Natarajan said that they convinced the Ukrainian authorities to grant permission to shoot in the president’s palace by telling them about the filmmaking abilities of Rajamouli and the potential popularity that the movie would attain.

A still from Naatu Naatu song featuring Jr NTR and Ram Charan dancing in front of Mariinsky Palace in Kyiv, UkraineScreengrab
Flix Cinema Thursday, January 19, 2023 - 11:38

While actors Jr NTR and Ram Charan stole the show with their synchronised steps in the ‘Naatu Naatu’ song to the music of composer MM Keeravani in the Telugu movie RRR, a lot more than perfect dance moves went into the making of the hit number. Be it the hundreds of foreign actors attending the ballroom party in vintage costumes or the Indians scattered across the scene in early 1900’s period costumes, the many demands of the song required the labour of about 1,000 people every day for about 17 days. The efforts that went into the making of the song have been recognised with international accolades including the Best Song award at the Critics Choice Awards and the Best Original Song award at the Golden Globe Awards.

As the song continues to create waves, TNM conducted an exclusive interview with Natarajan Ramji, the man behind the shooting of ‘Naatu Naatu’ in Ukraine. He shared his experience working with filmmaker Rajamouli and the RRR team. Natarajan Ramji is fondly known as the location guru of Indian cinema, who helps filmmakers find the best spots abroad that don't burn a hole in the pockets of producers.

Empty airports greeted them at every location when Rajamouli and a team of six, including Natarajan, went to Ukraine in June 2021, while the pandemic still posed a major threat. They visited six locations handpicked by Natarajan. “I showed them three indoor and three outdoor locations. Among these, Rajamouli picked one outdoor spot for the song, which happened to be Ukraine President Zelensky’s official residence, known as Mariinsky Palace. Now was the main challenge—acquiring permission. Can we in India imagine shooting a movie at the Rashtrapati Bhavan or Prime Minister’s Office? But it happened there. Luckily, my teammate from Ukraine, Anna Palanchuk, and I had a good connection with the city mayor, who was a boxing champion himself. He understood our need and helped get permission to shoot in the palace,” he said. Incidentally, President Zelensky is also a former actor himself.

Natarajan Ramji and Anna Palenchuk

Natarajan said that they convinced the Ukrainian authorities by telling them about Rajamouli’s filmmaking abilities and the potential popularity that the movie would attain. They also managed to secure the building at a reasonable price. “There was no price slab for the building as that was the first time it was given out for shooting. So they gave it for a reasonable price. The palace is where the president usually receives his foreign counterparts. We had to schedule the shoot in such a way that we avoided clashes with diplomatic visits.”

Ukraine Presidential Palace

Once they acquired permission, the RRR team of about 140 Indians travelled to Ukraine via a special Qatar Airways flight from Hyderabad to Kyiv in August 2021. “We took COVID tests in both countries, and luckily all were negative. But imagine the fear and tension that we went through in the high-risk situation. And then we began our shooting preparations in Ukraine. Rajamouli used to be down in the hotel lobby at 6.00 am every day,” Natarajan said.

The song featured numerous foreign actors in vintage party costumes, Indians in waiter get-ups serving the guests, vintage cars, and a 50-piece orchestra troupe in costumes. A lot of set work was done to make the song what it is. Natarajan said that while there were at least 500 artists, between 300-500 people worked behind the scenes in different teams. It took about 17 days to finish the song sequence alone.

Natarajan arranged the foreign artists with the help of local theatre groups. “I arranged the foreign artists and their party costumes, including coats, hats, and gowns, from the local Ballet Theatre company. However, getting about 150 Indians in a foreign country was the challenge. But they were also essential for the song. So, we approached an association of Indian medical students who were studying in Ukraine. When we told them that it is a Rajamouli film with Jr NTR and Ram Charan, they immediately agreed to be extras in the movie. The only rule was that none of them could use their mobile phones to shoot pictures. Instead, we promised a photo session at the end of shooting,” Natarajan recalled. He further added that while they only needed 150 Indians for the shoot, at least 300 people used to crowd near the set to get a glimpse of the actors. “Though it was shot in Ukraine, we used to get the feeling that we were in Hyderabad with all the Indians, especially Telugu people, around cheering us,” he said.

The artists of Naatu Naatu song

Natarajan narrated an incident on set, “After almost everything was set, the executive producer Srivalli garu and costume designer Rama garu (spouses of music composer Keeravani and director Rajamouli respectively) said that the scene would be complete if there is a grand professional piano, which is usually very large. With a search that lasted only three-four hours, we got the piano that they wanted. It gave a royal look to the song and they were satisfied.” He further said that the families of Keeravani and Rajamouli were deeply involved in the film and helped coordinate everything.

Apart from the song, some of the combination scenes between the British actors Ray Stevenson and Alison and the lead actors Ram Charan and Jr NTR were also shot in Ukraine. The RRR team returned to India after around 40 days of shoot in Ukraine. It is estimated that the making of the song alone had cost about Rs 15 crore.

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