We have all heard of Bollywood but Tollywood? Charles Read takes a look at how in a little over ten years a traditional film studio in India’s Andra Pradesh has become a booming visitor attractions business and theme park and a magnet for both filmmakers and tourists alike.
India’s thriving film business, largely based out of Mumbai, produces a vast number of films each year, many more times than its American counterpart; lovers fight and make up, dance and sing in gardens with impossibly green lawns, leap out of bushes, get back together again, dance a little bit more and engage in tearful reunions/separations in airports and on railway platforms. Avaricious landlords and dastardly villains scheme and plot, often themselves falling prey to the temptation to break into song at a moment’s notice or leap out of the nearest bush. This is Bollywood and the former Bombay churns out in excess of 500 new movies a year, mostly in the Hindi language.
However, the city’s major studios are lagging someway behind their Western counterparts such as Universal, Paramount and Sony, in that they are only studios and they do not as yet leverage their undoubted popularity, brands and expertise into tourist rupees. As visitor attractions the big studios remain a closed shop. For truly thinking outside the box, and in doing so bringing the full movie theme park experience to the developing Indian leisure market, we must look to the central Indian city of Hyderabad, for here there is one film studio which is breaking the mould and forging a unique position for itself in the Asian market: Ramoji Film City.
Andhra Pradesh does have pedigree as the country’s cinema state, in addition to producing over 200 films a year it houses around 40% of the nation’s Dolby Cinemas and over 3000 cinemas halls, more than any other state. It is also home to an IMAX theatre with a 3D big screen and 3-5 multiplexes.
Located just 26km outside of Hyderabad, the state’s bustling capital, Ramoji Film City is the jewel in the crown of “Tollywood”, the moniker given to the city on account of its movie business being the main source of the nation’s films in Telegu, India’s second language after Hindi. What Mumbai is to Hindi, Hyderabad is to Telegu.
One of many remarkable things about Ramoji Film City is its youth. It is just 11 years old. Film producer Ramoji Rao (who lives in one of the few “real” houses on the site, ) head of the Ramoji Group, opened the facility 1996. The creation of the RFC was the result of the Group’s association with Indian cinema through Usha Kiron Movies, its dedicated film production house. Since then the studios have expanded aggressively to the extent that the complex covers around 1, 650 acres, boasts 47 sound stages and has been officially declared the largest film studios in the world by the Guinness Book of Records.
As a studio, RFC provides a facility on a massive scale, allowing up to 20 international films and 40 Indian films to be produced simultaneously. It provides pre-production, production, and post-production resources and boasts over 500 set locations. There are numerous gardens, authentic sets, around 50 studio floors, a digital film facility, the support systems, outdoor locations, high-tech laboratories, in short everything a film might wish for. The Film City’s infrastructure includes custom-designed locations and mock-ups, set construction, properties & costumes, shooting stages, cameras and equipment, audio post-production, digital-post-production/SFX as well as film processing. In effect, a film maker can walk in with nothing but a script and leave with a can of film (or a full hard drive!) under his arm. RFC now attracts filmmakers from across the world.
Ramoji Film City’s film business continues to expand and adapt and it recently ventured into television with its brand “E-naadu” (also known as E TV) which is currently providing news and infotainment on 11 separate language channels with another 5-7 in the pipeline.
The film studios is a highly successful, innovative and growing enterprise. But what makes Ramoji unique is how its visitor attraction arm has grown alongside its core business to such an extent that its movie theme park is now one of India’s, and Asia’s, top tourist attractions.
Leaving the chaotic and wonderful colours of Hyderabad behind me my driver and I headed out into the dusty, rock strewn interior of “The rice bowl of India” and through the most glorious countryside, soft rolling hills with a flavour and the topography of Kent but the burnt reds of Arizona. Bee-eaters flashed by, glinting in the sun and Kites coasted lazily on the thermals. It seemed an incongruous setting for a theme park.
On arriving at RFC the visitor is greeted by a 40 foot high sign, “Ramoji Film City” in the style of the iconic Hollywood sign. Bold and thrusting, it serves as fitting introduction for the impressive sights to follow.
I was shown around by the charming Kumar , cool and relaxed in the midday heat. He has an MBA in Leisure Management and his enthusiasm for his workplace and his job is infectious. Guests are driven around in little buses, seating 18 or 35 depending on the ticket price (Royal or Standard). These visit each of the park’s “nodes”, distinct clusters of attractions, each with a particular theme. Along the way there are a myriad of sights and sounds to take in, not the least of which (for this pasty faced northern European) was the stunning setting. After a day in the vast thriving metropolis of Hyderabad the rural scenery came as a real blessing.
Notable features of the site include:
- Sitara and Tara: 5 star and 3 star respectively, these sister hotels are just inside the entrance, where both visitors to RFC and film crews stay.
- Ramoji Tower: A 3d ride housed in a “tower” façade.
- Fundustan : Specifically for children, this area includes rides, slides, video games etc
- Eureka: A movie themed area, complete with dazzling shows, with Bollywood style dancing, acrobats, show –tunes etc. One highlight was the unusual blend of western and martial arts genres in a live action stunt filled display, which, whilst the idea seemed unusual, worked well.
- Movie Magic / Action : Guests can take a look behind the scenes and even take part in a short film. There is also Filmi Duniya, a serene boat ride which cruises through the world’s cities complete with animated characters and suitable national music .
- Backstage Tour: The highlight of my trip and, I suspect, the biggest draw is the look backstage of the world’s biggest film studios. The bus runs along streets designed to look like everything from central London to tiny Indian villages and visits an airport, a railway station, a hospital, a library. The ingenious scenes and props instantly evoke the Mauryan or Mughal Empire or even the American Wild Wild West. The mock thoroughfares are cleverly curved, allowing several films to be shot at the same time, avoiding crossed sightlines: movie magic indeed.
- Gardens : With seemingly all Indian films involving songs in and around bushes, RFC boasts an enormous and varied display of lovingly tended gardens, each suited to a particular event or occasion and answering the need of any filmmaker requiring a garden scene. Japanese Gardens? Fine. English ? Greek? No problem. The Sierra garden has grass cut so carefully it resembles, with its undulating hills, Telly-Tubby land. The Askari, the Flying Kiss, the Mousier, The Leg garden, The Hawaiian and The Sanctuary (complete with a menagerie or topiary animals); each is delightfully designed and assiduously maintained. One even contains a rocky promontory called “Suicide Point, ” where spurned or doomed celluloid lovers can shuffle off their mortal coil. “And unsuccessful movie Directors, ” added Kumar.
- Restaurants : The food was simply stunning, with numerous eateries catering to every taste. I dined at the sumptuous Tara hotel.
- The Discovery Pond : This bizarre lake/pond is constructed so that, depending on how much water it holds, it has a different shape, with each layer having a distinct and contrasting outline. Again, for a film director this is ideal. If he or she wants a circular pond they have, one, if a square or hexagonal one, that’s fine too.
The studios also successfully market the complex as an ideal site for both honeymoons and business visitors, bringing in still further streams of revenue. Weddings take place in the most opulent locations (not all of them real) and great attention is paid to make the special day memorable, with even the gardens tweaked so the colours match the bride’s sari. Corporate functions take place throughout the year with companies across India now using Ramoji Film City and its lavish facilities as an ideal meeting place for their conferences and get-togethers.
The film business is of course autonomous and is growing well, with the incursions into TV and many new films on the horizon. The visitor attraction business continues to expand, with a number of new projects planned, including a 1, 000 room hotel and a huge waterpark set to open in 2010.
With a beautiful sunset behind me I arrived back in the Hyderabad having had a fantastic and eye-opening day. With the rapidity of change at RFC, the dynamism of the management team and the park’s incredible setting I will be back soon. The Taj Mahal, which attracts around 3 million visitors a year, might still have the edge on numbers (RFC gets around a million and a half) but then it did get a 350 year start. Ramoji Film City is making its mark.