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Semester at Sea

Soaps and movie palaces

Bollywood—the Mumbai (Bombay)-based film industry—is famous throughout the world, but it’s not India’s only domestic movie producer. Throughout the country, there are regional centers, producing feature-length films, TV dramas and soaps in the country’s major languages. Most Bollywood productions are in Hindi. For Telugu speakers, there’s Tollywood, based at Ramoji Film City near Hyderabad, reportedly the largest film studio complex in the world. Hyderabad’s regional rival is the Bengaluru-based Chandanavana (Sandalwood), producing more than 200 films a year in the Kannada language. The southwest state of Kerala boasts Mollywood, producing in the Malayalam language. Kolkata is home to the Bengali-language film industry.

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The second-largest movie center, in terms of revenue and distribution, is in Chennai (Madras), producing primarily in the Tamil language, but also competing for the market in the other principal South Indian languages--Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. In 2003, while on a round-the-world voyage with the Semester at Sea program, I led a field trip for 30 students to AVM Productions. After two previous ventures, and a couple of box-office flops, pioneer movie producer Avichi Meiyappan launched AVM in 1947, and it soon became one of the country’s leading film studios. Although most famous for its Tamil-language movies (along with a few in Telugu and Hindi), its bread-and-butter productions are TV serials (soaps) and dramas and  commercials.

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. 

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

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

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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.

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.