“It only looks like that from the outside,” said a member of the publicity team from the Colors television channel. “Once you go inside, you will realise the true grandeur.”

He is referring to the rusted wrought iron gates that lead into Vrindavan Studios in Umbergaon, Gujarat. The surroundings do not betray signs of what is called the Mumbai television industry’s “mytho-hub” just yet. Slowly, the make-believe worlds of gods, goddesses, demons and magical animals that drive the ratings on general entertainment channels reveal themselves.

Two huge pandals flank a narrow road leading away from the entrance. These are the sets for Karmaphal Data Shani, the latest mythological show to be shot at the 40-acre studio. A reimagining of the tale of Shani, an incarnation of the Saturn planet and a traditional harbinger of doom, Karmaphal Data Shani made its debut on November 8 on Colors. The top-rated show is rumoured to be one of the most expensive productions on television.

Nearly 600 people have worked on the show’s four main sets at Vrindavan: the bedroom of Shani’s mother Chhaya, the abode of the sun god Suryalok, Shani’s jungle kingdom, and the kingdom of Indra, or Indralok.

The sets of Shani shimmer with gold-embossed designs. In every location, giant doors convey a sense of space and grandeur. Lit flames dance in tall torches in the corridors leading to the sets, as though at a religious ritual.

The Suryalok set. Courtesy Colors.

The forest location is the most intricately designed. Even though it is day time, the mud, lighting and colourful fake flowers, some of which have LED lighting inside, might have confused the creatures of the night. The forest seems alive with the chattering of insects.

The monochromatic sets, which are enhanced by visual effects during the edit, occasionally resemble an extremely cash-rich Ganesh pandal. Since white doesn’t match with the gold, the designers have chosen a black floor, a first for a mythological.

“It’s the first time you will see a black floor in any mythological show,” said Amol Souvik, the show’s creative director. “But it takes a few hours to clean. Even a little speck of dust shows up on it.”

The black floor is making the crew restless. It is late in the evening, and the sequence was supposed to have been in the can five hours ago, but the lighting technicians are taking a long time to get the proceedings ready. Inside the set, there are loud shouts from the cinematographer and general chaos. A handful of crew members are in charge of wiping every tiny mark from floor with bottles of kerosene and dusty rags.

“Every aspect of the design has been influenced by the sun,” explained Shweta Korde, the costume designer. “If you look at the jewellery, it is also 3D so that it is like the sun’s rays.”

Costume designer Shweta Korde with Suryadev's five-kg crown. Photo by Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan.

Salil Ankola, who is playing the sun god Surya, idly sits on a flimsy plastic chair that creaks under his bulked-up frame. In the studio grounds, where other mythologicals are being shot simultaneously, a who’s who from the celestial pantheon engages in a game of badminton. Young Krishna teams up with his brother Balram to take on Radha and her cohorts.

But the work of some young gods is never complete. Inside the chroma key set of Karmaphal Data Shani, the titular 12-year-old hero Shani (Karthikey Malviya) is unable to summon the exaggerated emotions that he might not yet have experienced. Examples from the movies are offered to him as references.

“Faster, stronger, louder!” yells the director. “Don’t you remember how Hrithik Roshan ran in Krrish 2? “Raise your arms and run in full flow!”

The pattern is repeated in another one of Shani’s scenes for the day. Eventually, something clicks and Malviyya is able to deliver the perfect take. To keep the youngster’s spirit buoyed, his co-star actor Gufi Paintal (Vishwakarma), who played Shakuni in BR Chopra’s Mahabharata, exclaims, “Shabaas, Bachchan sahab!”

Behind the scenes of ‘Karmaphal Data Shani’. Video by Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan.

Located past cattle sheds and rows of coconut trees a few kilometres outside Umbergaon, Vrindavan Studios was set up in 1978 by Bipin Hirabhai Patel, an art director and a veteran of mythological films. Gujarati and Bhojpuri productions were initially shot at Vrindavan. Patel used his contacts in the Mumbai entertainment industry to court television producers during the video boom of the 1980s, and he managed to convince Ramanand Sagar to shoot Ramayana in the late ’80s. Telecast on Doordarshan from 1987 to 1988, the series created history and started a craze for mythologicals on the small screen that is still continuing.

The popularity of Ramayana also persuaded television producers to sample the advantages of moving out of Film City in Mumbai. Sanjay Khan shot his 178-episode series Jai Hanuman from 1997 to 2000 at Vrindavan, as did the makers of Suryaputra Karna, Razia Sultan and Bal Gopal Kare Dhamaal.

Photo by Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan.

Over time, it has become difficult to differentiate reality from belief. A crumbling temple in the shade causes a spot of debate: was it built for the set of Ramayana or is it an actual temple? Nobody knows for sure.

A Shiva statue sits abandoned in one corner. Another section is devoted to tridents, maces and swords, some abandoned forever, others waiting for a fresh coat of paint to be used in yet another battle scene.

There is no end to the mythological debris. “Look here, this is the wall that was used in the battle of Kurukshetra,” one of the crew members pointed out. “That giant elephant? It’s supposed to guard the castle of Karna,” said another. “Don’t these gigantic doors convey a sense of grandness? It is from the set of Razia Sultan.

Inside Vrindavan Studios. Video by Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan.

The grounds of Vrindavan Studios are alive with the ghosts of past productions, and there is no better person to evoke fond memories than 68-year-old Hirabhai Patel, the studio’s owner and manager and the son of Vrindavan’s founder.

Sitting inside a windowless office, Patel is surrounded by publicity material and photographs from his father’s illustrious career. Each item invites an anecdote about its particular history.

Buniyaad was shot here during a production strike in Mumbai,” said Hirabhai Patel, his eyes shimmering with excitement. “Even Mithun Chakraborty’s Hamara Sansar was shot in Vrindavan Studios.”

Hirabhai Patel in his office at Vrindavan Studios. Photo by Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan.

Hirabhai’s father, Bipin Patel, and five business partners pooled in Rs 25 lakh to buy 40 acres of land and set up Vrindavan Studios in 1978. One of Patel’s friends was Ramanand Sagar, who was in debt after a series of flops. Bipin Patel told Sagar that he could save a lot of money by shooting at Vrindavan, especially since the director could repurpose material left over from Patel’s art direction days and lower production costs .

In Mark Tully’s essay on the making of the Ramayana in No Full Stops in India, Sagar had other reasons to shoot in Umbergaon: the actors could stay away from the pressure of crowds and celebrity visitors, and would not be able to work on multiple shows at the same time.

Umbergaon’s distance from Mumbai – around four hours by road – didn’t work out as planned. Ramayana ran for 78 weeks on Doordarshan, and thousands of visitors made a pilgrimage to Umbergaon to visit the hallowed grounds of the mythological. Patel remembers close to 10,000 people coming to the location on certain weekends.

The spotlight swung back on Vrindavan in 2013 after it hosted Mahabharata, the 2013 remake of BR Chopra’s original show. The retelling of the epic series revitalised the mythology genre on Indian television, and its producer, Swastik Studios, has taken a lead role in adapting the origin myths of Hindu gods for television.

Swastik Studios, headed by Siddharth Kumar Tewary, is also the producer of Karmphal Data Shani, which, according to its production crew members, is a revisionist look at the Shani origin story. Karthikey Malviya was chosen to play Shani after he appeared on the talent show India’s Best Dramebaaz. The cast includes Salil Ankola as Suryadev and Juhi Parmar in two roles as Chhaya and Sanghya.

Ankola’s fit frame belies his 48 years, and his costume (crown, bodice, jewellery and sword) weighs close to 25 kgs. “I had to work on my physique, my body language, the way I delivered my dialogue,” said the former cricketer. “You have to space it because the language is so pure that you have to pronounce it correctly. You have to be precise with each and every word. So, that comes out very difficult if you are not used to it.”

Salil Ankola on the sets of ‘Karmaphal Data Shani’. Photo by Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan.

Juhi Parmar does not have it easy either. Every costume change requires two hours because her attire comes with several moving parts. Four people are needed each time she has to get ready to come on to the set.

“We believe in gods, we believe in poojas,” Parmar said when asked about the popularity of mythological shows. “Religious sentiments are strong in India, that is why they have always worked. For a while they weren’t being made but whenever they are made, they are always successful.”

Karmaphal Data Shani spent a year and a half on the drawing boards before it was shot at Vrindavan because Tewary did not want to compromise on quality. Umbergaon might not be Peter Jackson’s Weta Studio in New Zealand, but Vrindavan’s expanse, the forest of tall conifer trees and the pristine beach nearby combine to make the location ideal for fantasy and mythology.

Outside the gates of Vrindavan, Umbergaon looks decidedly non-mythological. Right outside the railway station, a hoarding advertises South Gujarat’s “first tower complex with podium garden and podium parking”, aptly titled Antilia. At least 2,000 industries have come up in Umbergaon since the ’80s, and many townsfolk, particularly Patel, attribute this industrialisation to the original Ramayana series.

“There were always factories in Umbergaon,” Hirabhai Patel said. “It was the show that made investors aware that a place like this existed, so they began coming here.”

Sights of Umbergaon. Video by Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan.

The cast members live in 80 two-bedroom apartments in a gated complex near the studio, and they have little contact with the local people. Barring a few domestic workers and the occasional junior artist, the television productions do not hire locals. The auto-rickshaw drivers are glad for the business generated by tourists, who drop by Vrindavan Studios while on a visit to the local beach.

The main sources of livelihood in Umbergaon are industrial units and fishing. For the last decade, there have been reports that a port will come up in Umbergaon, but opposition from local fisherfolk has stalled the project.

“When the port comes, Umbergaon will become Mumbai,” said Manoj Kathekar, a local resident who joined Ramayana as a junior artist and has since then become a talent coordinator for subsequent productions.

Do the locals walk past Vrindavan’s gates, like curious outsiders do? “In Agra, no one finds the Taj Mahal special,” said Surjit Patel, a local shopkeeper. Surjit Patel last went to Vrindavan in 2013 when the Mahabharata remake was being shot. That doesn’t mean he is uninterested in the glamour of shoots. He remembers standing in a queue to catch a glimpse of Shah Rukh Khan when he came to Umbergaon for the shoot of Don 2.

Given its popularity with television networks in Mumbai, Vrindavan will not stop being a mytho-hub any time soon. “Ever since Ramayana, all shows that have been shot here have been a hit,” Hirabhai Patel said. “So that goodwill is there and that is why people keep coming back.”

The market at Umbergaon. Photo by Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan.