The making of Saaho’s Waaji City


Some film units in Hyderabad have nicknamed Ramoji Film City (RFC) as Sabu Film City, since the acclaimed production designer Sabu Cyril has been helming multiple big budget projects there in the last few years.

The Mahishmati city centre he designed for S S Rajamouli’s Baahubali is now a tourist attraction. After the massive sets and factory-like production of weapons, thrones and chariots for the two-part film, Sabu’s team also worked on Netflix’s forthcoming web series, Baahubali: Before the Beginning.

Away from this period setting, more than two years ago Sabu began conceptualising and designing set pieces for the neo-futuristic, fictional ‘Waaji City’ for the ₹350-crore multilingual action extravaganza Saaho, releasing nationwide on August 30.

During the pre-production stage, the Saaho team was aware of its ambitious scale. If DC Comics had Gotham City to boast of, Saaho would create Waaji City — the den of dreaded gangsters.

Sabu had worked with 200 technicians for Baahubali, and the strength increased to 300 for Saaho. “Every day I was working with at least 200 people. I’ve learnt to delegate work to the right people to ensure that everything progresses smoothly,” Sabu tells us, over the phone from Bulgaria, where Rajamouli is filming his new project RRR.

When actor Prabhas and director Sujeeth approached him for Saaho, Sabu felt there was scope to set the bar high: “I have never worked on something like this before. Initially Sujeeth had a Godfather-like ambience in mind. I suggested we do something contemporary. People don’t realise how much work goes into an action film. The sets are there, of course, we created around 60 of them. But we also designed a number of dummy cars, trucks and interiors of helicopters.”

Sabu is confident that the audience may not distinguish the real from what’s been created, in many sequences, and that is the production design’s triumph.

Apart from the sets at RFC, a chunk of work happened in Abu Dhabi for an 18-minute action sequence filmed at the cost of ₹65 crore. “It wouldn’t have been possible to shoot the chase sequence that happens in the middle of the city and extends to a few kilometres away in real locations, so we recreated portions of Abu Dhabi,” he shares. Sabu travelled to Abu Dhabi eight times, sometimes accompanied by 300 artists (visualisers, designers, welders, carpenters et al). The sets were designed to suit the requirements spelled out by Sujeeth and action choreographer Kenny Bates, whose filmography includes Transformers (2007, 2009 and 2011), Armageddon (1998) and the Rajinikanth-starrer 2.0. “Kenny was very happy with our work,” says Sabu, evidently pleased with the experience.

He says they did consider shooting this action sequence in Europe but later opted for sets. “This is my biggest project outside India,” adds Sabu.

The production designer emphasises that apart from creating the exteriors of certain landmarks of Abu Dhabi or recreating smaller colonies of Mumbai at RFC, a lot of thought went into designing the interiors, “For instance, a set of doors that lead to a conference hall are three times larger than normal doors. The conference room itself is very stylish, it’s not like a regular meeting room.” He also talks about striking a rapport with cinematographer Madhie, who brought the sets alive with his unique lighting.

Sabu got noticed for his art direction in the early 90s and has many impressive projects to his credit, including Kaalapani, Anniyan (Aparachitudu in Telugu), Om Shanti Om, Ra.One, Enthiran and Krrish 3. “If there’s scope to do something good, I take up a project. I don’t think too much,” he says.

Next on his priority is Karan Johar’s ambitious project Taqt, starring a galaxy of names from Hindi cinema. The epicentre of this work is, again, RFC. “Hyderabad has been my home for the last seven years, and it looks like it will be for some more time,” he says, signing off.

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