Most folks think that the term Bollywood is a nickname for Indian movies. But the truth is it only refers to the 20 percent or so of Indian films made by Bombay's commercial Hindi business. (B)ombay + (H)ollywood = Bollywood. There's also Tollywood, Kollywood, Lollywood, and on and on.
I'm a bit late in getting to it -- procrastinating on my trusty Vanity Fair iPad app -- but this month Pico Iyer has a great intro to the South Indian film scene with a profile of the world's largest studio, Ramoji Film City, a 1,666-acre, 47-soundstage, one-stop production facility in Hyderabad.
Ramoji Film City speaks for an India that, in its helter-skelter, improvising way, is fast eclipsing more developed countries on many fronts. Hyderabad is home now to a “Hitech City” that contains satellite offices of Google and Microsoft and Facebook; even its police cars come with signs saying cyberabad on top. And the outlandish scale of R.F.C.—chairman Rao lives in a San Simeon-like castle on a hill above the complex—is in keeping with the opulence for which the “City of Pearls” has long been famous.
Set up in 1591 as a version of paradise, Hyderabad was unusual in Southern India for falling under Mogul rule, which brought to the area both sumptuousness and warfare. In the 1930s, Time proclaimed its ruling nizam—flamboyantly presiding over the grandest of princely states, as large as the United Kingdom—to be the richest man in the world, and he is still remembered for his practice of using a 184-carat diamond as a paperweight. His lavishness is winning new admirers even now: in 2010, one of his old palaces, the Falaknuma, was refurbished as a Taj hotel, offering rooms starting at $750 a night.
One evening I take the hour-long drive into Hyderabad in a small R.F.C. car. As we pull away from the stained-glass windows and azure ceilings of the hotel—one of three within the studio complex—my driver tells me that he began working here eight years ago, for $45 a month, but now earns $90 each month (a significant raise, since he has a wife and child to support, and his monthly rent alone comes to $45). We inch through the sepulchral gloom of an exploding metropolis in which traffic is at a riotous, honking standstill. “Ramoji Film City is so good, sir,” he says. “No traffic. No pollution. Everything very quiet.” We pass a body lying motionless in the road, beside an overturned motorbike, groups of gesturing boys encircling it in the dark to divert traffic.
R.F.C. may be the latest incarnation of an abiding dream. A farmer from Tamil Nadu can pay $12 (equivalent, given the average Indian salary, to around $400) and, for a few hours, step out of a country where 300 million try to live on less than a dollar a day and the streets are an unruly, often deadly cacophony of buses, cars, auto rickshaws, cows, and pedestrians. Or, for a fraction of that, slip into an air-conditioned movie theater, where beautiful, fleshly stars are shimmying in sync across a sparkling, local version of Paris.
It's a great read, and, like most VF pieces, proof that print media can still deliver the goods. (BTW: I also highly recommend the VF app if you live outside the U.S. It ain't cheap, and the issue takes awhile to download, but once you have it on your tablet it's as pleasant to read as the print magazine).