Indian film industry location scout Ramji Natarajan recently spoke to Khaleej Times about the filming of Oscar-nominated song Naatu Naatu at Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s palace during the Covid pandemic.

Naatu Naatu, featured in the blockbuster film RRR starring Jr NTR and Ram Charan, is creating huge buzz at the moment as an Oscar contender for Best Original Song. SS Rajamouli’s 2022 film RRR made headlines when Naatu Naatu was nominated for and subsequently won the award for Best Original Song at the Golden Globe Awards on January 10, being the first for an Indian production, also surpassing famed international competitors Rihanna, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga.

Chennai native Natarajan has worked in some of the biggest Indian films produced - Baahubali: The Beginning, its sequel - Baahubali 2: The Conclusion and RRR.

Natarajan’s entry into cinema was as an actor in the 1980s. But, after seven years, he did not progress and his parents suggested a career change. So, he joined a travel company and worked as a sales executive.

“But coming straight from the film industry, I was like fish out of water and lost my job within six months,” he lamented.

Then, one fateful day in 1987, three famous names contacted him - actor Chiranjeevi, Director K Raghavendra Rao and Allu Aravind. They gave him an opportunity to scout for filming locations due to his experience in the travel industry and he embarked on his first trip outside India - to Singapore and Hong Kong.

“And that’s how my career kickstarted and things progressed very quickly from there,” he said.

Today, Natarajan has suggested locations for over 3000 Indian productions including music videos and film scenes. “When they filmed RRR, they wanted a building that would look like something Victorian, or from the British colonial era. We initially wanted to do Delhi, but things have changed so much there and most of the Indian colonial-era buildings don’t look like they would have a century ago. It was also challenging during Covid when many countries were closed, but we finally decided on Ukraine,” he said.

“After much research, we ended up using the Mariinskyi Palace in Kiev, residence of now head of state, Volodymyr Zelensky - who has became a household name. This is an interesting piece of trivia that many people at the time missed.”

Kiev mayor, Vitali Volodymyrovych Klitschko, who is a former boxer, greatly assisted in facilitating the process. For the extras, they needed to find 150 South Asians. They advertised among international student groups and over 300 Indians studying medicine in Ukraine showed up - double the number required.

“For the British characters, the Ukrainians would do,” Natarajan explained, adding, “And Ukraine also had over a 100 dancers from the Kiev ballet who knew how to dance and getting 1920s looking costumes was not difficult. And they look like 1920s upper class Brits! There was also an African individual who played the role of a drummer. Over a 1000 people were on set in total, including the stars, extras, dancers, technicians, camera crew, art directors and chefs.”

RRR stands for Rise, Roar, Revolt, and is a historical action film that portrays a fictionalised account of two independence-era heroes who mount a resistance against British rule in India.

When he worked with Rajamouli in the past, for 2015’s Baahubali: The Beginning, which was supposed to have a Himalayan backdrop, the filming was done in Bulgaria. This is because the oxygen levels and background were not feasible for filming.

Explaining his creative streak, Natarajan said, “I like to replicate filming something set in India - outside of India.”

A major challenge during filming Naatu Naatu was working out the logistics while the pandemic was raging; working around transit flights was a major challenge and it was a time when one could end up in quarantine in many countries if they tested positive en route. Rajan was reluctant to do this venture due to the upcoming engagement of his daughter, but Rajamouli insisted since the shoot was “long overdue.”

Transiting through certain nations was impossible and getting visas for others was challenging - but they zeroed in on Ukraine, worked tediously, and found ways to get the stars to finally arrive!

“I have worked in various productions in different Indian film industries in all languages. Bollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood, Sandalwood….you name it, I’ve done it,” said Natarajan.

He has travelled to 140 countries “and counting.”

Natarajan’s acumen has made him a very sought after figure in the film industry. For the 2018 movie Junga, featuring Vijay Sethupathi, he suggested filming in Baku for a film set in Paris because “the two cities look similar.” He also recommended Peru for the alpine scene in the 2010 Tamil hit movie Enthiran featuring Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Rajinikanth.

“I’m not one of those travellers who simply ‘ticks off’ a list of countries he has visited. I go to multiple countries multiple times and see what can work for a future film,” he insists.

“I was able to work the logistics (for Naatu Naatu) and get back in time for my daughter’s engagement without ending up Covid positive or in quarantine. I think that was a good omen in itself,” Natarajan said.

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