Off the highway between Bengaluru and Mysuru, a patch of land surrounded by hills comes alive when Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay is mentioned. The 1975 blockbuster was shot there and curious tourists, especially from outside Karnataka, continue to visit the area to search for markers of the vendetta drama. There are none, but there soon might be. Early this year, the state government’s tourism department proposed a Sholay inspired theme park at Ramanagara, which is depicted as Ramgarh in the movie.
The theme park will include virtual reality recreations of key moments from the movie, adventure games and a crafts hub over a 120-acre stretch. The location seems perfect: packed with giant yet scaleable boulders and hills, Ramanagara is an ideal pit stop between the cities. But the proposal has been opposed by the state Forest Department, which has pointed out that it is illegal to construct a tourist hub in a reserved forest area. The parts of Sholay that fans remember – Gabbar Singh’s lair, Thakur Baldev Singh’s house, and the sequence in which Gabbar chops off Thakur’s hands – are part of the Ramadevara Betta vulture sanctuary at Ramanagara.
The vulture sanctuary was officially set up in 2012, but the long-billed, Egyptian and white-backed vultures have been roosting in the hills of Ramanagara for several decades. These are the three species found in Ramanagara out of the nine found in India. Alarmed at the drop in the vulture population over the years – an estimated 97% of the long billed and 99% of the Egyptian vultures have disappeared – environmentalists and bird watchers campaigned to have the area declared as a sanctuary. In 2012, around 346.41 hectares was earmarked as a protected area for the vultures. It is within this patch of the map that the proposed Sholay theme park is located.
The tourism ministry claims to have found a way out. Priyank Kharge, Minister of State for Tourism, told Scroll.in that the Sholay tourist village will be outside the sanctuary but within the general area. “We are yet to make a detailed project report,” he said. “Gabbar’s den falls right inside the sanctuary and obviously, we do not want to disturb an eco-sensitive zone. However, we need to figure out a way to recreate the den outside the sanctuary’s limits. After all, he is the most popular icon from the film.”
Another government official revealed details of the current proposal on the condition of anonymity. “We are planning the theme park around 10 kilometres from the sanctuary,” he told Scroll.in. “It will be located around two kilometres from the main road. Tourists coming to the area will first stop at the cultural hub and then if they continue along the same road, they will end up in the sanctuary.”
But aren’t the shooting spots located inside the sanctuary? “We will organise guided tours from the theme park to the sanctuary to show people where the film was shot,” explained the official. “Then, they can return to the park where, inside an auditorium, we will give them a 3D virtual tour of the scenes from the film.”
Ramanagara was chosen as a location by Sholay’s art director, Ram Yedekar. “Instead of the familiar dusty inclines, Ramesh visualized a harsher, more remote location,” writes Anupama Chopra in Sholay The Making of a Classic. “He wanted a place cut off from civilization, a place time forgot.”
Yedekar had previously shot in the region for John Berry’s 1966 Indian jungle adventure Maya (1966). Both Ramesh Sippy and cinematographer Dwarka Divecha loved the place, but its remote location posed challenged for the film crew. “Permissions were sought from farmers around the area... In places the ground had to be levelled, and in others steps had to be cut into the hard earth,” Chopra writes. The production’s construction manager, Aziz Hanif Sheikh, worked hard on altering Ramanagara into Ramgarh. “He made “huts collapse, built gadgets, constructed roads and levelled thigh-high vegetation overnight.” Also built were a road connecting the highway to Ramanagara and telephone lines, Chopra adds.
The proposed park hopes to go beyond Ramanagara’s deep connection with Sholay. It will have an artificial lake and host rock-climbing activities. “We want to make it an immersive and integrated experience,” Kharge said. “Sholay is at the centre of it but there will be much more than that.” The forest department doesn’t need to be consulted, he added, since the land belongs to the Revenue Department.
Conservationists and officials from the forest department don’t quite agree. They point to the lasting environmental damage caused by David Lean’s A Passage to India, which was shot in Ramanagara in 1983 and 1984. “When they were preparing to shoot for A Passage to India, a lot of the hills were blasted, and some of them might have had vulture nests,” explained Shivananjaiah, a conservationist and one of the activists behind the vulture sanctuary campaign. “Vultures, like any bird, are extremely sensitive beings. You shouldn’t use a flash camera around them. Changes in their habitat, the presence of human beings and commercial activity will definitely scare them away. Consistent film shoots would have definitely affected them.”
The establishment of a theme park to celebrate a popular Hindi movie will not benefit the birds in any way, add environmental activists. “Vultures don’t have a bio-geographic boundary – they don’t understand the 10-kilometre buffer zone that we humans apply,” said Padma Ashok, co-founder of the non-profit Save Tiger First, who has also conducted a year-long study on the vultures of the Ramadevara Betta. “As it is, with the existing sanctuary, tourists are already thronging the place. There is a Ram temple inside the sanctuary. There are annual fairs. There is a small settlement of houses too that are very close to the sanctuary. Kids from there climb up. There is no measure taken to discipline them or the other tourists, to tell them how to behave in a vulture sanctuary.”
The vulture population has been severely affected by the spread of human habitation over the years, Ashok pointed out. “This is the vultures’ nesting and roosting site, and even the slightest change in the position of their egg is a disturbance for them,” she explained. “A tourism project will only increase the footfalls in the region, especially one that wants to do guided tours inside the sanctuary. This is going to put a further strain on the vultures. I’ve already seen a vulture carrying an empty pizza box and flying. Tourists throw glass bottles, food wrappers, shout and scream. We need to observe them from a distance and most of all, we need to let them be. How would you feel if someone came and started living in your house?”
The theme park will entail construction, rendering the landscape unrecognisable for the birds. “The forest is also home to leopards, bears and peacocks, and they too will be affected by the presence of so many humans,” Ashok said.
Officials from the forest department said that the proposal will not be cleared if it is within the forest area. “Our population has increased but the available land has not,” said Jayaram, additional principal chief conservator of forests, Wildlife. “An ideal sanctuary is one in which the area in and around is untouched.”
This is not the first time that a commercial project has threatened the vultures. “In 2005, the Sanghamitra Foundation wanted to build a giant Buddha statue at the Handigondi rock in the same area. Activists opposed it and ensured the project didn’t go through,” Shivananjaiah said. “In 2010, a resort was announced. We opposed that too. It has been a long, arduous journey to give the vultures their home.”
The Karnataka government has been trying to set up a Sholay village at Ramanagara for several years. “Every time, you pass the area, someone will tell you that this is where Sholay was shot,” Kharge said. “Especially, when North Indians go to Mysore, everyone makes it a point to tell them this detail.”
Despite claiming to be enthusiastic about promoting film-themed tourism, the state government has done little for Ramanagara over the years. Travellers who make the 53-kilometre journey from Bengaluru will be disappointed by the lack of signage, poor facilities, and makeshift guide arrangements. “We were told that this is where the movie was shot, but we cannot see anything here,” said Sange, a member of a group of tourists from Arunachal Pradesh. “There are no signs. Everything just looks the same – hills and boulders.”
If a theme park does come up, locals who have made the most of the movie’s connection with the area will be the happiest. Veeraiah, the 70-year-old night watchman at the sanctuary, was 15 years old when Sholay was shot here. He played an extra in Gabbar’s gang too. “My job was to go get the gun and give it to Gabbar,” Veeraiah recalled. “I was actually terrified of him, even though I knew it was all an act. That voice of his!”
What did he think of the other actors? “Dharmendra was so good looking, but Amitabh looked like a mechanic – I almost didn’t notice him,” Veeraiah said.
Veeraiah hopes that he will be hired as an official tour guide if the project materialises. “I hope they give me a costume too,” he said.