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India’s expanding film industry boasts more than just Bollywood

by Mark Schilling

Everyone knows Bollywood — the film industry centered in Mumbai (formerly called Bombay, hence the “B” in Bollywood) whose singing and dancing entertainments are shown throughout the country — and now the world.

But films in Hindi — the language of Bollywood — accounted for only 19 percent of the 1,275 films released in India in 2009. Most of the rest were made by India’s 10 other major film industries, all working in local languages distinct from Hindi.

When the Indian Ministry of External Affairs invited seven foreign journalists to tour film facilities, they evidently wanted to expand our horizons beyond Bollywood, so the big Mumbai studios were not on our list.

We did get to meet two genuine Indian film moguls, however, as well as see a side of the industry seldom viewed by outsiders. Bollywood, I suppose, could wait.

Our first stop was Ramoji Film City, a sprawling complex outside the southern city of Hyderabad. Founded in 1996 by local business magnate Ramoji Rao, who is currently studio chairman, it is the world’s largest film studio in terms of area — more than 800 hectares.

Located in a sparely populated, semiarid region, Ramoji springs out of nowhere. One minute you are admiring rocky outcroppings that look vaguely like Stonehenge, the next you are plunging into an expensively constructed, meticulously maintained fantasy world, in which a purplish Trevi Fountain competes for attention with gaily colored Greek statues, where a “Japanese” temple with the upcurving roof of a Chinese pagoda overlooks a “Japanese” garden whose lush green turf evokes the golf course.

One comparison for this kitschy, grandiose vision is Hearst Castle, the sprawling California mansion built by early 20th-century newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and decorated with warehouses full of treasures acquired in various parts of Europe. Has Rao, whose business empire also encompasses newspapers, ever heard of Hearst — or the Orson Welles film based on his life, “Citizen Kane”?

At the same time, Ramoji Film City is a real working film and TV studio, supplying everything from sets — including mockups of an airliner, train station, prison and Indian temple (religious sect unspecified) — to postproduction facilities.

The highlight of the tour, however, was an audience with Rao in his headquarters, a lavishly appointed building whose main conference room, decorated with a huge chandelier, a thick red carpet and an elaborately carved golden chair, was designed to inspire awe.

When Rao — a roundish man clad entirely in white — entered and sat on his throne, we deferentially peppered him with questions, most of which he answered in short, oracular sentences — or a simple yes or no. “(Ramoji Film City) is a one-stop store for all filmmakers,” he told us. “We say you can come here with your script and go back with your film.”

The studio, Rao added, can make as many as a dozen films simultaneously — though on the day of our tour we did not see one in production. Most of the nearly 200 films shot at the studio annually are in the Telugu language of the Hyderabad region and don’t play outside it. But since Telugu has 74 million native speakers, primarily in the state of Andhra Pradesh, the market for these films is large, with 258 released in 2009. Rao said he was interested in attracting productions from other regions and countries, but admitted that “there are certain limitations. For example if there are people looking like you (in the film),” he said, drilling me with his eyes, “can we provide the actors or not?” Seeing that he was making a joke, we all laughed.

It was only after we left on the two-hour journey to Hyderabad that I realized I had forgotten to ask Rao about his inspiration, if any, from Hearst. But he did tell me his favorite film as a young man: Chaplin’s “Limelight.”

Our next stop was Whistling Woods International, a film school founded in July 2006 by Bollywood director and producer Subhash Ghai. Set on an 8-hectare site in a nature preserve on the outskirts of Mumbai, Whistling Woods is no fantasy playland, but rather a reality-based trade school dedicated to turning out film industry professionals, including directors, scriptwriters and producers. Most graduates of the two-year course go on to careers with Indian film and media companies, including Ghai’s own Mukta Arts.

The school’s business development manager, Chaitanya Chinchlikar, led us on a whirlwind tour of the school, which looked as though it had had some hard use in its four years of existence. Students were everywhere, setting up shots with small camcorders in the hallways, playing table tennis in the rec room, and, in a professionally equipped studio, making a romantic comedy, “Paschim Express — With Love,” that Ghai himself was producing for release on 300 screens in March 2011.

The school’s nearly 400 students, Chinchlikar told us, do more than work as crew on other people’s movies: They get to make three films of their own during the course, concluding with a graduation project, using $10,000 from the school. “We don’t just hand it over,” he explained. “They have to pitch to a committee first.”

For the first eight months, students take a foundation program that includes film history and theory, then spend 18 months studying in their chosen field. “A lot of students come in thinking, “How hard can this be?” Chinchlikar said. “We break them of that attitude pretty fast.”

We had lunch with the school’s leaders, including dean John J. Lee Jr., a Hollywood producer and author of “The Producer’s Handbook,” whose nuts-and-bolts approach to filmmaking exemplifies the Whistling Woods approach. Ghai himself, however, exuded idealism and gravely-voiced charm.

Describing himself as a “self-made man” who “did not know anybody” when he entered the industry, Ghai said that his motivation for starting the school was to give “all those young talents who come to Bombay to try to be a filmmaker the right direction.” “I wanted to help them discover their talents,” he added.

While incorporating ideas from leading film schools abroad and encouraging foreign students to attend — they now account for 15 percent of the student body — Ghai has oriented Whistling Woods firmly toward Indian storytelling traditions. “We must tell our own stories to the rest of the world,” he said. “Otherwise we will be bankrupt and we will just be taking works created by Western people. So we need to be original.”

At the same time, he said students are free to choose their own direction, be it high art or mass entertainment. “I tell the students, please, please develop yourselves the way you would like to,” he said. “It depends what your taste is, what your passion is. It’s an open gateway.”

The school has ambitious expansion plans, including the opening of new campuses in Hyderabad and Alicante in Spain, the latter in cooperation with Ciudad de la Luz, Europe’s largest film studio. It is also considering campuses in Kolkata, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, London, Malaysia, Mauritius, South Africa, Mexico and Bermuda.

“Why isn’t Japan on the list?” I ask Chinchlikar. “We’re not thinking about Japan at the moment, though they lack an international film school,” he answered.

These plans did not strike me as impossible. Bollywood films are growing in popularity abroad; so might a Bollywood film education. The cost of attending Whistling Woods — $35,000 for tuition, room and board — is reasonable compared with the pricey U.S. competition. Just as Toyota is feeling Tata nipping at its heels, perhaps NYU and UCLA had better bend an ear to the sound coming from the Mumbai woods. It isn’t whistling “Dixie.”