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Hollywood's prop shop
Made-in-India faux swords and spears have starred in many a blockbuster. If Russell Crowe fought with Sahibabad steel in 'Robin Hood', so did Orlando Bloom in 'The Kingdom of Heaven'. TOI-Crest takes a peek into the replica armoury.
It's easy to dismiss the factory of the Indian Handicrafts and Textiles Syndicate as just another unit in Sahibabad's industrial complex. But this workshop has a unique distinction - its products have featured in a number of A-list Hollywood movies, as well as in documentaries for National Geographic and Discovery Channel.
It makes replicas of historical props like swords, spears, guns, bayonets, chainmail and costumes, with products spanning the period from the 10th century AD to World War II starring in films such as The Last Samurai (2003), The Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and Ridley Scott's recent Robin Hood (2010).
"We are a 100 per cent export-based company, " says the owner, Ashok Rai, 31. The idea of manufacturing historical replicas came to Rai fourteen years ago when he heard that a French champagne maker required 1, 000 swords to distribute as souvenirs. Only 17 at the time, he made a trip to Amritsar to look for sword makers who could make the copies. The experience got him thinking about exploring the little-known market for historical replicas. When a couple of web posts soliciting orders for replicas elicited some response, Rai decided to quit college and take up the business full-time.
Rai belongs to a trading family - his father dealt in gift items and souvenirs for corporate entities - but the business wasn't doing well. "There were thousands of people who traded in gift items in Delhi, " he says. He gradually began working to set up a niche unit that would make historical replicas for export, opening his first factory in 2001.
In May 2002, he had a surprise visit from representatives looking to place orders for props that would be used in the Tom Cruise-starrer The Last Samurai. Soon, Rai found himself catering to more Hollywood movies. A large contract for the Orlando Bloom-starrer The Kingdom of Heaven with the Crusades as the backdrop became the turning point. "It earned us decent profits and we moved to a larger office. In four years, our turnover jumped from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 1. 6 crore. "
Apart from The Last Samurai and The Kingdom of Heaven, Rai has also supplied props for the Russell Crowe-starrer Robin Hood, but it hasn't been through direct contract. Today, films are only a small market for the company. The bulk of the orders come from groups and institutions that organise historical re-enactments, a common educational activity in the West, where episodes from history like battles are re-created. With a turnover of Rs 12-15 crore, most of Rai's revenue now comes from making metal replicas like helmets and chainmail. Historical costumes are a small part of this enterprise.
Manufacturing replicas involves minute attention to detail. To ensure historical authenticity, Rai employs two researchers in Germany - a scholar with a doctorate in archaeology and a professor of history at the University of Augsburg. The process of making a replica typically begins with detailed photographs of the original being sent to India. A prototype is then rolled out which goes back to the researchers, and mass production begins only after it is given the go-ahead by the experts.
In the 12 years since he opened his factory, one of Rai's biggest challenges has been to fight red tape. "The government only focuses on FDI and the service sector while small labour-intensive businesses like ours are neglected, " he rues. He recounts an incident from earlier this year when samples for World War II bayonets were stuck at Customs because the officials were confused. It took him 45 days and several visits to different government offices to get the goods freed, by which time half the order had already been transferred to Chinese companies. It led to a loss of Rs 75 lakh. "It is because of red tape that China has cornered 95 per cent of the weapons replica market. But 70 per cent of the market for armour, helmet and historical costumes is still with us, " he says.
India's labour costs have been lower than China's so far. "But they are slowly increasing, " says Rai. "And China won't be long catching up with English-speaking skills either. "
Rai has changed tack to deal with red tape. Now, instead of taking customised orders, he has a list of stock replicas stored in warehouses in Europe and the United States. "We still do customised products, but we let buyers know that delivery will take time because of bureaucratic hurdles. But mostly we anticipate demand and stock the products in the US and Germany from where the goods can easily be shipped to other European countries, " he says.
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