MASSIMO Cortesi, the producer of Bernardo Bertolucci's Besieged, was among the 120-odd foreign delegates who were, during the 30th International Film Festival of India, taken on a guided tour of Hyderabad's newest, grandest showpiece, the 1,000-acre Ramoji Film City. The multiple shooting floors floored him completely, as did the wide range of facilities the one-stop production shop had on offer. On the way out, Cortesi was heard gushing: The studio has everything. It wouldn't be a bad idea to shoot Italian sitcoms and soaps here. All we need to do is fly down the actors.
A touch of characteristic Latino exaggeration perhaps. But it should be music to the ears of the men who are out to catapult Hyderabad into the big league, men who've taken it upon themselves to project the 400-year-old city of nawabs, minarets, and lovely gardens as India's alternative film capital and sell its well-equipped studios, especially Ramoji Film City, as a viable production centre for low and medium budget international projects which are generally shot in the studios of eastern Europe. Says M. Murali Mohan, Telugu film actor and chairman of the Andhra Pradesh State Film, Television and Theatre Development Corporation (fdc): We are sparing no effort to turn our city into a hub of Indian and world cinema. Hence the move to woo film crews from all over the world to Ramoji Film City and the other thriving studios of Hyderabad.
The sheer scale of the ambition is somewhat reminiscent of the pioneering spirit that drove the Hollywood moghuls of the early years to set up their giant entertainment empires. But will it take Hyderabad just as far? Nobody embodies Hyderabad's new-found entrepreneurial aggression better than newspaper baron and film producer C. Ramoji Rao, owner of Ramoji Film City. His newly-built studio is an awesome sight: a veritable dream world carved, almost magically, out of a harsh, rocky, boulder-strewn terrain on the outskirts of Hyderabad. It's Asia's largest. It's the best in the world, says Murali Mohan.
You name it, the spanking new studio has it: a Mumbai slum, railway stations, a small town, a row of rustic mudhouses, colonial structures, a prison, a hospital, a temple, a mosque and vast open spaces which can be converted into just about any place on earth from Chicago to Chinchpokli, from Birmingham to Begumpet.
While all its equipment is state-of-the-art, the Film City has its own inhouse design department, special effects cell and processing units. If that weren't enough, it has two large hotels, one five-star, the other three-star. All this obviously didn't come cheap - the cost of Ramoji Film City was reportedly in the vicinity of Rs 1,000 crore - and it would make sense as a business proposition only if theres a steady flow of production work. Works definitely trickling in, says Murali Mohan, but given the size of the investment made on it, Ramoji Film City does need a bigger volume of work, not only from Mumbai but also from abroad.
The 30th IFFI was just the opportunity Ramoji Rao and the fdc were waiting for. The presence of a fair sprinkling of foreign delegates from various parts of the world was exploited to the hilt to push Hyderabad's credentials. First by chief minister Chandrababu Naidu himself who, in his presidential address at the IFFI inauguration in the open-air Lalitha Kala Thoranam, declared: We can offer the best hardware. It is for the artistes to exploit it and come out with good films. The lead provided by Naidu was followed up by the guided tours organised by studio executives to acquaint the delegates, Indian and foreign, with the rapid technological strides the Telugu film industry has made in recent years.
There's no way of telling that this is, in reality, a crisis-ridden industry buffeted by a string of big-budget flops. The audience, exposed to slicker fare on TV and elsewhere, has become demanding, says numero uno star Venkatesh. The Telugu film industry exists in a cocoon, completely cut off from the state's social and cultural reality, laments the multi-talented filmmaker B. Narsing Rao. Yet, the sense of excitement hasn't abated. Though the number of films produced in the Telugu language has dropped sharply over the last two years - from over 150 in 1997 to 124 last year - all the major Hyderabad studios (Rama Naidu, Annapoorna, Padmalaya, Sarathi) continue to be in the thick of the action, upgrading their equipment and facilities periodically to keep abreast of the times.
Proposals for three more modern film studios, including one to be constructed in Hyderabad by big-time Mumbai producer Boney Kapoor, have been approved by the fdcs 10-member board. The fdc has also joined hands with AP Tourism to develop as many as 25 picturesque locations in the state for film shoots. So, whether its the high-profile Govinda-Raveena Tandon starrer, Anari No. 1, or the low-budget Hello Hyderabad, which features a slew of newcomers, a large number of Hindi films are being shot today not only in Hyderabad, but also in places like Visakhapatnam and Rajamundhry. Says Murali Mohan: The fdc grants single-window clearance for location shoots.
Doubtless, the progress has been nothing short of dramatic. Until recently, Chennai was the nerve-centre of Telugu cinema, which, in sheer numbers, is perhaps larger than the Mumbai film industry. Today, the production of Telugu films has shifted almost totally to Hyderabad, says veteran actor-producer-director Dasari Narayan Rao. Only the recording theatres are still in Chennai, admits Murali Mohan. But steps have been taken, he adds, to ensure that all recording work for Telugu films is done in Hyderabad itself. Coming up in and around Hyderabad are five new facilities: two Dolby-equipped recording theatres at Prasad Labs, two at Rama Naidu Studios (one of them with DTS), and one at Sabdalaya Estates. Also on the way are advanced recording facilities being set up by the likes of crooner S.P. Balasubramaniam and actor Chakravarthy.
It's an industry that is perpetually in fast forward mode. While Ramoji Film City, which already has four soundstages, is constructing two more. And why not? The Los Angeles-based producer-director Roger Corman will be shooting Nightfall, a sci-fi thriller based on an Isaac Asimov novel, there. A Singapore crew has evinced keen interest in using the Film City facilities to shoot a series of television programmes. An Italian film unit is canning crucial scenes of a futuristic saga on a set erected there. Amitabh Bachchan is camping in the Film City for a Hindi remake of the Telugu megahit Suryavamsam. Ramoji Rao himself is planning to branch out into Hindi films: he has roped in Marathi director Shravani Deodhar to helm his first project in the national language. Clearly, the press baron has altered the face of filmmaking in Hyderabad. To such an extent that even Bengali films are being launched in the city these days. The first such production, Jamai No. 1 (Son-in-law No. 1), was directed by Nitish Roy, the head of Ramoji Film Citys art department.
The action is by no means confined to Ramoji Film City alone. Dasari Narayan Rao, who has over 140 films to his credit, including 14 in Hindi, is planning a mega project with Amitabh Bachchan. Like most of my films, it will be shot and processed entirely in Hyderabad, he says. Another Telugu film industry veteran, D. Rama Naidu, who is inching closer to the 100-film mark as a producer, is toying with the idea of mounting an international production in English in collaboration with the Hindujas. He has just produced the national award-winning Rituparno Ghosh's new film, Asukh, and is already on to his next Bengali production for Prabhat Roy, one of Calcutta's leading mainstream filmmakers.
The director and the stars were flown down from Calcutta towards the end of the 30th iffi for the launch of the yet-to-be-titled Bengali film. With the Anil Kapoor-Kajol starrer Hum Aapke Dil Mein Rehte Hain marking his return to Hindi cinema after a long hiatus, Rama Naidu is aiming to achieve the distinction of producing films in every Indian language in which films are made. Next on his agenda are Gujarati and Marathi productions.
As the Telugu film industry spreads its wings, producers from other parts of the world are discovering the virtues of Hyderabad. Its pleasant, moderate climate is one of them. In many ways, the city has a northern Indian atmosphere, thanks to its architecture and its culture, Murali Mohan points out. Moreover, there is no dearth of Hindi-speaking junior artistes here. For Dasari Narayan Rao, however, Hyderabad's primary attraction stems from the fact that it has a more disciplined, more methodical work ethos than Mumbai. If you shoot a film here or in Chennai, you can reduce the number of shooting days drastically and thereby cut production costs, he says. Executives at Ramoji Film City estimate that a foreign film shot on their facility would cost only two-thirds of what it would if it were shot in Europe.
The word is spreading around the globe. And if Cyberabad's many studios project the right picture in the next few years, the capital of Andhra Pradesh could well be on the way to becoming the centre of the world of tinsel-coated dreams.