IMAGINE Rambha and Karishma doing their jhatkas without catcalls and wolf whistles; Rajnikanth and Shah Rukh without the hassle of fans and autograph hunters. Imagine Mani Ratnam and David Dhawan not having to deal with starry tantrums; producers K.T. Kunjumon and Gulshan Rai not having to bother about hotel bookings and airport pickups.
Imagine choreographers Prabhu Deva and Saroj Khan with all the 'extras' at hand; art directors Thota Tharani and Bijon Dasgupta with all the props and lights. Imagine digital recording studios, dubbing theatres and processing labs. Imagine peace during and after movie-making. Imagine a place where it could all happen. Now imagine Ramoji Film City (RFC).
Twelve years in the thinking, six years in the making, the curtain has gone up on "the world's largest, self-contained, fully-integrated complex", where a producer can walk in empty-handed, pockets full, and walk out with a finished film ready to be screened.
Hello. India's biggest media mogul just got bigger. After newspapers (Eenadu, Newstime), magazines (Sitara, Chatura, Vipula, Annadaata), satellite television (ETV), filmmaking (Usha Kiron), distribution (Mayuri) and advertising (Images). After refusing to lend his name to chitfunds (Margadarsi), pickles (Priya), hotels (Dolphin), handicrafts (Kalanjali), fruitdrink (Soma), nutpowder (Pothuri), or shipbreaking, Cherukuri Ramoji Rao, 61, has bucked the trend in the biggest venture of his life. "It's my last project. That's why," says Rao, a former drawing teacher. "I named it after myself. Ultimately, you see, I'm a selfish man. I would like to leave something behind that I can call my own."
The immediate plan is to get Telugu filmmakers shooting in Chennai to come home. Andhra makes the most films in India every year (180, down from a halcyon 225), and courting them will be half the battle won. But Rao has other plans as well. By offering every facility needed for Indian kitsch under one roof—the sky over Anazpur, 45 km from Hyderabad—RFC wants to sock it to Mumbai. "We want the film capital to shift to Hyderabad, and that done, to bring in Hong Kong filmmakers," says architect Sunil Pillai who worked on RFC's basic concept with art director Nitish Roy of Chanakya fame. But the ultimate plan, says Rao whose worldview otherwise is 'local', is to woo Hollywood.
Right now, filmi-types are playing the guessing game: how much did RFC cost to come up from scratch? "Between Rs 100 crore and Rs 1,000 crore," says a Rao flunkey unhelpfully. "No idea. We are just spending," says Pillai. And chairmangaaru, who sold his family's 15 acres to set up Mar-gadarsi 35 years ago with a start-up capital of less than a lakh, seems to enjoy the cost-guessing that the opulence of RFC provokes. "I don't know how much I've put in and how much I will by the time it's complete. The budget changes every day. Our dream is to make it the best worldwide. You can't achieve that by thinking of costs," is all he will say. Informed sources say the figure is about Rs 400 crore. Explains Rao: "I've borrowed from half-a-dozen of my sister firms." Flagship Margadarsi (annual turnover Rs 900 crore) would be more like it.
Rao's baby is by no means the first of its kind. There's the Film City in Mumbai's Goregaon and the MGR Film City in Chennai with all the infrastructure filmmakers need to make the next flop. But where RFC is different is in its size and scale. Spread across 998 acres in Rangareddy district, with 30 studio floors and 400 shooting locations, they say it's bigger than the world's biggest, Universal Studios, which spans 450 acres in the hills of Hollywood. Filmi-types are notorious for making a Mercedes out of a Maruti. And Pillai is already touting RFC's laundry as the biggest in the country!
As of now, only the first phase of the 'Project Without End' is ready; five fullfledged units can work simultaneously. When completed, as many as 100 film and TV productions can go on stream; 20-30 units can work in tandem. Still, with its sets, studios, locales; gardens, avenues, fountains; editing suites; 5-star, 3-star hotels; 1,000-room dormitory; on-location offices; gyms, pools, banks, travel agency, car rentals; mini-auditoria to screen rushes, RFC is awesome.
Nothing here is permanent. Everything can be dismantled and reassembled. "We have emulated Western construction techniques by opting for a nuts-and-bolts modular system," says an RFC hand. Effective material use enables filmmakers to expand their canvas. "We've used fibreglass in a way even Americans haven't. The Japanese who came to sell us their expertise were floored by our material improvisation." The railway station set is urban Nagpur on one side, rural Jagatpur on the other. The airport facade is a hospital on the other, and a library on the third. Whole temples, mosques, fountains have been built of fibreglass. The Central Jail has 39 cells, five entrances, each different from the other. "Heroes like Govinda and Akshay who hop into and out of jails in every film, only need to change costumes here," says a PR man. At the 175-room 5-star Sitara, there are even separate workplaces for the personal cooks of stars like Dilip Kumar. Not surprisingly, the thespian pronounces the place "out of the world".
THE aim is to meet filmmakers' and artistes' requirements and make filmmaking simpler. Unfortunately, much of what you see at RFC is the same tacky stuff that makes Indian cinema a hotbed of quantity not quality. But the brains behind it believe that it will improve filmmaking. "You can't compare it to Goregaon," says Pillai. "We took all the frustrations from there and decided to solve them here."
Ramoji Rao had first made his mark on the silver screen by producing small films like Mayuri and Pratighatana. "I hated gambling, never played cards, never went to a race course. I wanted to prove films were no gamble. And I proved it with low-budget films." Filmland observers say Rao's desire to get back quick returns from the huge investments may deter filmmakers from shooting at RFC. Producer-director Harmesh Malhotra shelled out Rs 20 lakh for a 10-day shoot for Qila, but how many producers can afford such cash? Rao disagrees that distance and deutsch could be a deterrent: "All a producer needs to do is get money, get a script, get bulk dates and come here without worrying about sets, hotel bookings or airport pick-ups. This makes filmmaking economical." Pillai says RFC is booked till January-end. Producer Veeru Devgan added three new songs after he saw what RFC had to offer.
Rao's critics, however, feel he has bitten off more than he can chew. "He is desperate to prove that he has not lost his Midas touch. But the Telugu film industry is not in a healthy state. Only a handful of the 150-odd films made here are successes. How will he earn the income to pay off those who have lent him money?" In spite of his considerable PR skills and political clout, rival papers muddied the waters in the TDP kingmaker's kingdom lately. There have been allegations of insider trading, art smuggling, by Rao firms. His acquisition of land to build a private road from RFC has got adverse publicity. And there have been reports that teetotaler Rao entertained guests with scotch despite his support for prohibition. Rao, who says, "no IT officer has ever raided my offices," has taken legal recourse. But an Andhra high court upheld a petition alleging violation of municipal norms by Rao in the construction of the Eenadu complex in Hyderabad and directed him to vacate the premises or pay the landowner Rs 30 crore as damages.
However, RFC is a good effort at bringing back order and system into the industry. Says Dilip Kumar, who initiated work on the Goregaon film city: "I've a prayer it should succeed." Though Rao calls RFC his last project—he got himself a Premier 118 NE with a 1998 registration number to remind him of his deadline—it's certainly not going to be curtains next year. "After I retire, I'll show what else can be done."
What else? He won't say. But given his profile, critics claim a political future is imminent. No way, counters Rao. He says he's offered RS seats "every time". He says he can pick an LS ticket "anytime". But politics, no, although he wears all-white all the time. "A newspaperman is a referee, never a participant. Yes, I did support NTR because I hated the hukumats from Delhi and believed in the concept of a United States of India where each state is autonomous. Unfortunately, NTR made a mess of it."
Before the 1983 assembly polls which saw NTR's triumph, Eenadu (circulation: 6.5 lakh) ran a column called Votaru ko Mata (caution to voters). Rao is said to have penned NTR's speeches and sent them to him through his paper's teleprinters.When Lakshmi Parvati entered NTR's life, Rao backed Chandrababu Naidu. Critics now say Rao is the real power behind the CM. "Why do you think Naidu comes to the Eenadu headquarters every week?" asks one. "Ramoji Rao is the man who has altered Naidu's public profile. In fact, Rao had told Naidu not to enter the prime ministerial race after Gowda fell. " But Rao still insists it's a no-no to politics. "I have the satisfaction of having moulded public opinion when needed. But work is my only interest. I would like to play a role beneficial to Telugus." Now, figure that one out.