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In Xanadu

Soutik Biswas | 08:02 UK time, Monday, 4 May 2009

Ramoji Rao's film cityIn Ramoji Rao's world, it is time for the "summer carnival". Never mind the searing heat, climbing to over 43 degrees centigrade. As dusk falls, Mr Rao's 2000-acre property set in part-wilderness on the outskirts of Hyderabad comes alive. Part movie studio ("Come with a script and walk away with your print," is Mr Rao's favourite slogan), part theme park, part media city, the place is a fruition of the tycoon's dreams.

So the "summer carnival" hits this kitsch town. It's time for a modestly psychedelic light show. The Victorian lamps on its wide and long streets fade in and out, and the faux Greco-Roman sculptures dotting the streets are bathed in green and red neon. Odd-looking floats carrying men dressed as Mickey Mouse and assorted cartoon characters whiz past. It appears that the turnout is thin this evening, but the carnival must go on.

I am standing near a green verge lit up by an emaciated neon Eiffel Tower. A Winne The Pooh garbage vat glares into the distance. A plastic penguin with red eyes is still standing up to the heat. Ahead there are water falls over brightly lit rocks and more paraphernalia. For 400 rupees ($8) a visitor, Mr Rao offers you a guided tour around his kingdom of kitsch. His people tell me the tours are a big hit.

Not far away from the curious carnival, Mr Rao presides over his empire from an enormous glass-walled, wood lined office. His teak and glass bookshelf is lined with Lee Iacocca, tomes on "constitutional law of India" and a book called "1000 Places To See Before You Die". On his right is a surreal landscape of barren, brown hills and opulent brightly lit villas. In front are 19 glowing TV screens, each playing a different channel, including a dozen that he owns personally. "He sits here," an aide whispers, "and keeps a watch".

Almost on cue, the door opens and Mr Rao walks in. He is a slight, bespectacled man in white: white shirt, white trousers, white shoes and white Pierre Cardin watch on his wrist. He sinks into a sofa and invites us to settle down too. Behind our backs, the TV screens are agog with dancing girls, weeping women and breaking news. On one screen, a wizened farmer is holding up a pair of mangoes. An aide tells me it is an "entertainment programme for the farmers" a big hit from Mr Rao's TV stable.

"Tell me about your experiences," Mr Rao opens. "I am very interested".Ramoji Rao

At 72, he is a very curious man. His questions fly thick and fast.

"What is your aim? What do you expect to cover going round and round [in the train]? So is it the social aspect of India you want to cover?"

Then he breaks into a smile, nods his head and continues. "Are you satisfied with what you have done? Where are you going next?"

We tell him about our journey so far. Mr Rao warms up, telling us about his life as a film producer - "I produced 80 films in different languages," he says. This helped him conjure up his Indian Disneyland mixing cinema and leisure. So he took over this "godforsaken" piece of land, and built the film city. "Biggest in the world, sir," an aide says, "according to Guiness Book of Records".

Ramoji Film City promises "every conceivable type of location from New York skyscrapers to Japanese tea houses, Western streets to airports and railway stations," says a handout carrying Mr Rao's profile. There are also "various locales" to film songs, a staple of Indian movies.

"We love songs," says Mr Rao. "Chasing the girl is common. We need a lot of locales for that."

Mr Rao made his name in the film world by making a weepy hit on a one-legged girl who becomes an ace dancer. He says he has stuck with making "socially relevant films", whether the market likes it or not. He tells us a story of one such "creative flop".

"I made this film on whether marriage is essential to become a mother. How is it possible? It was a flop. I was ahead of my times, people told me."

Outsiders tell me that the film city is not doing as well as it used to. Mr Rao says some 200 films are made here every year. After 9/11, he says, very few foreign production houses have come here to make films. He doesn't explain why.

The business of news excites Mr Rao most. He is the pioneer of regional TV news in India and now employs 5000 people for his news channels. Many of these are not making money during the downturn, he says, but it is all part of the game.

For the past few years, he has been involved in a battle with the state's chief minister, belonging to the ruling Congress party. The Congress party politician has begun investigations into Mr Rao's interests, including a thriving small deposits business. His channels have hit back against the politician, he says, "exposing his misdeeds". He gives us a book that he has published against the politician, a vitriolic compilation of news reports. It is called "The Bad and Ugly." He proudly shows us the 30 district editions of his mass circulation Telugu paper he owns over snacks in a plush eating hall.

"News is my mainstay. The rest of the stuff are all side dishes," he says.

What does he feel about the elections in the state? Who is likely to win?

The chief minister is Mr Rao's bête-noire. It is quite clear that he would love his rival, a regional strongman, to win.

"If I have to be pro-people, I have to fight those who are anti-people. That is why I am exposing corruption in the present state government," he says.

It is time to leave. Mr Rao walks nimbly up to the foyer and waves us off. We cross the "summer carnival". On the way out of Xanadu, we just follow the yellow neon on the street. The huge gates draped in sparkling red beckon us. We pass through and come out into the inky black darkness of a hot summer night.


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