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Ramoji Rao: The dreamer who built Film City

The media mogul who died on June 8 had many firsts to his credit, and the magnificent scale of his vision remains unmatched, writes G N Mohan.
Last Updated : 14 June 2024, 20:09 IST

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Asli or naqli? Ramoji Rao was asked this question by an intern during a workshop at Ramoji Film City. The aim of the workshop was to teach print journalists the nuances of TV journalism. Rao was planning to expand the ETV channel network, airing in only Telugu back then, to five more languages. He was hosting an intensive workshop for journalists he had handpicked from various parts of the country.

Journalists visiting Ramoji Film City, spread across 2,000 acres, stood confused and astonished, unable to distinguish between what was real and what was fake. A temple where they offered prayers in the morning would vanish by evening. Through the gates of a jail, they would find themselves entering a school. A church became a mosque at the back and a temple from the side. Everything was so intriguingly designed that they were baffled.

Rao arrived to address the journalists, accompanied by a security team armed with AK-47 rifles. He encouraged the journalists to ask questions. The first came from a girl who pointed to the AK-47 rifles: “Are they real or fake?” Rao burst into laughter and replied, “Our journalism, ethics, and social service are real, but many things you see in Film City are not.”

Passion for movies

Rao’s 87-year life journey was anchored on this principle. He infused a social responsibility dimension into his films, TV shows, and newspapers. This is how Rao, who hailed from Krishna district in Andhra Pradesh, became renowned across the country and even secured a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. His journey won him one of India’s highest civilian awards, the Padma Vibhushan.

As a young boy who used to watch two movies a week, Rao went on to create Ramoji Film City, where two films could be made every week. From the time he watched movies to the time he oversaw Film City operations, sitting in a nine-story office there, his life was filled with many dreams. 

When I entered his office as the head of the ETV news division, I knew I would take back with me a wealth of stories every time I met him.Once, he said, “Do you know I am also a film star?” If you search for Ramoji Film City on Google, you will find everything about me, but you won’t find that I have acted in films,” he said, chuckling. That was just two years after he had started the film magazine Sitara. I had close contact with him for nearly a decade.

Rao could identify a need, and meet it, and this was the secret behind his success. Whether in cinema, television, politics, or hoteliering, this was his strategy — filling the gaps.

Within a few years of starting Sitara, he set up awards for cinema. He was also the first to focus on those who remained in the shadows in the film industry, and give them due recognition.

He loved watching films and reading books. He merged these passions and emerged victorious on the big screen. A less-known aspect of his life was that he ran magazines, Chatura and Vipula, for literature enthusiasts. A story published in Chatura, ‘Prema Lekha’, was adapted into a film. Thus, Rao’s cinematic dream began with ‘Srivariki Premalekha’ (1984), and from there, he never looked back.

Refreshing change

Amid films with eight murders and 18 fight sequences, a gentle breeze of love stories emerged. Rao’s films also told real-life stories of survival. Beginning with hits such as ‘Kanchanaganga’ (1984), ‘Mayuri’ (1984), and ‘Pratighatana’ (1985), his production house Usha Kiran Movies went on to produce 87 films in multiple languages. 

Rao understood that ensuring films reached the audience was as important as making films. This led to the establishment of the Mayuri Distribution Company. To popularise songs from his films, he started a cassette company with the same name, and for promotion, he had the daily Eenadu. He conquered one milestone after another. A significant milestone in this journey was Ramoji Film City.

Universe in a city

Ramoji Film City, established in 1996, became a preferred destination for shooting films and TV serials in all Indian languages.

It was said that one could walk into it with a script and walk out with a film. Its exceptional capabilities attracted the attention of even Hollywood, making it a location for many big productions.

One day, Rao asked me if I could arrange for an elephant. I was stunned. A film required nine elephants, and they had managed to secure only eight. The ninth was proving elusive. While I was still processing this request, he told me a circus company had set up camp in Shivamogga. He suggested that I speak with them to see if they could lend us an elephant for four days. This was how Rao always succeeded in his ventures. He conducted exhaustive research and knew every member of his staff across the country. He was also aware of the tiniest details from every corner of the nation.

My friends and I would often joke, “God created the universe and the universe waited for Rao to create a film city.” Before I joined Ramoji Film City as the head of ETV News, the poet Jayant Kaikini had given me a piece of advice: “Never post any letters there; otherwise...” It was only after I arrived there that I realised all the post boxes were part of film sets.

Train with tyres

Once, while wandering around, I saw a train appear on the road, seemingly out of nowhere. The train had truck tyres. It could halt anywhere and the actors could sing duets on it!

When I joined ETV, Rajamouli was directing the serial ‘Santhi Nivasam’ for ETV Telugu. Years later, the sets of ‘Baahubali’ attracted crowds. Recently, I saw fans flocking to the sets of ‘RRR’.

Those who have trained under Rao have become eminent figures in cinema and TV today — directors, actors, musicians, singers, and more. Too many to count.

Once, I asked Rao why he hadn’t written an autobiography. Without missing a beat, he brought out a book from his private room. He started flipping through its pages. It was filled with stories of people who had beaten difficult odds to climb every step in life. “Society needs autobiographies of such individuals,” he said. “The lives of those who have fought for a dignified existence should not be left undocumented.” 

Rao often said, “Make a mistake, no matter how big. Make another mistake, but I will never let you make the same mistake twice.” As he leaves at 87, amid a trail of monumental achievements, I can’t but hope that his departure is ‘naqli’ news. 

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Published 14 June 2024, 20:09 IST

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