The tree-lined streets of Bombay suburb Juhu is Bollywood country, home to many of India's cultural glitterati. Big homes are the norm. Shiv Sagar, the grandson of a fabled Indian film producer and media mogul, greets a visitor in a spacious room that could pass for a film set. It's decorated with a gargantuan painting featuring Hindu deities.
That's fitting. After all, the Sagar clan is Bollywood's first family of Hindu mythical drama, a hybrid of solemn pageantry and entertainment that has shaped Indian popular culture for decades.
Throughout much of India's early post-colonial era, family patriarch and film director Ramanand Sagar, who founded production company Sagar Arts in 1950, turned out a string of films, mostly historical dramas and love stories. He's best remembered, however, for a hugely successful TV series in the late-1980s called Ramayan, based on the Hindu god Ram.
The elder Sagar passed away in late 2005. And now a new generation of family entertainment entrepreneurs, including Shiv, 28, wants to make its own mark by building what it says will be, "the world's first spiritual theme park." It will be called Ganga Dham. "We are positioning it as a fun place with wisdom and trying to make it cool," explains Sagar.
Sacred and profane
Construction on the first phase of the planned infotainment park (costing $6.5 million) is expected to begin later this year, and the Sagar family hopes to have the theme park up and running by late next year or early 2008.
It will feature high-tech rides, knowledge centers about India's spiritual heritage, food courts, and other attractions.
Sagar has already secured a 25-acre site along the banks of the Ganges River in the northern holy city of Haridwar. This is a revered pilgrimage spot for Hindus and attracts 18 million visitors every year, some of whom, in accordance with Hindu legend, take a dip in the Ganges to cleanse themselves of sin.
On top of that built-in potential audience, Ganga Dham would also surely see a huge influx of visitors in 2010 during a Hindu festival called Maha Kumbh Mela that takes place in Haridwar only once every 12 years. That makes for a big incentive to see the project through. "They are expecting 50 million people for the Kumbh, and that's a huge number," says Sagar.
This Disneyland on the Ganges, as it has been dubbed, isn't just a commercial proposition, though making money is clearly a priority. The park's design will feature replicas of ancient Hindu temples, and theaters in which actors representing major Hindu deities such as Krishna, Ram, Sita, and Hanuman will impart cherished spiritual wisdom.
The park will also include entertainment and retail outlets. Every evening there will be a Disney-style parade, complete with fireworks and music. But the characters will take the form of Hindu religious figures instead of Mickey and Donald. "It definitely is for the masses," says Homi Aibara, partner at consulting firm Mahajan & Aibara, which worked with the Sagar family on the park's design.
Sagar and other park backers have been careful to stress the educational aspect of the park so as not to offend devout believers or the powerful Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in New Delhi. So far, the reaction has been cautious, but not hostile.
"The merchandising of religion is happening all over the world to a certain extent. Since it is an issue of beliefs, it has to be done with restraint," says Vinay Sahasrabudhe, director general of Rambhau Mhalgi Prabhodhini, the training and research institute of the BJP.
Indeed, the Indian state government of Uttaranchal, the site of the park, is backing the project and has even provided tax breaks to the Sagar family. "This is not propaganda, but a place where young and old can learn about their heritage through our stories," insists Sagar.
Raising financing has also been tricky, though Sagar says that, thanks to funding from private investors, his family, and bank loans, he has secured the $6.5 million needed to kick off the project.
Sagar won't say which individual Indian investors are backing the park, though he did confirm his family last year approached well-heeled expats in the West including Gururaj 'Desh' Deshpande, founder of telecom switch maker Sycamore Networks; Sabeer Bhatia, co-founder of Web e-mail service Hotmail, which was acquired by Microsoft; and Mohan Mittal, father of global steel baron Lakshmi N Mittal.
Alice Coltrane, the wife of the late jazz legend John Coltrane, has publicly disclosed her role as investor and adviser to the Ganga Dham project.
Theme park growth
From an investor's point of view, the Sagar family certainly has a solid track record delivering the kind of entertainment the public loves. The 1980s TV series Ramayan drew massive ratings at home and was syndicated in 100 countries abroad, including Pakistan.
Capitalizing on this success, the Sagars churned out a number of other popular epic dramas with good-conquers-evil plot lines. What's more, as India prospers and living standards rise, the country's $752 million theme park business is now growing at about 25% annually, according to the Indian Association of Amusement Parks.
The younger Sagar, Shiv, also points out the park's backers can draw on "2,000 hours of television software, which we can leverage" to develop characters and sell video entertainment. Sagar is a graduate from the Les Roches School of Hotel Management in Switzerland and also holds a management degree from the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. Yet part of his motivation is living up to the religiosity of his family. He practices yoga and meditation daily.
Why not Americans?
Another target market for Ganga Dham is the 25 million Indians living abroad. "When they come to India, a visit to the temples is mandatory to acquaint their kids with their heritage. So we are trying to make it cool for even a teenager," explains Sagar.
Some foreign tourists without family ties to India might be lured into coming as well. Josephine Troy, a music teacher from Minnesota currently visiting Bombay -- who spends three months every winter practicing yoga in the Himalayas -- thinks that "visiting the park and attending the discourses would only enhance my India experience."
If Phase 1 of the park succeeds, Sagar says he will move ahead with a $5.4 million addition to the site that would include a 100-room hotel and spa offering yoga and Ayurvedic healing treatments. He doesn't rule out expanding the concept to other parts of India or even overseas.
Will Ganga Dham click with Indian consumers? Perhaps only Ganesha, the Hindu elephant god of prosperity, knows for sure. Yet Shiv Sagar definitely likes his odds.