Chocolate Dreamland

Switzerland is where Bollywood dreams are currently being spun
The heroine of a recent Bollywood potboiler, Pehla Pehla Pyaar, ups and quits her opulent palace in Rajasthan and, like all self-respecting Hindi film heroines, heads for Mumbai in pursuit of true love. On the way, the lady stops over in the Swiss Alps for a music-laden, romantic interlude. Skewed geography? Maybe. But it's been a tried-and-tested route that many a Mumbai masala movie protagonist - Shammi Kapoor to Shahrukh Khan, Sharmila Tagore to Karishma Kapoor - has favoured ever since Vyjanthimala and Raj Kapoor pranced against Switzerland's stunning snow-covered peaks in Sangam (1964).

The reason for the Indian film industry's growing Swiss obsession is obvious: the rippling freshwater lakes, the emerald green meadows and the glistening snow-covered mountains of the country make for perfect on-screen enticements: they lend a natural patina to the work of Mumbai's cinematographers. Khandala is way too overexposed. Kashmir is still surrounded by a bit of a haze. So Switzerland is the place to be. In film after copycat Hindi film in recent times, Swiss sights and sounds have provided the signature tune. And for Swiss tour operators and hoteliers, the music is paying off in no uncertain terms. Since Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge in 1995, an incredibly huge number of big-budget Hindi films have been shot in the cool climes of Switzerland - Ishq, Hero No. 1, Pyaar To Hona Hi Tha, Yes Boss, Duplicate, ...Aur Pyaar Ho Gaya, Jab Pyaar Kisise Hota Hai, Mrityudaata, Zor, Bade Dilwala, Kachche Dhaage, Silsila Hai Pyaar Ka... the list is virtually endless.

The 'fantasy' universe of popular Hindi cinema may be far removed from the real world of Swiss tourism, which accounts for 5.6 per cent of the country's gdp, but the growing interaction between the two has begun to translate into tangible gains for Switzerland. In the past few years, not a month has passed without at least one Indian film crew shooting a song-and-dance routine in places like Interlaken, Gstaad, Zurich, Lucerne or Engelberg. Switzerland's tourism and hospitality sectors have quickly tapped into the resultant bonanza - a steadily swelling flow of tourists from India - with special packages that specifically address the needs of travellers from the subcontinent.

Says Hans Weidemann, vice-chairman of The Leading Hotels of the World in Switzerland: 'With Hindi films popularising Swiss destinations, we expect an explosion in the next few years.' Weidemann's hotel, Le Montreaux Palace, has featured in two recent Indian films. 'Interlaken and Montreaux are the favourite spots of Hindi film crews,' he says. Weidemann was recently in Mumbai and Delhi as part of a delegation to promote a package drawn up for Indian travellers jointly by 24 Swiss luxury hotels. 'Indians are travelling much more than ever before and we are here to augment our share of the pie,' he says. According to Peter Marti, general manager of The Leading Hotels of the World in Switzerland, the flow of tourist traffic from India to his country in 1998 increased by 30 per cent to 140,000. 'In 1999, we expect an increase of 20 per cent,' he says. Last year, there were 1 million outbound Indian tourists - 14 per cent of them chose Switzerland as their primary destination.

As the volume of Indian traffic grows steadily, the Swiss tourism authorities expect film crews from Mumbai to contribute a major chunk to that upswing. In recognition of the Indian film industry's potential as a promoter of tourism, Switzerland Tourism, in collaboration with Swissair and the Swiss consulate-general in Mumbai, organised a Bollywood evening in March.Film industry bigwigs were there in full strength, exploring all the possibilities that Switzerland has on offer for film crews. Yash Chopra, who has shot seven films in Switzerland, and Shakti Samanta, whose 1967 romantic caper, An Evening in Paris, is generally credited with opening the floodgates, were felicitated by the Swiss consul-general in Mumbai, Max Heller.

In An Evening in Paris, when Shammi Kapoor sang Akele akele kahan jaa rahe ho to Sharmila Tagore, he wasn't on the streets of the French capital, but in the lap of Switzerland's unspoilt beauty. The film's fabled Niagara Falls sequence was actually lensed at the Rheinfalls in Switzerland. By fudging the backdrop, Samanta set a Bollywood trend that continues to this day. In Yash Chopra's Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, the young protagonists (Shahrukh Khan and Kajol), are residents of London but their love flowers in Switzerland. Many of the sequences supposedly set in Punjab's lush countryside were actually shot in Switzerland.

Again, Ajay Devgan may have been a resident of Rajasthan in Kachche Dhaage, but that never stopped him from going all the way to Switzerland to woo Manisha Koirala. And when Govinda elopes with Karishma Kapoor in a fantasy sequence in Hero No. 1, he finds himself crooning Tere baap ke dar se... in Interlaken. No less different, Kajol conjures up an imaginary honeymoon with Anil Kapoor in Hum Aapke Dil Mein Rehte Hain, of course in the land Hindi movie dreams are made of.

No matter where his characters are based, Yash Chopra has returned to Switzerland for every film he's made since Faasle (1984), Darr and Chandni being among them. 'It's a beautiful place,' he says. 'It's obviously a bit more expensive than shooting here, but as the shifts are longer we can finish faster.' There is now a lake in Switzerland that is unofficially named after the Indian filmmaker and, as the Swiss consul in Mumbai, Urs Wuest, points out, there could soon be a Shahrukh Khan Waterfalls in his country.

Mehul Kumar, who filmed bits of Mrityudaata in Switzerland, is clearly enamoured of the country. 'It's a no-problem country,' he says. 'Once you secure permission, you can shoot where you want. No archaic laws, no greasing palms, no delays, no running round in circles.' That apart, Switzerland has certain natural advantages, feels Wuest. 'In summer, the days are longer, so a crew can shoot for 12 to 13 hours without artificial lighting,' he says.

One man who has made a difference is Swiss shoots organiser Jakob Tritten, who provides a wide range of services to filmmakers, from organising buses, vans and mobile kitchens to supplying generators and lighting equipment. Tritten's daughter is hooked on Hindi films and he himself is on first-name terms with many of Bollywood's biggest stars. Awareness of Hindi films and their music is clearly growing in Switzerland. Young watch company executive Frederic Bondoux is a diehard Hindi film music fan. Popular Hindi numbers blare constantly from his car audio system. 'I simply love it,' he says, rattling off names of present-day Bollywood stars, ending with a rendition of his favourite film song... Kush kush hota hey.

As the Bollywood-Switzerland love affair reaches new heights of reciprocity and diversifies, that is a song that the Swiss tourism industry, too, is humming. With good reason, too: it's not just kuch kuch, but a hell of a lot, that is happening to the way Indian tourists are zooming in on the land of cowbells and chocolates.

With Pritha Sen and Manu Joseph

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