The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Rebels out, stars eye a wild date
- Andhra’s virgin forests could be bollywood’s new shooting hot spot

It isn’t easy getting dates from Rani Mukherjee, so producer K.S. Rama Rao needed a bit of magic.

One name worked like a charm, he said.

“I said I would shoot some scenes at the Nallamala forest. She asked whether that means she would be staying right in the heart of the woods. Okay, I said, she could stay in the Neelagiri forest lodge for the entire month of shooting there. She has now given me open dates,” Rao chuckled.

Rani isn’t the only Bollywood star who appears to be seduced by the romance of the unspoilt forest that is often compared to Kerala’s Silent Valley because of its rare vegetation and birds.

“Salman Khan, Govinda and Hrithik Roshan have promised dates to Bollywood and Tollywood (Telugu film industry) producers if they shoot in the virgin Andhra forests,” said Ashwini Dutt, a film producer in Hyderabad.

Neither Rao nor Dutt would name the films or the directors, but both insist that the forest stretching across seven districts will soon be bustling with film and TV crews.

“The long Maoist occupation, during most of which even the security forces feared to enter the dense forests, has only enhanced Nallamala’s mystique,” a local film industry source said.

“Now, with the rebels ousted after a decade, locations such as Guttikonda, Vempenta and Chinna Arutla will prove irresistible even for Bollywood producers.”

Tollywood, of course, had been milking the appeal of these jungles, streams and wooded hills before the Maoists set up their bases.

Stars who have shot in Andhra

To N.T. Rama Rao, Nallamala was his Nottingham Forest. The 1969 hit Gandikota Rahasyam, with NTR in the lead as a Robin Hood character, was filmed here.

But the armed men who came later were much more dangerous than the bandit with a heart. Tollywood tasted their fury when a film caravan of Usha Kiron Movies was blown up in 2000, stopping all showbiz forays into the forest.

But come March, and some 10 film units will be treading the once-forgotten jungle tracks. Among the big names are Vijaya, Suresh Productions and Usha Kiron.

The state film industry says there is nothing strange about Bollywood stars weighing not just the money and the script but also the shoot locations before signing up.

“Rani Mukherjee is quite a nature lover. So are, for instance, Kajol, Juhi Chawla, Priyanka Chopra, Sonam, Preity Zinta and Mahima Chaudhary. They have always given dates to Hyderabad producers if they were able to arrange a stay in a picturesque locale,” said a source in the AP Film Chamber of Commerce, an association of producers.

But do the stars need mix business with pleasure' Can they not just arrive as tourists' “The remoter and more scenic spots have so far lacked the sort of infrastructure a film star would need — they are only good for trekking and sleeping in tents,” the source said. “So it’s smarter to let a producer arrange the accommodation as he builds his sets.”

That could change soon. Tollywood wants to set up a huge cinema hub with studios and outdoor units in the forest. “The region, if properly developed with infrastructure like petrol pumps, motels and banks, could become for us what Lonavala is to Bollywood,” said Kodi Ramakrishna, director and co-producer.

The Andhra Pradesh Film and Theatre Development Corporation, responsible for film-related infrastructure, is talking to the state government and the Centre for lease of land at the best locations.

“We are getting requests from Bollywood investors for plots. They are ready to pay any sum,” said Adiseshagiri Rao, its chairman.

“Even big names like the Ambanis and Ruias and Mehtanis, and realtors from western India, are scouting for prospects in Andhra, particularly in the forest and tribal zones of Nallamala, Tirumala and Visakhapatnam.”

The corporation’s officials said actresses such as Rekha and Nagma are keen to have their own farmhouses or bungalows in Nallamala.

The state tourism department has its own plans to offer adventure, eco-tourism and wildlife packages.

“We’ll re-launch the half-day pleasure cruise down the Krishna, between Nagarjunasagar and Srisailam, through reserve forests flush with greenery and teeming with birds,” an official said.

The government is gearing to spruce up some of the forest lodges and cottages that were abandoned after Maoist threats and arson attacks in 2002, and is scouting for a location for mega open-air events.

“We have a Rs 50-crore programme to rebuild the Nallamala forest as a tourist hotspot,” tourism minister J. Geeta Reddy said.

The forest department plans to again arm its guards and rangers and reinstall the wireless network, withdrawn a decade ago after a series of guerrilla raids on forest offices and police stations for wireless sets and weapons.

For the first time in a decade, the forest rangers plan to wear the khaki uniforms they had given up for fear of being identified by the rebels.

Bird-watchers, too, are set to return. “My team was shot at twice in 2005 for wearing olive jackets near Kurnool when they went to record the arrival of new birds,” said Anil Kumar of the Bombay Natural History Society.

“These things are in the past now. The police and district administration have complete control over the forest routes,” said state police chief M.A. Basith.

He has his predecessor Swaranjit Sen to thank for laying siege to the Maoist fortress two years ago, hunting the rebels down with helicopters and armoured cars. One after another, the rebel top guns were killed or captured.

A CPI (Maoist) spokesman, however, told reporters last week: “We are only lying low but are not out of the region.”

M. Balasubramanyam, police chief of former Maoist hub Prakasham, laughed it off. “We have raided every hideout and unearthed all arms dumps. If there are any Maoists left, we can track them with GPS.”

K.V.P. Ramachandra Rao, chief adviser to the chief minister, backs him. “The Maoist fear is gone. Investors, especially manufacturers, are now coming to Telengana.”

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