For the past half hour, Mahesh Babu, the Salman Khan of Telugu cinema, has been sitting cross-legged under a temple umbrella for a shoot of his new film in a studio of Ramoji Film City (RCF), Hyderabad. Next to him is his heroine, opposite them sit their ‘relatives’. Babu is semi-smiling, which, a fan says, is usually reserved for a change of scene with the appearance of the baddies – a lift of the lip in time for a twinkle of the eye, leading to a delivery of swift one-liners ground out of a jaw that is slowly tightening.
Other than ‘Tollywood’s Salman’, Babu, a light-skinned actor, is also called ‘The Milky Boy’, the helpful bird informs.
“He’s also Mr Moderate. He doesn’t overdo things in his films, nothing is too much.”
“Runs after the girl?”
“Not too much.”
“Beats up people?”
“Not too much. But flies through the air – if needed.”
This then is how heroes of contemporary Tollywood films come: cool, collected, usually metro-men, who will be worlds removed from identifiably Telugu heroes of yore such as NT Rama Rao, who emerged out of the linguistic reorganisation of states in south India in the Fifties. (Separated from the Madras State, the Telugu industry moved out of Madras in the Seventies.)
NTR, also the chief minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh through the 80s and the 90s, reinforced the Telugu political and cultural identity through his cinema. With the formation of Telangana in 2014, the Telugu identity is, however, made more complex.
“Most of the contemporary heroes are from families in coastal Andhra but there is a conscious move to underplay that identity,” says cultural theorist Uma Bhrugubanda. Ramoji Rao, a media baron, who erected RFC in 1996 on 2,000 acres of land, and uneven Deccan rock, rose to be an influential figure in this pre- and post-statehood history.
Tollywood – second only to Bollywood in numbers -- churns out more than 200 films a year. Out of 100 films shot in Tollywood, approximately 99 of them come to RFC for at least one scene, claims a film-city executive. On the 20th anniversary of the film city, its line of well-wishers is long.
“Ramoji Rao brought discipline to various aspects of film-making because of the infrastructure he made available,” says S Rajamouli, the director of 2015’s biggest box-office earner, Baahubali, The Beginning. “When Prabhas (the Baahubali hero) is climbing the waterfall, he has to climb 15-20 feet of it in any given shot, when he falls, he has to fall down 15-20 feet too. Creating this is a huge job, you need the right angle, right amount of water pumping. All that was done here. Dreaming big was made possible in RFC.”
At the Baahubali set, where 2015’s power struggles were played
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The set of the palace courtyard in the film is still standing in RFC in preparation for a shooting schedule in March for the sequel. Coronation steps, a gilded throne, pillars, dismembered legs of a king before his last stand – is this how a faux Rome might look after pack-up?
RFC facilitated, in a way, what could be the new big in terms of Telugu cinema despite its own low-budget “message-oriented” banner of Usha Kiron Movies in the Eighties whose high points were Naache Mayuri and Mounaporatam. The first flagged the career of physically-challenged actress Sudha Chandran; the second was the story of a rebel-in-the-name-of-the system, a tribal girl’s fight for personal justice ending in marriage.
“Earlier, ‘big’ or ‘lavish’ meant NTR sitting in a big hall on a big chair and you go wide angle on one person sitting on one sofa,” says veteran art director Thota Tarani. Today, the audience want to be knocked off their seat, they want spectacles. “For Arjun, Mahesh Babu’s film, the Madurai temple-like structure I created was the talk of town,” he adds.
In recent times, RFC has been known more for being the venue for larger-than-life outings of pan-India matinee stars as well. Hrithik Roshan jumped off one of its skywalks in Krrish 3. Shahrukh and Deepika caught a train in its ‘train station’ for Chennai Express. Vidya Balan got pinched by Naseerudin Shah’s character as they ran around its Leg Garden, a garden where two female legs do in marble what Sharon Stone did in that film.
Vidya Balan goes ‘Ooh La la’ at the Leg Garden
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RFC seems to have no match in the outrageousness, scale or even kitsch when it is compared to other film cities.
As a film hub, Chennai is now talked of in the past tense, but with the caution of avoiding, as it were, a border conflict. Says a veteran Telugu film-maker who works in both industries: “Ninety-nine percent of its studios are closed or given to daily soaps.”
As for Mumbai’s film cities, it obviously has its aficionados but for Sabu Cyril, the art director of Krrish 3 and Baahubali, shooting in RFC has its advantages. “In Mumbai, getting to the sets itself takes one hour because of the traffic. For Krrish 3, we finished seven days before schedule. To lift up the 100-feet statue of Bhallala Deva in Baahubali, we needed a 110-feet crane, not all studios have it.”
Film historian Amrit Gangar says he remembers filmmakers saying “ ‘you go into Ramoji Rao Film City with a script and come out with cans of your finished film as this film city also has the necessary post-production facilities.’ Shyam Benegal, I’m told shot his film Haribhari almost entirely in RFC … It saves time as the entire crew stays in one place and there are no delays.”
The role of the church in Shahrukh’s Dilwale
Flexibility and customisation have been part of the RFC plan. “From a pin to an elephant, no single establishment provides this to film-makers,” says Rao in his office inside RFC that with layers of security, high ceilings, painted stained glass windows, seems like a cross between a church and the watch-tower of a walled city. It is perhaps one of the few buildings in RFC that is made of real bricks. It actually exists.
Otherwise the compound is full of streets and Plaster of Paris houses – they call them Flex Houses here -- that can be blown away, made to look haunted, look English, look Mughal, look like a booze shop, a bank, a hospital delivery room, airport, a ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, a Bengali home, a Goan home, even a morning-after-a-wedding home, with just a change of façade by propping up scores of brick patterns for walls from the Maya workshop, an RFC unit that turns concepts of a film’s art director into a reality without the latter having to bang his or her head.
Ra.One was shot here
Thirty-five different detachable lamp poles can also change the look of a street. The number of Greek statutes picking pitchers, hands clutching a gown, aiming an arrow, or looking like bandaged upright mummies, all over the compound, someone forgot to count.
Mohan Bingi, Maya art director, says Maya’s work is scheduled according to the films’ deadlines. “At one point we were dealing with the schedules of three setups. The first schedule of Shivay, Ajay Devgan’s next directorial project; a portion of Mahesh Babu’s new film, and the final schedule of Shahrukh’s Dilwale, for which we built a factory for SRK to fight in, a street on which he sang, and a church for the climax.”
The Ramoji Film City is an experience, especially if one is 12. Opened to the public from the very next year that it was launched in 1997, 55% of its revenue comes from its tourism attractions. A red bus rolls through the city past its themed parks, restaurants, bazaars and live shows. At its Japanese Garden, where a pagoda-shaped structure sits in the middle of a pool, one meets Pawan, a clerk, in his twenties.
How does he like it? “As in our films, a place like this allows a man to live out his fantasies. No money, no Japan? No! even a villager can come here and fake it!” he enthuses.
‘Sarkar’ Amitabh Bachchan shot in this bungalow for Sarkar Raaj
For a city that has just lost a young man called Rohith Vemula and has known intense struggles between social forces, the capacity for hope, raised during Hyderabad’s first division, has never quite gone away. Writing of the regional press and its role in mobilising opinion on backward-class discrimination in tandem with political parties, film scholar M Madhava Prasad, in his book Cine-Politics, suggests that the “issue of the state and the law” in Hyderabad has never been a “closed one”.
The popularity of Telugu cinema’s new mythologies -- the hero and the kingdom that waits for him – seems to express the popular belief that the political reconstitution of society is negotiable. Behind every dragon there is a brave prince.
Photos: Raj K Raj