Guess how long it takes to make a feature film, say like Star Wars or The Sixth Sense? Nothing less than three to four months! And that’s rushing it through. And if it’s a musical or action film, it will take longer as you add in rehearsal time.

Hollywood makes something like 250 films a year and that’s counting foreign language films too. However, the largest film producing country in the world is India with over 700 feature films a year and in 16 Indian languages. Imagine each film studio juggling artists, cameras, sets, directors, stuntmen and others day after day! How confusing!

Well, how would you react if you were told that a full-length film with nine wedding scenes, fights and five song and dance sequences was shot in a record 24 hours? Amazed? But it’s true. A Tamil feature film titled Swayamvaram was actually shot in a 24-hour schedule on April 5, 1999.

Swayamvaram is the fastest feature film made in the world and it was done to set a record – in the Limca Book of Records a book of Indian facts and feats.

Produced by Giridharilal Nagpal, the film involved 14 directors, 14 heroes, 12 heroines, a villain, supporting artistes and crew totalling 3,026 individuals – all jostling each other to do their bit in a tightly drawn schedule.

The story line was simple enough. An old man celebrating his 60th birthday, has a heart attack and his last wish is to arrange the marriage of his nine children. The hitch was that the children had already chosen their wives-to-be but couldn’t tell him so.

The comedy lies in how the children manage to convince their father to allow them to marry the person of their choice. There was no line rehearsal or a visible script. The director described the scene as the stars arrived and after one rehearsal, the scene was shot!

Since it involved a long soap opera story, the film couldn’t be shot at a single location. Nor could it have a single set erected for this occasion. So different scenes had to shot at various locations where the ‘boy’ could be shown meeting the ‘girl’. The person in charge of coordinating this complex venture was Giridarilal’s son Vinay.

Eight locations were shortlisted and the schedule for each location was planned. Each location had to have a particular set of actors, actresses, a director, camera and production crew. Each assistant director was given the schedule and a man was deputed to keep the unit together.

The 24-hour Film! [Illustrations by Sudheer Nath]
The 24-hour Film! [Illustrations by Sudheer Nath]

A blow by blow account
On April 5, 1999, the opening shot of the birthday celebrations is ready at AVM studios’ 6th Floor (one wing of the studio). Director C. Sundar yells “Action”! An involuntary glance at the watch – its 7 a.m.

From 6th Floor it’s a mad scramble to AVM ‘E’, A/c Studio and AVM Gardens (all different wings). The several directors and crew have already scuttled there with actors in tow. Cellphones and pagers beep without a pause as the crew keeps monitoring the pace of the shoot.

Kamaraj memorial at 9.30 and a dance number with the boneless wonder, Prabhu Deva, and leading actress Roja is being rehearsed on the spot. The dance crew is sweating freely but the movements are all coordinated.

At 11 a.m., with no shade except for the umbrellas covering the star crew of Khushboo and Satyaraj, a passionate love scene is shot.

Noon at Film city. Actor Abbas and his heroine Heera are doing another song and dance number. At Guindy Race Course grounds, director Ramdass is directing a family drama with actor Pandiyarajan and actress Kasthuri.

Abu Palace, a hotel discotheque at 5.30 in the evening. Actor Vineeth and Maheshwari are stepping on each other’s toes in yet another dance sequence.

The night sequence and the action scene, is being planned at Kushaldoss House, yet another location. Apparently, a villain enters the scene and decides to add to the masala by kidnapping the heroines.

Actor Arjun insists on doing his own stunts. As empty jerrycans are lined up for villains to conveniently fall on them, liberal doses of tomato ketchup are being sprinkled on Arjun to fake blood. Arjun has fisticuffs with the villain of the hour, Mansoor Ali Khan.

Its 3 a.m. and the film is two hours behind schedule. On-the-spot improvisations by four directors, changes the storyline. Two scenes are cut and spliced into one.

Nearby, at Vijaya Vauhini studios, the climax where the nine couples are to marry at the same time is being readied. Flowers and festoons are being hung by an agile army of support staff.

Four cameras are being readied for the climax shot: two of them on the ground while a third is atop an angle crane, and the last is a steadycam (handheld) camera. The steadcam camera is attached with straps on to the cameraman for close-up action. A dolly (camera moving on a railway-like track) is rejected at the last minute.

There seems to be utter chaos. The directors rush in and out to finish with their shot so the couples can come in for the climax scene.

At 6.30, the entire family is collected at one place and the scene is shot. The father rises up from his wheelchair and proclaims that he faked his heart attack with the connivance of the good family doctor. All a ruse to get his wayward children married! Director C Sundar contemplates a retake but decides it’s a wrap. Its 6.50 a.m. on April 6!

Swayamvaram created a record of sorts with its 15 directors – one more added to shoot the making of the film! The film was a statistician’s delight and the coordinators’ nightmare.

Who all and how many in all? It was a masala mix with a big difference. Nineteen 19 associate directors, 45 assistant directors, 19 cameramen, 36 assistant cameramen, nine steadycam operators, 14 heroes, 12 heroines, villains, comedians, five dance masters, 16 assistants, 140 chorus dancers, stunt coordinators, art director, makeup, costume and set designers (flowers, festoons, etc at locations), 15 film units (generators and power supply for the lighting and boom mikes), a still photograher for lobby and publicity stills for the movie) and 1,483 extras (for the crowd scenes) came together to make this 24-hour film.

Then there were 23 others behind the scenes coordinating the show. Phew! Not to forget the star’s personal makeup persons, and one to carry an umbrella to shade the star’s translucent skin and one to turn a giant fan towards the star whenever he or she shifted around.

And then there was me – representing the Limca Book of Records to see that the record was what it claimed to be and Jonathan Karp from the ‘Asian Wall Street Journal’ who wanted the news scoop, keeping a paramount eye on the entire process! Including us the total came to 3,028 people involved in the making of this film.

1166 words | 11 minutes
Readability: Grade 7 (12-13 year old children)
Based on Flesch–Kincaid readability scores

Filed under: features
Tags: #cameras, #dance

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