On tour: Bollywood hits the road

Bollywood blockbusters have long used European countries as a backdrop. Now a new wave of Indian directors is swapping the Swiss Alps for China, Peru and Dubai, as Vision finds out

When the volcanic ash cloud erupted over Iceland in 2010 and brought European air travel to a virtual standstill, Salman Khan, the ‘bad boy’ of Bollywood, and his co-star, Sonakshi Sinha, the leads of the hit Indian action-comedy Dabangg, were en route to Switzerland to shoot the film’s honeymoon sequence. “Our flights were cancelled, so we relocated the shoot to Dubai, which was convenient,” recalls the film’s director, Abhinav Kashyap. “We shot there for four days and were able to capture the highlights of Dubai tourism, because that is what a couple on their honeymoon would do.”

Dune bashing, falcon flying, a belly dance, the malls, the Dubai metro and an Abu Dhabi hotel were all featured in Dabangg. In hindsight, Kashyap believes it worked out for the best. “Indians have already seen so much of Switzerland
and very little of Dubai,” he says. “Also, it was far easier to find Indians to fill in the frame, and the production crew
also had lots of Indians, which made communication easy. Besides, we got a great deal of support from local Salman fans,” says the director.

Shooting on location

European locations have featured in Bollywood films for decades. In 1964, the director Raj Kapoor shot an extended honeymoon sequence in Venice, Paris and, of course, Switzerland, in his classic drama Sangam. But the director who is credited for making Switzerland the de facto backyard of Bollywood is Yash Chopra. In the 1970s and 1980s, foreign locations were used mainly for song-and-dance sequences, with the romancing couple wandering the streets of Mumbai in one scene and magically transported to the Swiss Alps in the next. The pastel-clad heroine, exposing her midriff through a chiffon sari, would coyly cavort with the leading man, snug in a sweater and scarf. In 1995, Chopra’s son, Aditya, made his debut at the helm of the ultimate romantic movie, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. The film is believed to have resulted in a seven per cent growth in Swiss tourism.

Today, though, Bollywood’s footprint stretches far beyond the Swiss Alps. Increasingly, the more exotic and remote the location, the better. Over the past decade, Indian movies have been shot in countless unlikely locations, including Peru, South Africa, Korea, New Zealand, Russia and Cuba. Of course, they have also been shot in the UK and the US, the two big ‘non-resident Indian’, or NRI, hubs.

In his 2001 film Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham…, director Karan Johar doffed his hat to Chopra’s films, taking his leads, Indian superstars Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, from the backstreets of Delhi to the Pyramids for a romantic song. The chiffon saris, the chemistry and the sure-fire hit tune were in place, only the location had changed from the clichéd Alps to the desert dunes. This was also the beginning of the decade that saw more and more films featuring a foreign location. Bollywood was no longer just travelling for a song sequence – entire storylines were being set in cities around the world.

Indian diaspora

Location is determined by production demands. The Indian diaspora is now a big factor to consider. Filmmakers have started to recognise this potential and are writing films specifically for this audience. Director Nikhil Advani has shot films in New York, London, China and Thailand. “After Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge was set there, the UK became a big destination,” he says. “And after my film Kal Ho Naa Ho was shot in New York, Fulton Ferry in Brooklyn became iconic.”

Governments have since recognised Bollywood’s strong impact in terms of encouraging tourism. The UK, Germany, South Africa and Singapore are known to have provided subsidies and support. Plus, local authorities abroad facilitate blocking of roads and public areas – a far cry from the congested streets of Indian cities, where hysterical fans make shooting impossible. It is a greater incentive if they can also provide English-speaking crew.

Zoya Akhtar’s 2011 coming-of-age road movie Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara was shot in Spain and featured Barcelona and Andalucía, tomato fighting at the La Tomatina festival in Valencia and the running of the bulls in Pamplona. In the months around the film’s release, Spanish tourism from India saw a 32 per cent spike. “Governments have recognised that they can make big money with our guys shooting there,” says Advani. “If I can go abroad and shoot at a good price without carting around 150 people, I don’t mind doing it. Plus, the star is more focused and you can achieve in 25 days what you would take 30 to do in India. And five days equals a lot of money.”

Global presence

Indian films are also premiering in critical markets such as the US, UK and Dubai. The global presence of the International Indian Film Academy Awards, an annual travelling Bollywood ceremony, is growing. This year, three Indian films premiered at Cannes: Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur, Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely and Vasan Bala’s Peddlers. After Anil Kapoor’s cameo in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, two other big-name Indian actors will be seen in upcoming Hollywood films. Amitabh Bachchan stars in The Great Gatsby and Irrfan Khan follows up his turns in movies such as Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited with appearances in The Amazing Spider-Man and Life of Pi, Ang Lee’s Yann Martel adaptation.

It remains to be seen what the next hot cinematic destination will be for Bollywood fans, and which countries the Hindi film industry will be targeting in its future blockbusters.