Remember the exotic location of a blue oasis amidst white desert sand where Rajinikanth and Aishwarya Rai shook a leg to a melodious song in Shankar's Enthiran? Or Prabhas's fight scenes in those snow-covered mountains in Baahubali? What about the stunning locations in the romantic song 'Gerua' in Dilwale, which marked the reunion of the legendary onscreen pair Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol? The common factor in all these movies from different film industries is the breathtaking locations handpicked by Natarajan Ramji, who is fondly called 'location guru'.
So far, Natarajan Ramji, who is based in Chennai, has travelled to 140 countries countless times to pick locations for the film's crew and showcase their scenic beauty to Indian audiences. He considers his 16 passports his assets. â€śIt doesn't matter how much property we earn, but the kind of rich experiences that one gets after travelling to a new place and talking to different people is immeasurable,â€ť says Ramji, who has recently come back after finishing the last schedule of S Rajamouliâ€™s RRR with Ram Charan and Jr NTR in Ukraine.
Spilling the beans about the upcoming magnum opus project, Ramji tells TNM that some major sequences in RRR were shot in Ukraine with at least 500 to 1,000 people on the set every day.
Being a location agent, Ramji's work involves visiting the location beforehand and doing a recce, researching the place, connecting with the locals, coordinating between artists and technicians, and chalking out a budget plan.
â€śI go into the mind of the director, understand what they need and come up with options that might impress them. And I try to see things from their perspective as they are the creator and they have their own vision. Accordingly, I show them the best options within the permitted budget,â€ť says Ramji.
On the sets of Sarrainodu in Bolivia salt flats for 'Telusa Telusa' song
Whenever Ramji sees a location, he says that he visualises what kind of scene or setting can be made over there. It's not just shooting in different countries, he is also an expert in suggesting the most cost effective country to the crew that can be made to look like expensive cities like Paris, London, Milan, and whatever else the director needs. This is evident from Vijayâ€™s Mersal, where Natarajan Ramji helped recreate the Paris Opera House in Macedonia, a southeastern European country.
Watch video from Mersal here :
So far, Ramji has set up offices in almost 40 different countries and these branches coordinate everything for him. He is also the chairman of Travel Masters India. The company, which used to have at least 40 employees, is being run with only four people now due to the impact of COVID-19. He adds that usually he has at least four assistants managing things for him, but for RRR he was the only one working with the help of his mobile phone.
Natarajan Ramji with director SS Rajamouli during RRR shoot
Travelling from one country to another with drastic changes in weather conditions is definitely not easy. But Ramji says that he is blessed with good health to cope with it. â€śI'm 62 now. I'm always active. Whenever I'm home, I play badminton, and if I'm on the sets, I have to be on foot for most of the day and I enjoy it,â€ť he adds.
He says that he has an understanding family, which knows that the nature of his work requires him to go abroad frequently and for long stretches.
â€śIf I have to continue in this job, I need to be relevant to young directors and should be able to give them the best possible options to choose from. So I keep updating myself with new places and the technologies that are coming in,â€ť says Ramji.
Natarajan Ramji with director Rohit Shetty on the sets of Dilwale
COVID-19 has had a major impact psychologically and financially on Ramji. He recalls that in February 2020, he was travelling to Tunisia in north Africa for a film shoot. On the flight, he noticed most foreign tourists wearing masks and face shields. Ramji found this strange. After a few days, the then 60-year-old fell sick and even had breathing issues. Fortunately, he recovered, and in the month of March, India went into a nationwide lockdown, with the Prime Minister declaring that the country was in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
â€śTravel and film industries are the two most impacted industries due to COVID-19 and my entire business is linked only with them. My office, which had 40 employees, has come down to four, and my mobile has become my workplace. I'm managing everything by myself. We were not in a position to pay. Several people were losing their lives and livelihoods. And I, being a person who usually goes from place to place, went crazy being locked up,â€ť says Ramji.
Ramji was featured in the Netflix series Creative Indians, in which he said that before becoming the location guru, he was an actor who was introduced by veteran director Dasari Narayana Rao in Oru Varisu Uruvagiradhu, Andhra Sachitra Vara Patrika. He went on to act in 30 to 40 south Indian films but could not make it big.
Later, he shifted from acting to the travel business, established Travel Masters India, and turned into a location agent. His breakthroughs came with Chiranjeevi's Rudranetra and Venkatesh's Trimurthulu, which were shot abroad in the late 1980s.
Ramji has seen various ups and downs since then, and has worked with three generations of directors and stars. But, he has still managed to stay relevant. "It's a merciless field. If I don't keep myself relevant, I won't have a job," he says.
Watch 'Gerua' from Dilwale here :