If Western audiences turn to Hindi movies for exotica and spectacle, Bollywood film-makers too have returned the favour by shooting on foreign soil. Although Bollywood's footprint has grown considerably beyond Indian borders in the last decade, Hindi movies have been locating sequences, songs and even whole movies in foreign locations since the early 1960s. Overseas shoots enhance a movie's glamour quotient, allow audiences to become armchair tourists and, when the plot demands it, allow for an exploration of the encounters between Eastern and Western cultures.
As Bollywood becomes increasingly globalised and caters to audiences from Sydney to Serbia, the need for movies to look international has increased. Now, more than ever, movies with characters that live or work or woo in world cities like London and New York are being made. The opening sequences of the year's first big Bollywood release, Mani Ratnam's Guru, which opened on January 12, were shot in Turkey - the movie's lead character briefly works in the country. The ensemble romantic drama, Salaam-E-Ishq: A Tribute To Love, which opened on January 25, sets two of its stories in London. Six of 2006's big titles used overseas locations, some of which were off the beaten track: Krrish (Singapore), Fanaa (Poland), Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (New York), Don (Malaysia), Jaan-E-Mann (New York) and Dhoom 2 (Brazil, Namibia). One of the only attractions of last year's box-office flop, Kabul Express, was that it was shot entirely in and around the Afghan capital.
Only two of last year's box-office hits, Rang De Basanti and Lage Raho Munnabhai, were shot entirely in India since the script demanded it. However, the sequel to Lage, Munnabhai Chale Amerika, which is currently being scripted, will be shot in the US.
As with Hollywood productions, Bollywood film-makers are putting down cash to hunt for unusual locations and hire local line producers to do their ground work. "When you're talking about a new and exotic location, you need a line producer who is efficient and effective," says Dhoom 2 director Sanjay Gadhvi. Dhoom 2 (which had a reported budget of $14m) is the first Hindi movie to be shot in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and in the Namibian desert. "Rio brought a lot to the movie - there's mystery and excitement. It's everybody's favourite holiday destination," Gadhvi adds.
The East-West tradition
Bollywood has looked westwards ever since film-makers could afford it. One of the earliest movies to be shot on foreign soil was a crime thriller, Shakti Samanta's Singapore (1960). The advent of colour in the movies only increased the thrill of shooting abroad: in 1964, renowned director Raj Kapoor extensively shot his love triangle Confluence in Switzerland, France and Italy. This was followed by several movies located in Europe, some of which had titles like travel packages, such as Night In London, An Evening In Paris and Around The World. Other movies explored the age-old anxiety over the corruption of Indian values through encounters with the West - one of the most famous examples was Manoj Kumar's East And West. Vipul Shah revisits the East-vs-West story in Namastey London, which opens worldwide on March 23.
Mostly, however, movies were satisfied with inserting what could be called the 'Switzerland song' into a completely India-centric plot. Such fantasy song-and-dance sequences played out in foreign locations (typically, Switzerland) and were inserted purely for eye candy purposes.
Things changed significantly in the 1990s. In response to a massive increase in middle-class and affluent non-resident Indian audiences, especially in North America and the UK, film-makers began addressing the desires and anxieties of the Indian diaspora. One of the decade's biggest box-office successes, Aditya Chopra's Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), is the story of two Indians living in Britain who fall in love but seek the sanction of their elders before getting married. Shot in the UK and on location along the Eurostar route, the movie innovatively weaves overseas locations into the story.
Shooting abroad has now become the norm with big-budget Bollywood productions. Typically, movie plots revolve around wealthy protagonists who live outside India or who frequently travel abroad. Interior shots may be shot in studios, but they are meant to approximate houses in London or New York.
Over the past few years, film-makers have explored more offbeat locations that give movies an exotic edge. The choice of locations also indicates new or potential viewership for Hindi cinema. In the past two years, a sizeable number of big-budget productions have addressed Bollywood audiences outside North America and the UK, among them are 2005 releases Lucky, which was shot in Russia, Salaam Namaste, shot in Melbourne, Australia, 2006's Gangster, shot in Korea, and Fanaa, which was set in the strife-torn Indian state of Kashmir but was actually shot in Poland. "Who wants to see the same old locations in India'" asks Ritesh Sidhwani, producer of last year's Don. A remake of a 1978 thriller of the same name, Don was largely shot in Malaysia. After scouting locations in Singapore and Hong Kong, Sidhwani's firm Excel Entertainment zeroed in on Malaysia. An added bonus was the existing popularity of the movie's lead actor, Shahrukh Khan, in Malaysia.
"It's a film-friendly country and Shahrukh is worshipped there," Sidhwani says. "The government helped us and the Malaysia Tourism Board realised the movie's potential for tourism. They opened doors to every location and even gave us discounts on hotel accommodation and transportation."