Swiss-struck cinema

Love tourism
Last Updated 16 July 2010, 13:43 IST

Vishal and Jagruti Purohit had travelled to Engelberg in Switzerland from Mumbai on their honeymoon, but they had a greater mission — to find the small village church that provided the backdrop for a scene in their favourite movie, a 1995 Bollywood blockbuster Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge. In the scene, two young Indians, played by Vishal Purohit’s favourite actor and actress, see their love seeming to come to an end. She kneels and prays, while he cavorts in the dark, neo-Gothic church. In the end, she breaks off an engagement and he wins her hand.

Imitating films
The young couple knew that the scene had been shot on location in a church in the small town of Montbovon, a couple of hours drive from this Alpine village of winding streets, low chalets and abundant geraniums. But which church? The first church Vishal Purohit, 24, spied had the sharply pointed steeple that he and his wife recognised from the film, but the interior was not right. The altars were different, the vaulting not rounded but sharp. Disappointed, they left the church and returned to their tour bus, where a tour guide helped solve the puzzle.

The exterior scenes in the film had been shot around this church with the sharply pointed steeple, he told them. For the interior shots, though, the director had chosen the church of St Grat, a short distance away. Delighted, Vishal and his wife bounded over to the second church with its familiar interior and struck poses for honeymoon photographs, aping the Bollywood stars they so admired. For years, Bollywood’s producers and directors have favoured the pristine backdrop of Switzerland for their films. The greatest of the Bollywood filmmakers, Yash Chopra, is a self-professed romantic who has made a point of including in virtually all his films scenes shot on location in this country’s high Alpine meadows, around its serene lakes, and in its charming towns and cities to convey an ideal of sunshine, happiness and tranquillity.

In the process, they have created an enormous curiosity about things Swiss in generations of middle-class Indians, who are now earning enough to travel here in search of their dreams. “The moment you cross the border it is something else,” Vishal said, “where the scenario changes.”

“No noise, no pollution, no crowds,” said Kamalakar Tarkasband, 72, a retired army officer. Swiss tourism officials and their Indian counterparts are capitalising on this obsession. The number of nights spent by Indian tourists, who come mostly in summer (few ski), has doubled in the last decade to 3,25,000, and the numbers continue to grow.

Tarkasband was travelling with the Purohits and a busload of other Indians who had spent the last 12 hours visiting movie locations around Switzerland. Most of the sites were from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge produced by Yash Chopra and directed by his son Aditya Chopra. On their 12-day tour, marketed as the Enchanted Journey and organised by the Indian affiliate of the Swiss travel agency Kuoni, the travellers watched DVDs of Bollywood film scenes shot in Switzerland while travelling from site to site. They posed, laughing, for snapshots imitating their film heartthrobs.

“This is the way Switzerland is positioned in our minds; it was the place for romance and natural beauty,” said Sanket Shah, 21, from Pune who got a degree in management and went to work as a guide for Enchanted Journey. Raj Kapoor may have been the first Indian director to use foreign sites for shooting on location — in Venice, Paris and Switzerland — when he filmed his 1964 hit, Sangam. But the entire bus knew the story of how Chopra spent his honeymoon in the Swiss resort of Gstaad.

“He promised his wife on his honeymoon that every movie he made would have to have one romantic song or scene in Switzerland,” said Rajendra Choudhary, 24, who also studied management in Pune and joined the Enchanted Journey. Yash Chopra, now 77, kept his promise. Most of the Swiss sequences are dream scenes in which lovers dance or romp on Alpine meadows strewn with flowers or roll in the snow in unlikely flimsy Indian garb on wintry slopes.

The fascination proved to be infectious, and by now about 200 Bollywood films feature sequences shot in Switzerland. Between stops for photographs, the travellers laughed at clips of films by Yash Chopra and other directors, sang along to tunes from film soundtracks, and competed for prizes in Bollywood trivia quizzes. Since Kuoni and its partners began the Enchanted Journey tours in April, about 55 groups have signed up for tours. The company, whose shareholders include Chopra’s Yash Raj Films studio, now plans to add a 15-day tour, individual customised film tours and honeymoon trips. “It’s dream tourism,” said Marco Casanova, a Swiss businessman and partner in the tour group.

Customised tours
Cashing in on the enthusiasm, the town of Thun held its first Bollywood film festival in May. But not everyone shares the dream. In June, the Zurich newspaper Tages-Anzeiger featured an article with the headline ‘Into the Luxury Hotel with a Gas Cooker,’ noting that “in some hotels an entire caste of guests is no longer desired: the Indians.”

The article catalogued the complaints of hotel managers — guests who cook curry dishes on camping stoves in their rooms; guests who use bath oils that blacken tubs; guests who book for a husband and wife, only to show up with the entire family. In Engelberg, where a visitor is more likely to encounter a woman in a sari than hear the clang of a cowbell, some European tourists are unsettled. “I can imagine that a German or a Dutchman might not imagine Switzerland this way,” Casanova said. “They want the Swiss pastoral idyll.” Swiss animosity toward foreigners was directed at immigrants, not tourists. “Tourists come, but leave again,” he said.

For the last 23 years, André Gobat has managed the Hotel Cathrin, in the shadow of 10,623-foot Mount Titlis. He acknowledges benefits to the town from the Indian tourism, like the recent prosperity of the elegant Terrace Hotel, a landmark since 1905 that now accommodates Indian tour groups. For him, the contrast is not so much Indians or Chinese versus Germans and Dutch, but rather individual tourists versus groups.

“We built a golf course, hiking trails, for private tourists,” Gobat said of the town. “Group tourists don’t use them.” Moreover, tour groups dine in their hotels and do not frequent local restaurants. “For me, the mixture is not as good as it should be,” he said. “Go out in the evening; the village is empty.” 

The New York Times

(Published 16 July 2010, 13:43 IST)

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