Ah, India. Delicious and disturbing aromas, luxury, misery, glamour, optimism and brutal poverty can all be confronted in less time than it takes to enjoy two courses of some of the world’s most sensual food.
For me, a fleeting observer, coming to terms with India’s poverty has always been a tough call. For the poverty-stricken, it must be unbearable and with few opportunities for escape, which may go some way to explaining the flamboyant absurdities of Indian cinema.
Bollywood, near Mumbai (Bombay), is an enormous studio complex that has elevated schmaltz to an art form churning out hundreds of saccharin films each year to an apparently insatiable audience.
You know the story: plot-free, fanciful scripts loaded with coquettish love scenes on lavish sets punctuated by syrupy song and dance routines involving casts of hundreds….but there’s more.
Kollywood, based in Chennai (Madras), produces Tamil language films. Mollywood pumps out Malayalam language films in Kerala. Lollywood does the same in Lahore in Pakistan, which brings us to Tollywood.
Tollywood produces hundreds of movies in the southern Tegulu and Tamil languages and is based in Hyderabad, the capital of Andra Pradesh state and one of India’s most unusual cities.
Hyderabad is a major centre of ancient Islamic culture. It’s also home to High-Tech City, known as Cyberabad, where dozens of global information technology giants such as Microsoft, Oracle and Motorola have bases.
A strangely harmonious blend of religions, of northern and southern customs and cuisines, of the ancient and ultra-modern, this is a city of magnificent mosques, minarets, Hindu temples, throbbing bazaars, palaces, parks and – giant movie posters.
I lost interest in movies years ago but in my luxurious room at the Taj Krishna Hotel in fashionable Banjara Hills where lots of Tollywood stars live, I sprawled on the plush sofa to surf some local TV.
All I found were about 40 channels screening Indian movies, all of which had one thing in common; they were unremittingly tedious. Then onto the screen, appeared one of humankind’s most exquisite creatures.
Portraying a heroine called Sneha in a forgettable dud entitled “Aashiq Banaya Aapne” was Tanushree Dutta, then a 23 year old bachelor of commerce student, Miss India Universe 2004 and now an ascendant Bollywood star. But the film was in its dying throes in more ways than one and I fell asleep.
I woke to the rustle of the Times of India being slid under the door. Inside was a story about a 30 year old woman who had thrown her young niece out of a moving train, an advice piece on “constipation, a common problem, that can be rectified with some care” and the news that Tanushree Dutta was in town to film something called “Virabhadra” opposite a local Tollywood hero named Balakrishna.
This was significant news as I was heading that day to the epicentre of Tollywood film production 25kms from Hyderabad called Ramoji Film City, a state of the art 800-hectare “dream factory” set in rolling pink-granite badlands where outlaws once took refuge.
It’s a gigantic movie lot that can produce 1,400 films a year with 47 sound stages, lavish outdoor sets, lovingly manicured gardens, plenty of tourist accommodation and it stars in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest movie studio.
I settled into the five-star lobby of the on-site Sitara Hotel, where most of the visiting movie types stay, for a little star spotting. But there was nobody who looked remotely like a star.
I tried again at dinner in the hotel’s Galaxy Restaurant but it was almost empty. There was, however, a superb buffet of regional fare including the Hyderabadi specialty, biryani, “baked” saffron rice and curried mutton.
Next day was hot and sunny and, determined to photograph some Tollywood stars, I joined a tour of the “dream factory” guided by a pleasant, knowledgeable woman who was clearly in charge. “No photographs of the filming or the actors is allowed,” she said firmly as we approached an outdoor shoot in progress.
The scale of the film sets was staggering. There were 150 expansive gardens including the Japanese Garden, Flying Kiss Garden, Hawaiian Garden, Sanctuary Garden full of shrubs shaped like wild animals and the enormous Moghul Garden.
There was a Wild West town, a tea plantation, railway station, a building with an airport on one side and hospital on the other, a north Indian village and elaborately sculpted fountains.
I sneaked away and returned to the film shoot, perchance to find the photogenic Ms Dutta. What I found was a B-grade song and dance rehearsal but I fitted a long lens and waited for the right moment.
I shot off two frames before spotting an aggressive security guard advancing across the bottom of my viewfinder, arm outstretched in an unmistakable threat. I replaced the offending flash card with a blank (paparazzi trick from another life) and retreated unscathed and utterly Duttaless.
Ms Dutta, I later discovered, had been filming in Hyderabad city.
Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2013 (Copyright Agency Limited)