India Update #6 - Day 2 in Hyderabad, Ramoji Film City

Today, we visited the Universal City of Bollywood, Ramoji Film City. Being one of the highlights of Hyderabad, Swathi came here with Melony via a bus tour just a week ago and wanted to show it to me. We had to get an early start because of the long drive to the film city. Our breakfast was appam and potato stew which was delicious.

Appam and potato stew

We were taking the Nano again, Swathi's mom and dad sat in the front and we sat in the back. Mohan loaded the car with a 5 liter container of water and we left to go fill the fuel tank with petrol. I took a minute to photograph the service station workers who were more than happy to pose.

Mohan and his Nano

Gas station workers

Once we were loaded and had set off in the general direction, Swathi checked the GPS on her phone and discovered we were heading in the wrong direction. This was the beginning of another adventure, courtesy of the shortest route directions provided by Google Maps on Android.


A clay Ganesha statue on the side of the road which will be painted and used in an upcoming festival

It quickly became clear to us that this was not the route commonly taken to go to Ramoji Film City. We had wandered onto seldom-traveled roads which connected rural villages on the outskirts of Hyderabad. The roads were in extreme disrepair and we had to travel at speeds less than 50 kph for most of the way to avoid the potholes, people and cattle which were everywhere.

Following motorcyclists

To make matters worse, the battery charge on Swathi's cell phone dwindled quickly under the draining load of the constant GPS use. We were in the middle of nowhere, following turn after turn on the instructions of a device which would soon abandon us with no knowledge of the way back or forward. On the positive side, I was able to see what the outskirts and villages of Hyderabad look like. The roads had no name or distance markers. There were no standardized directional signposts, no service stations or shops. It was mostly huts, rice fields, the occasional Hindu temple, and people who worked hard to do whatever it is they do to survive. If we had stopped and asked someone for directions, it was unlikely that they would be able to help us. People out here use feet, either their own or an animal's, to get around. Traveling great distances was as alien to them as navigating these streets was to us. It was an interesting sensation to realize the benefits and disadvantages of using technology. There was a brief moment of wondering if I would die out here. I put my camera down and helped Swathi find a pen and paper so that we could write down the rest of the directions (for roads which had no name) while we still had charge. Just as we finished, the phone died. Using our low-tech directions, we managed to get back on to the main highway and found our way to Ramoji Film City.

We made it!

Swathi and her mom

Swathi en-queued

We found a parking spot, purchased tickets and entered the complex. Charlie Chaplin, Batman, Spiderman, and the Terminator, and a few others were all there in painted fiberglass renditions to greet us as we entered the main gate. Dancers were dancing in Bollywood fashion under a tent. We walked to the nearest attraction and stood in a queue. Once in, we were placed in front of a green screen and our picture was taken, we were then loaded into an open-roof train for a tour of the world, not unlike the "It's a Small World" ride at Disney Land. We saw figurines waving at us and representations of famous landmarks from different countries. America is represented with New York's shopping and Oklahoma's tornadoes. When it was done, we looked at the resulting image of the green screen photo and Mohan purchased a copy which I will scan and upload. Next up was the "Movie Magic" attraction where we would observe the creation of a scene. We waited in the first quadrant of a four-chambered, circular building and waited while a volunteer was chosen from the crowd to be be the star talent and we entered the second quadrant of the quadruplex. As we waited for the volunteer talent to come onto the stage, we watched an introductory video of Mr. Ramoji himself as he explained the origins of his love of film and what we could expect to see. We were recreating a famous Bollywood scene of a horse-drawn carriage being chased by men on horses. The talent, now dressed in costume, came out onto the stage and sat down on the rig, which was in front of a green screen, and tried following the instructions she was given on how to move to make it look more like she was driving. The effect might have been more convincing if she could stop grinning and focus more on whipping the imaginary horse.

our talent

After the camera had recorded a sample of the action, we moved to the next quadrant to observe the process for creating sound effects. The sound stage had various instruments used to make noises like wind, rain, thunder, horse hooves, and jingling harnesses. Once the audio samples were taken, we moved to the last chamber to watch the final rendition of the scene which mixed together the audio, video, and other scenes to make it look like our volunteer really was trying to evade the horsemen.

making sound effects

It was time for lunch, so we ate in the only restaurant in the complex which had air conditioning. It was a Hollywood themed cafe which served a buffet of Indian food. I put whatever I could recognize on my plate and happily munched away, enjoying the respite from the heat and delicious food. For dessert, we were served weird spongy milk balls, submerged in a sugary syrup called "rasmalai", yellow sweet twisty "jalebi", and ice cream.

Apparently, the Hollywood sign is in Hyderabad. Who knew?

Once fed, we wanted to watch a stunt show in the western-themed area, but had just missed the last performance, so we went to a "Spirit of India" dance which was just starting, and saw a performer lay on her back while she tried to maneuver a series of pole-mounted platforms using her legs in order to get a ball to a basket at the top. She dropped the ball a few times (both literally and figuratively), but eventually succeeded, with the reward of applause. After the ball lady, we watched a dance which stayed true to the Bollywood spirit in being flashy and elaborate. The costumes were in the colors of the Indian flag: orange, white, and green.

stupid human tricks


more dancing!

We then took a bus tour of the various sets which had been used in films. There was little expense spared in creating the various settings. It was all here: a fake airport, the streets of London, fake government building, fake train station, leg garden. The complex was vast and the number and kinds of sets created were astounding. I wondered how many or which movies used these items. Judging by the sheer number of buildings, it seemed possible that they might construct a whole building or town for the sake of a single scene in a film.

One of the many elaborate fountains

A set of a temple

photo by Swathi

a replica of a government building

another fountain

Leg Garden

on the tour bus, photo by Swathi

It was 45º C (113º F) outside, so we cooled off with sprite and water before going back to the car. The journey home was almost as adventurous as the one which took us to Film City. We decided to try using the TomTom which was in the trunk of the car. After we had set the destination, it led us through more sparsely populated stretches of land and bad roads. In choosing the path, Swathi and I both thought that we had selected the one which the tour buses usually take, but it was difficult to tell on the screen which roads were the highways and which were the rural routes. It turned out fine in the end, and we were able to see some beautiful scenery.

sunset in rural Hyderabad

a river we crossed

Water Buffalo on the road

After some time, the TomTom took us at an empty plot on the wrong side of Hyderabad and announced that we have arrived at our destination. "You have reached your destination" must mean something different for the people at TomTom than what is commonly understood. After asking for directions, we finally did reach our destination. Once settled, we feasted on a starter that was made by Jyothi which was breaded fried egg with onion rings over a bed of cilantro salad, the remaining leftover pizza that Swathi and I could not finish previously, and some delicious chapatis made by Swathi's mom.

Jyothi's fried egg and onion ring starter

Having been thoroughly entertained and stuffed with food, I will fall asleep tonight with ease and dream of my own Bollywood movie, complete with a float of dancers among streets lined with freshly-constructed houses and shops.

India Update #4 (Meeting the parents)

As we stepped off the train in Hyderabad, her father, Mohan, was waiting on the platform. He greeted both of us, turning to me with a warm handshake then led us to his car. As we put our backpacks in the trunk, beggars began to swarm, some with trinkets in hand, asking for money. Mohan and Swathi both firmly ignored them and got into the car, and I took their lead. On the way home, he warned us about pickpockets and thieves. It was not uncommon for people appearing to be destitute to have lots of money in their bank account. It is very profitable to beg in large cities like this. He said that for every honest man there are two dishonest men. Thieves were professionals in these cities, wearing blades on their fingertips to cut open and loot a pocket without detection. I could tell that he cares very much about the safety and well-being of others, especially his daughter.

The Lal residence

A vigilent guard

When we arrived at the house, we went up stairs, past the bronze soldiers which lined the entrance way, and I met Swathi's mom, Shoba, a very kind and hospitable person. I was shown the way to a room which was used by Aditya, Swathi's younger brother. The room has a door which leads to a balcony barred off from the outside, but otherwise so that clothes can dry on lines which are suspended by a pulley system. Next to the room is the washroom which has a raised platform for the commode and adjacent hand sprayer, and a shower head facing the wall next to the sink. A squeegee sits in the corner for pushing water into the drain. I would make this place my home for the next four days.

Clothes are suspended to dry and Swathi peeks around the corner

Indian washroom

India Update #5 - Day 1 in Hyderabad

My visit to India so far seems to be one adventure after another. Today, Mohan wanted to show us the NTR Gardens, an urban park and memorial for N. T. Rama Rao, the former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. Regrettably, I did not bring my camera, so the photos included here were taken by Melony Chakrabarty, Aditya Roshan's girlfriend who had just visited the week earlier.

Mohan was driving to the park in the Tata Nano and stopped to pick up "appam" dough for tomorrow's breakfast. As we were pulling away from the store, we drove off a small ledge which caused the car to be stuck with the front-left wheel in the air. Swathi took the wheel and Mohan and I were able to lift the corner of the tiny car so that Swathi could reverse it back onto solid ground.

Once we reached the memorial, we removed our shoes out of respect and left them in the car while we explored. The entranceway was a stone walkway which passed under an array of black spires in the form of hands making the respectful sign, "namaste". The memorial was a large square slab under an open dome supported by four pillars. A grass garden and walkway framed the black stonework.

NTR Gardens entanceway

NTR memorial

Some damp mats were set out to make it bearable to walk without shoes, but they were only at the entranceway and around the memorial. The other paths were bare stone which was hot under the sun and Swathi quickly had enough of burning her feet, so we headed back to the car to put our shoes back on. We were planning to go to the neighboring amusement park, so we sat in the car, put our shoes on, then locked the doors and walked away. About 20 paces from the car, Mohan instinctively feels his pockets for his keys and realizes they are not there. We go back to the car and see them sitting in the ignition switch, quite content to stay there behind the locked doors. I have experience opening locked car doors in situations exactly like this; I was a roadside assistance person for quite a few months but felt powerless without the proper tools. Swathi and I looked around the ground among the usual piles of refuse for something that might suffice but came up empty-handed. Mohan eventually phones Shoba and asks her to bring a spare set of keys.

While we were waiting, we walked to the park part of the NTR Garden. Entering into the complex, we went through a security screening, with the typical two lines, one for Gents, the other for Ladies. The security was more relaxed than, say, airport security, but still had metal detectors and a security pat down by armed guards. Once cleared, we purchased tickets and fought the Indian “queues” in order to get our chance at the turnstiles to get into the park. I put queues in quotes here because a queue in India is not like your normal line, where one person patiently waits behind another person who got there first. Here, if there is any free space to stand near where you are trying to go, you stand there, regardless of order. If there is a gap, you fill it and try to get in before the person beside you. It’s chaos, but once you understand how it works, you too can get through a “queue” and still be home in time for supper.

Once inside, I impressed by the size and contents, but was unable to determine who the target audience was. There were fountains, some of which were dry, very large and detailed plastic models of insects, long walkways which went around and throughout the park, slides, and some carnival-style rides. If you liked, a small train could take you on a tour. There was a bonsai garden and a desert plants exhibit which was only open from 5-8 pm, or when convenient, since it was closed when we passed by at 6 pm. A "Fruit Restaurent" [sic] was present but very vacant, with an eating area shaded by plastic palm trees. The ground was littered with mango seeds and coca-cola bottles. After strolling around the park and exploring everything there was to see, we cooled off in the shade and watched the other park goers. At 7 pm, we exited and found Shoba and Jyothi on the sidewalk among the street vendors, ready with the keys. The moon was 3/4 full and fruit bats filled the skies.

Once all five of us had crammed into the Nano, we went to "Natural", which served ice cream flavored with fresh and seasonal fruits. Jyothi and I selected chikoo, Swathi fresh mango, Shoba had chocolate with almonds, and Mohan had mulberry but did not like it.