As movie goers, we all focus on the stars or the director, depending on who’s more popular, the rest of the crew, and possibly, the producer. But, there’s one person who works silently in the background. From pre-production and shooting to post-production, the reason why everything progresses smoothly is the production executive.
Meet SP Chokkalingam, 43, who has over 23 years of experience in the production department. He has worked in over 60 films, including Aadukalam, Ethirneechal, Kaaka Muttai, Kaaki Sattai, VIP and VIP2, and is now part of Rajinikanth-starrer Kaala and Vetrimaaran’s Vada Chennai.
After a night shoot in Kasimedu for Vada Chennai, Chokkalingam takes some time off to speak to Silverscreen about his career, learning curve, and experiences. “I first worked as a production assistant in Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar (1996). That one film taught me many lessons – be it how to rope in artistes and organise a crowd or the film certification process. The film faced a lot of issues during certification, and only then did I come to know that there were so many procedures to be followed before you submit it to the Board. When we were shooting the death sequence of the character played by Mohanlal, we roped in over 10,000 artistes in Nayakkar hall in Madurai. There was some last-minute tension when the caterer failed to deliver food on time. The sets of that film provided tremendous experience for a newcomer. I learnt people management.”
As per Union rules, one has to work as a production assistant for the first five years, before becoming a manager. Chokkalingam has progressed beyond that to become a production executive. So, what’s a typical day at work like? “If we’ve planned to shoot on location, I have to get the requisite permissions from Government departments, and hand them over to the local police station. If a film is still in pre-production stage, but confirmed by the producer, we get the artistes on board, decide salaries according to the budget, rope in the technical crew, plan the locations, buy props for the sets… in short, do everything to facilitate a shoot.”
Budgeting is an important area for production executives. “We have to ensure that everything gets done within the stipulated budget. We help plan shoots better. For instance, if a shoot is to continue beyond Thursday, we request the director to finish it before as early as possible, as weekend shoots mean double batta has to be paid. We try to see if the number of days of shoot can be reduced. A day saved is many lakhs saved.”
How did Chokkalingam learn to multi-task? “I maintain a note, a habit I picked up from my former boss Naachiyappan sir. Many production managers in the industry have trained under him. He used to handle work on many films of Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan. Like he used to, after the day’s shoot, I spend 30-40 minutes to write down the details of the number of artistes, vehicles used for shoot, special equipment and catering details for the day. That helps me plan the next day better; if not, it will be chaos. This note is also helpful to double-check claims; if someone says they worked extra, I would know if that’s true or not. This note has saved me many a time.”
Of late, many shoots have moved from Chennai to Puducherry and Mumbai. Why is that? “Shooting in Chennai is difficult as we get permission to shoot on roads only from 11 pm to 4 am. So, only night shoots take place here. In Mumbai, we get permission to shoot on the weekends, with police security. Major portions of Kaala are being shot there. Recently, we shot for the movie with Rajini Sir and over 1,500 artistes near Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, a UNESCO world heritage site. We also shot on Marine Drive. Shooting in Puducherry makes economic sense; permissions are easy, and transportation costs are near negligible, since it is just a few hours drive away. The best of all is shooting abroad; everything is organised and there is no last-minute tension.
After working in many films, Chokkalingam’s name graced the title card for the first time in Vetrimaaran’s Aadukalam. He has also worked on 14 films with Dhanush’s Wunderbar Productions. He has been handling production for Vetrimaaran’s Grass Root Film Company as well. “Vetrimaaran Sir and Dhanush Sir told me just two things. The food served to workers has to be of good quality, and artists have to be well cared for. I work for other production companies too, and apply the same policy there.”
Chokkalingam, who is married and has two daughters, says that his family is supportive despite his work hours (sometimes, it stretches from 5 am to 11 pm), and that helps him do well at work.
Does he plan to branch out in this line? “No. I just want to be true to my job. My work is mostly about handling money and people. Loyalty, honesty and reliability are important. And, these matter to me more than anything else.”