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Bollywood embraces foreign backdrops
By Ranjita Biswas

In the 1960s, the Raj Kapoor-Vyjayantimala-Rajendra Kumar romantic tearjerker Sangam had an extra punch to make it a hit. Raj Kapoor shot extensively in stunning Switzerland. An Evening in Paris followed. While a bikini-clad Sharmila Tagore wowed a staid audience, the film also opened a vista of the alluring West, novel indeed for an audience reared on films set in the Kashmir Valley and Ooty hills.

Those were the days when foreign travel was a dream for most. There's been a sea-change since then. Even middle-class Indians think nothing of planning foreign holidays. But one thing hasn't changed. Bollywood's obsession with exotic locales abroad for its song sequences - be it Mykonos Island (Chalte Chalte), New Zealand (Kaho Na Pyar Hai) or superhit Dil Chahta Hai (Australia). In fact, the trend has increased, especially after Kashmir posed a security problem.

Meanwhile, a new wind is blowing in foreign lands, too. Ever since the potential of Bollywood and its mega-spending producers dawned on the tourism departments of these countries, they have been wooing the Indian film industry with extra facilities and freebies. It's a win-win situation after all. First, revenues from the film crew itself, and second, the grabbing of attention of an increasingly affluent middle class willing to travel to new destinations.

As the film-crazy Indian tourists go abroad they also like to visit the "spots" a la a particular movie. It's a universal tendency to want to experience a slice of life of the rich and famous, even if second hand. Apparently, Japanese tourists crowd to a particular travel bookshop in London's Notting Hill (the Hugh Grant-Julia Roberts eponymous film of the same name as the district catapulted the place to fame). So why shouldn't Indian tourists flock to Sydney where Aamir Khan and Preity Zinta romped around in Dil Chahta Hai.

Naturally, Indian filmmakers are receiving red-carpet treatment while shooting. Take Australia, for example. More than 60 projects from India have been shot there in the past four years, consisting of films, TV commercials and serials. Besides Dil Chahta Hai, Soldier and Road, were shot there. The advantage? It's said, whatever a script demands, Australia has a location. Besides, Indian producers can utilize the excellent post-production facilities and at a cost less than the US and Europe.

Even major Hollywood productions are shifting to Australia. High profile Hollywood films like The Matrix, Moulin Rogue and Romeo & Juliet were shot there. The Australian Trade Commission (Austrade) assists Indian producers and introduces them to Australian production houses who specialize in handling Indian film crews. It has an office in Mumbai too.

Neighboring New Zealand has ridden the crest of popularity ever since Hrithik Roshan's superhit launching pad Kaho Na Pyar Hai eulogized the land's virgin beauty. Besides Bollywood, a sizeable chunk of Telegu hit films have been shot in New Zealand. However, the facilities here are offered by individual companies and not the tourism department. Internationally, New Zealand became famous as the location for the The Lord of the Rings trilogy based on J R R Tolkien's fantasy novel which cost more than US$130 million.

With all these new locales coming up, what about old favorite Switzerland? Perhaps Indian audiences have became blase about the Bernese Oberland (Zweisimmen, Gstaad) and the Gruyere area? Local agencies must have noticed it too for they are pulling up their socks to bring back their loyalists.

Admits Cyril Jost of Film Location Switzerland (FLS), "We've to compete with other countries which are also popular amongst Indian filmmakers. But now, one of our main goals is to offer new opportunities so that Indian filmmakers don't get the impression they're always being served the same locations."

For this, Jost says, FLS has been in touch with local authorities, in particular in the mountainous region of Valais and the gorgeous Ticino (Italian-speaking Switzerland), where few Indian movies have been made so far. Rajiv Rai shot his latest film Asambhav in Locarno (Ticino area). "This was a first and Indian audiences will discover a part of Switzerland they perhaps didn't know before, with palm trees and an almost Mediterranean climate, alongside snow-covered mountains," Jost promises.

The one-year-old FLS, an independent organization sponsored by the Swiss government, has even brought out a production guide for Indian film crews. It's separate from Switzerland Tourism (ST) but from now on, FLS and ST will work together to promote the country as an attractive location.

Bollywood is getting more international attention by the day. Britain's tourism department makes no bones about enticing Bollywood producers with facilities and emphasizing the advantage of language and familiarity born out of the presence of a sizeable number of Indian-origin Britishers. The latest to join the bandwagon is Italy, according to trade buzz. And soon there may be Indo-Italian joint productions.

Producers go on scouting for newer locations to slake the insatiable appetite of Indian audiences. But for shoots abroad, there has to be a home connection too. Mumbai's Jitendra "Chacha" Chauhan has "done" more than 25 films in four years. Among them, Main Prem Ki Deewani Hoon, Yaadein and Om Jai Jagadish were shot in New Zealand, now Aitbaar in Canada, Hungama in Malaysia, Filhaal in South Africa.

Giving a lowdown on how it works, he says, "Normally, filmmakers want to go abroad to shoot songs. They may want a snow mountain but don't want to go to Switzerland - so there are other options, like Austria or New Zealand. Being in the southern hemisphere, the latter is open from October to March when Europe closes for winter, a reason why it's becoming increasingly popular. It is also cheaper to shoot."

Moreover, in Bollywood nothing succeeds like success and a location becomes popular on the "lucky" tag. The stupendous success of Kaho Na made producers flock to New Zealand hoping to hit the jackpot. "Superstition plays an important part in Bollywood. Some people feel that if they shoot in a particular place their film will flop," confides Chauhan.

The cost factor, of course, is a major consideration. For example, Canada is a good place to shoot but the costs are too high, as also are visa charges. What a producer looks for, says Chauhan, are, a) Accessibility b) Cost c) Legal formalities d) Incentives. Incentives may include freebies for the lead actors, waiving of taxes, subsidies on hotel rooms, etc. Chauhan points out that people avoid shooting in the US not only for the cost but also due to too many legal formalities.

A myth, according to Chauhan, is that it's cheaper to shoot at home. "When you go to Kashmir or Manali to shoot, you take 100 people with you, but when you go abroad you take about 40. Besides, hotels are cheaper compared to overpriced Indian hotels. A five-star hotel room in India costs the filmmaker Rs 6,000 [US$132] but a very good four-star abroad costs about Rs 4,000 or so." Besides, days are longer there. "April to September in Switzerland or October to March in New Zealand is perfect for shoots as you get more than 12 hours of shooting light." Actors, too, prefer locales abroad as they can work without the usual distractions, plus they can enjoy a holiday with family. It's also cost effective as actors work longer hours.

Meanwhile, this foreign interest has also sprouted a niche business area, that of bringing together the film industry and foreign agencies. Tarun Hukku of Novell Event Works, Bangalore, calls it a "mutually beneficial alliance". Given the potential, tourism departments have started lobbying to be the destination of choice.

They approach such companies to lobby with the filmmakers. Revenue comes from the tourism departments. But Hukku cautions that this industry is at a nascent stage and has a long way to go. Currently, discussions are under way to make it a more structured industry and go beyond the lackadaisical way it's operating now. One good thing, Hukku adds, is that compared to the past, there's more professionalism among the new breed of directors. "They know that last-minute script writing or simple things like unpunctuality will not do."

On the other hand, Hukku warns that the novelty of over-exploited places may wane over time for the newly affluent movie-goer. So, what professionals like Hukku are now trying to do is to convince filmmakers to produce scripts based on the speciality of a certain location. For example, something revolving around the Dubai film festival or the Mardi Gras. This makes good sense from the tourism point of view and will not come across as stale or irrelevant to the basic script for audiences.

(With input from correspondents in Auckland, Mumbai, Switzerland and Bangalore.)

(Trans World Features)
Oct 31, 2003

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