Soaps and movie palaces

It was an eight-day voyage with no breaks in teaching from Dar to Chennai (Madras) in southern India. Our route took us north of the Seychelles, then southeast to the Maldives, and around the south and east coasts of Sri Lanka.

The 19th in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students.  David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2019) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/

How can I describe my impressions on my first visit to India? It defies description in every way. Such contrasts—conspicuous wealth and grinding poverty, five-star hotels and people sleeping in the streets, ancient temples and modern high-rises, a place where you can eat for less than a dollar or more than $50, where community is important yet, even in the remotest villages, you can make an overseas phone call or get on the Internet. It’s a kaleidoscope of sights, sounds and feelings that excites but also challenges and disturbs some Westerners. The more I saw and learned, the more I realized how little I knew.

The first logistical challenge in any port is to get more than 700 people—students, staff, faculty and crew—through immigration and customs. SAS wisely orders the immigration and customs forms in bulk and has everyone fill them out in advance, saving several hours at each port; even in Havana, the ship was cleared within a couple of hours. But no amount of planning can take account of the caprices of the Indian bureaucracy, one of the least appealing legacies of the British colonial period. Not only did everyone have to go through the line to present their passports for inspection and fill out landing cards, but then a customs officer set up shop in the gangway to review customs declarations and inspect bags. Although we were dockside by 8:00 a.m., the ship did not clear until almost 12:30 p.m., and some people did not get off until an hour later.

I was among the first to leave the ship with a group of 30 students for a trip to Chennai’s leading TV and movie studio. AVM, which had been in business for over 30 years, produces TV serials (soaps) in the main South Indian languages (Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam), commercials and feature films. The tour company evidently hadn’t done much planning, because when we arrived at the studio there was no one to welcome us. The tour agent eventually located the art director, who agreed to take us around but evidently did not relish his new role as tour guide. Instead of addressing the whole group, he insisted on speaking (mostly to me) in hushed tones. I then had to relay what he said to everyone else and ask lots of questions.

We started at a modest sound stage—the interior of an upper middle-class home—where a Telugu-language soap was being shot. A standard set—three living rooms, a bedroom and a kitchen, and a grand staircase for those emotional “I love you, but I must leave you” or “I will never call you my daughter again” scenes. Most soaps run four or five times a week and are on the air for one to two years before they play out all the plot lines, and the characters die or leave. I asked the “guide” about the plot. He shrugged. “It’s about a large family, about love and conflict.” Next door, at a similar-looking sound stage, they were shooting a Tamil-language soap. Again, I asked about the plot. “It’s about a large family, about love and conflict.”  There were two more sound stages, both representing upper middle-class homes, basically the same in layout and design. And, I expect, with the same plot lines.

Southern India is steamy hot for eight or nine months of the year. The studios had no air conditioning, so when the crew switched on the lights and turned off the huge fans, the heat was almost unbearable. This may be one reason why they do only one take on many scenes. We saw the crew shoot a scene for the Tamil-language soap. It consisted of the female lead walking down the staircase to join her family and exchanging sharp words with her husband. The fans went off, the lights went on, the director called “action,” and the single camera on a track tilted down and dollied across to the living room. Lights off, fans on, take complete, tea served. The director told me that he shoots a half-hour serial in a day (including actor and technical rehearsals), takes four hours to edit and airs the program two days later. 

VM Studios' South Indian Street,"ready-made for scenes in any genre. Don't lean on those commercial facades--there's not much behind them! 

VM Studios' South Indian Street,"ready-made for scenes in any genre. Don't lean on those commercial facades--there's not much behind them! 

The soaps are not confined to interior sets. There are a couple of South Indian “streets” with storefronts, a market, a bank and a temple. When a family member turns to crime—perhaps toting one of the plastic Kalashnikovs we found on one set—the scenes are shot in the studio’s police station, jail and courtroom. Victims usually end up in the studio hospital. Eagle-eyed viewers may be able to spot that the courtroom in the Tamil soap looks remarkably like the one in the Telugu soap, but there’s not much language crossover so it’s not a problem.

Not the students I wanted to see locked up.  See "Safari blues."

Not the students I wanted to see locked up.  See "Safari blues."

After Mumbai (Bombay), home of the Hindi-language Bollywood film industry, Chennai is in the next tier of movie production centers. These films are shown not only in India, but in other parts of the world where people have migrated for work—for Tamils, that’s mostly in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. At AVM, a palace set for a movie was under construction. Workers were sawing wood strips, nailing them together into frames, and laying sackcloth to be covered with plaster and painted; others were working on the 200-plus ornate columns (thin plywood and plaster) that would adorn the palace. It was going to be a large palace. “How long will it take you to build it?” I asked. “Two days” was the confident reply. Just as the TV soaps operate on a tight budget and production schedule, movies tend to be formulaic, no-frills, low-budget affairs. With a little creative lighting, you can always cover up that large hole in the wall of the palace. In India, movie-going is mass entertainment, and even poor people can sometimes afford a movie ticket. Profit margins are relatively low, so wages and production budgets are modest. If they can build a palace in two days, they’ll probably shoot the movie in two weeks.

Next week: On the rails through Tamil Nadu