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The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Bollywood

Learn the history of Mumbai’s iconic “cut-to” Switzerland shot

smithsonian.com

Julie Andrews may have famously sung and spun in the Swiss Alps, but towering 10,600 feet in the air, one of the most famous “hills” in Switzerland is alive with the sound of Bollywood music.

On Mount Titlis, life-size cut outs of Kajol and Shahrukh Khan from the runaway hit Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (more commonly referred to as DDLJ), are displayed in an open-air café fittingly called “Bollywood.” The power couple—posing among the snow-capped scenery—symbolizes the enduring legacy of the Mumbai film industry, which has been doing “cut-to” shots to Switzerland for more than 50 years.

If Bollywood and Alpine landscapes seem like a weird pairing, it may be time to reconsider. It turns out that Bollywood has a long legacy in Switzerland. In the past two decades, more than 200 Bollywood films have been filmed there, and more honeymooners and travelers than ever come from India, as DNA India reports. Many go on packaged tours dedicated to finding the locations where iconic Switzerland shots were filmed. DDLJ, the quintessential Bollywood film with a Swiss connection, is one of the most popular films to be found on the so-called "Bollywood Trail."

The movie, which premiered in 1995, has proved so popular that in one theater in Mumbai, it ran for a record 1,000 weeks straight. The seminal Bollywood masterpiece spoke not to India's wealthy elites, but its growing middle class, Philip Lutgendorf, a professor of Hindi and Modern Indian Studies at the University of Iowa, tells Smithsonian.com. 

"If you watch a film like DDLJ, there's a [glorifying] of consumer power of the Indian hero and heroine being able to casually roam around Europe, be waited on in restaurants and stores, and have their needs satisfied by white people," Lutgendorf says. "There’s a message there about disposable income and the freedom of consumer buying power. That makes a place like Switzerland appealing."

The first Bollywood film shot in Switzerland was Sangam in 1964. The film, Raj Kapoor's first color production, started a trend toward tourist destinations in Bollywood film, as the Guardian’s Rachel Dwyer points out.

In the film, the leading couple honeymoons in Switzerland’s Grand Hotel Giessbach high above Lake Brienz, and Sangam captures the castle-like hotel before it was renovated in 1979. The dream-like sequence—in which the main characters are transported from a sound stage to a pastoral Swiss setting—went on to become a Bollywood trope.

“[Switzerland] has beautiful landscapes where you have the pastoral juxtaposed against the snow, which is a very grand thing,” S.E. Pillai, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, tells Smithsonian.com. “You have the mountain and the snow. You have the skiing…and if you go during spring or summer, the flowers run for miles—it is tailor-made for Hindi film song sequences.”

Sangam's popularity made international shots popular, and Shakti Samanta’s 1967 film, An Evening In Paris, the first Bollywood movie to be filmed entirely abroad, quickly followed. Though the plot primarily takes place in the “City of Light,” the scenic Swiss Alps are put to use—watch for shots of the village of Mürren and the Alpine Coaster at Glacier 3000 in Gstaad. And that was before the king of Swiss Bollywood sequences came along.

Director Yash Chopra honeymooned in Switzerland in 1970. Twenty years later, he filmed his first big Switzerland hit, Chandni. The cult classic—which highlighted Switzerland's Lauenensee lakes and the highest railway station in Europe, the Jungfraujoch—not only pushed a return to musical cuts in Mumbai films, but also catapulted Switzerland to the attention of Bollywood filmmakers.

Chopra’s influence is the country is so profound that Lake Lauenen, which is featured in Chandni, is now fondly known by fans as Chopra Lake. A Jungfrau Railways train is named after Chopra, too—not to mention a deluxe suite at the Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel.

"Switzerland has always been my first choice of destination for shooting outside India,” Chopra said when he received the Swiss Ambassador Award in 2010. "It is truly a heaven on earth that has made every angle, every shot and every frame of my movies breathtaking with the scenes vividly etched in people's mind."

But the Switzerland/Bollywood relationship status is complicated, Anuradha Vikram argues in Hyperallergic. In addition to lavish backdrops, she points out, Swiss Bollywood backgrounds deliver a layered post-colonial message.

"What these landscapes represent in the Indian consciousness is complex. They are certainly images of Europe — idealized, continental Europe, not the rainy grey of the British Isles," she writes.

This fantasy image of Europe turns Western film tropes upside-down. Bollywood's Swiss storylines focus on brown-skinned heroes and romances rather than those white people, who only appear in the films as extras. "They’re in the background and saying an odd line here or there providing some visual interest," Lutgendorf says, "but they’re of no importance ot the storyline whatsoever."

Chopra turned his lens toward Switzerland at a time of geopolitical change in India. As the country shifted from socialism to privatization following the official dissolution of the Soviet Union, Bollywood filmed more and more sequences in Switzerland. More mobile Indians meant more financing for film shoots abroad—and more tourists who wanted to visit the film locations themselves. The number of nights that Indian tourists spent in Switzerland grew exponentially, as John Tagliabue wrote in the New York Times in 2010. “After years of seeing the pristine backdrop of Switzerland in Bollywood’s films, generations of middle-class Indians are now earning enough to travel there in search of their dreams," Tagliabue reported. 

Political upheaval made Switzerland even more attractive to Bollywood filmmakers. Kashmir, the contested Himalayan alpine destination between India and Pakistan, was once a Bollywood go-to. But by the 1990s, the location had become dangerous for film crews following a prolonged insurgency by Pakistani troops. The use of Swiss footage in Bollywood films reflected "not simply the cachet of international travel but also the practical difficulty of siting and shooting film stories in Kashmir, a state that had now become associated less with romance than with terrorism and insurgency,” Lutgendorf notes in the journal Himalaya.

In the past few years since Chopra's death in 2012, cut-to Switzerland shots have actually declined, Pillai says, as for artistic and financial reasons, other international locations have started to pull Bollywood lens. But that hasn't stopped fans from flocking in increased numbers to Switzerland to see their favorite films come to life.

It was not Chopra, but his oldest son, Aditya Chopra, who directed DDLJ. The famous “DDLJ bridge" scene, which as the blog "Indian Compass" reports, is in Saanen, near to the Saanen Railway Station, is a must-visit spot on the "Bollywood Trail" and it's also the site of one of the film's pivotal moments.

During the scene, the male lead mouths, "Palat... Palat... Palat" or "Turn....Turn....Turn..." imploring the woman he loves to turn around if she returns his affection.

At the last second before she goes to board the train, she turns to him.

Tourism continues to increase because despite the complicated layers that the lush valleys and pristine Alps carry in the collective conscious of Indians, Bollywood fans want to go to hear the hills sing a Bollywood love song. If they're lucky, they just might see the one they love turn their head—or just have their own head turned by the lush landscape that's become a beloved film cliché.

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