Natarajan Ramji, chairman, Chennai-based Travel Masters India, prefers to be known as the ‘Location Guru’. He finds and organises film shootings in exotic locations all over the world for film producers across India. Once you sign up with him, he takes care of everything including arranging for Indian cooks. “I am leaving for Kiev to fix shootings on the river Dnieper and also Volga in Russia,” he says. The Tunnel of Love is a section of industrial railway located near Klevan, Ukraine, that links it with Orzhiv. Trees have engulfed the railway lines and now it is a beauty spot. We are shooting two sequences here for a Telugu film,” says Ramji, as we settle down for lunch at the Flying Elephant, at the Park Hyatt.
We start with fresh orange juice, decide to skip soup, and order a couple of starters. I ask for grilled watermelon with a lot of boiled vegetables and cheese thrown in. Ramji wants prawn shish kebab. Ramji began his professional career as a fashion model in his late teens, debuted as a hero in a Telugu film in the 1980’s, and acted in about 40 films. “After a few years, I realised I was going nowhere and joined the travel industry. I found I didn’t enjoy working for others and wanted to do something on my own.” In 1990, he got his first break. Telugu superstar Chiranjeevi wanted a foreign location and Ramji could combine his experience in films and travel and arrange the shooting in Singapore successfully. Next year, he launched Travel Masters India Private Limited with the support of Magunta brothers of Balaji Breweries.
Till 1996, film makers went abroad only to shoot one or two songs as the foreign exchange position was tight. It was in 1996, when the government loosened up the purse strings things became easy. Switzerland was the favoured location in those years. Everybody started heading towards Switzerland. However, the country would shut down by November because of the climate. That is when Ramji discovered New Zealand.
Ramji decides to share one of Flying Elephant’s huge vegetable pizzas with me for the main course. “Till 1997, New Zealand was not in anybody’s horizon. I went exploring the country. I got so excited by my discovery as I looked at places as locations. I drove down from Christ Church in the South to Auckland in the North. When it is spring in Switzerland, it is autumn in New Zealand. More location options opened up for me. I have now been to New Zealand 38 times.
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He started arranging for shootings in South Asian countries. “ I started looking at places round the globe. I took director Shankar to Australia to shoot a song for Kamal Haasan in the blockbuster film Indian. He also took Shankar to Machu Pichu, for a song in Endhiran (Robot) and to China for I. “I started adding up many European countries. I have been to 110 countries so far”. There are countries which get rejected by Ramji. “I realised that Cypress won’t work for our films.”
In 2010, Ramji started expanding in a big way. He set up offices all over the country. “I wanted to be the next Thomas Cook.” His grand plans led to financial disaster. “It was 2013 and I had to stage a comeback and do something spectacular. Film industry keeps changing. I had to keep pace. I packed my bags and set out again. I went to Bulgaria and wasn’t impressed initially. Then I started connecting the dots and found the place interesting and realised the country provided an ideal location in many ways.
That is when Bahubali happened. “I knew both the director and the producer. They wanted to create an ice kingdom, the Himalayas. The budget had gone through the roof. Shooting in Switzerland or New Zealand for 30 days would have cost them over Rs 12 to Rs 13 crore. They asked me whether I can find an alternative. Bulgaria was the answer”. Ramji says that Bulgaria is a film-friendly country. It has big studios. You can hire a stunt team and an action director there. Many Hollywood films are shot in Bulgaria. “I brought the cost down to R3.5 crore.” Ever since Bahubali, Ramji has been on a roll.
We decide to have Irish coffee and Ramji tells me about finding locations for Bollywood films. Ajay Devgan was looking at Canada for his ambitious film Shivay and it was proving to be very expensive. He needed snowy mountains and Hollywood technicians. “Initially it was difficult to meet him. I finally convinced him that Bulgaria and Poland were ideal. What was going to cost R70 crore was done in R20 crore.”
Ramji caught the attention of Rohit Shetty who was checking out Mauritius for ‘Dilwale’. Mauritius was turning out to be not very practical as the country has only resort hotels and not multiple options. Ramji convinced Shetty to shift the location to Iceland. This is also a film-friendly country where Hollywood A listers shoot.
Ramji now is networked enough to cover all the Balkan countries. “Life comes a full circle. We shot megastar Chiranjeevi’s 150th film ‘Khaidi’ in Croatia and Slovenia. He is returning to films after 10 years and this Telugu film is breaking all records in collections. “The scene is moving from songs to action. Travel Masters is now seen as specialists in action movies. We have teams who do Hollywood movies. The budgets are getting bigger. When I started, we used to take 20 people at the most, needed raw stock to shoot films, and carried limited equipment. Now the number of people travelling for a shooting has increased enormously, sometimes going up to 120 people. We use drones which is not permitted in India. For Mani Ratnam’s new film we shot with MIGs in Slovenia and Croatia.. We did the impossible. But I can’t tell you anymore”.
This is why more and more producers want to go abroad to shoot. Ramji has already signed up for six films this year. There are discussions with more producers in multiple languages including Marathi. “Crowd management and getting permissions are much easier in these locations”. “I come up with out of the box ideas. For a car chase which was supposed to take place in Paris, we started at Eiffel Tower and then moved to Slovenia. “The demand for foreign location will only grow. You can’t get a car to flip over in Anna Salai in Chennai, can you.”