet and analyse our work. If they don’t like a particular film of mine, they will never hesitate to say so. They are such talented technicians that I need their feedback to better myself.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Everywhere..around me..in the surrounding. (Stands to light up a cigarette.. and gestures towards his books) But my biggest inspirations are books. I read all kinds of literature. They help me grow as an artist.