5 Yorkshire Bollywood and Me (Geography)
In the previous instalment, I explained that Yorkshire is one of Britain’s most sought-after filming destinations: scenes from The King’s Speech and several Harry Potter movies were filmed here, not to mention TV stalwarts like Emmerdale and Heartbeat. It was with this legacy in mind that the region decided to bid for the International Indian Film Academy Awards (IIFAs). If the team behind Yorkshire’s bid could pull it off, the ‘Bollywood Oscars’ would offer a massive boost to the region’s economy and tourism. It would give Yorkshire the perfect opportunity to inspire Indian film directors with its stunning landscape, castles and abbeys. But in order to understand Yorkshire’s offering, and the strength of its case, you first need to appreciate how love works in Bollywood.
If you know only one thing about Indian films, it’s probably that they feature several song and dance sequences. Songs create a spectacle but also have an important function; they are often used to declare love and emotion in the narrative so it’s vital that the backdrop matches the romantic sentiment. Nowadays, most protagonists in Indian films expect to choose their own life partners, yet their behaviour still endorses strong family values. The age old technique is to show the unmarried couple cavorting outdoors rather than confining them within four walls. This is Bollywood’s answer to damage limitation: if the couple are in a public space, no matter how remote, they won’t be tempted to indulge in physical intimacy. Being outdoors somehow dissipates sexual tension.
Most settings are chosen purely for their visual beauty. The priority given to aesthetics over any sense of continuity actually gives the director a great deal of freedom. He can use a song and dance sequence to display exotic locations without the background being part of the story. As long as the backdrop contributes to the mood of the scene, it doesn’t matter if the protagonists were travelling in a dusty rickshaw seconds earlier; they can be suspended on the Swiss Alps long enough to frolic gaily in the snow with multiple costume changes. We don’t need an explanation about how the characters got from A to B because we know they’ll go back to reality as soon as the song ends.
Songs also act as a key marketing tool. The sequences are a bit like mini pop promos, and they’re aired on Indian music channels before the actual film hits the big screen. Songs offer audiences a real flavour of the film and they’re critical in determining the film’s popularity. No wonder that filming the song and dance sequences in glamorous foreign locations eats up a huge chunk of the budget. While foreign locations bring a sense of excitement, escapism, adventure and aspiration to the film, they also have a practical purpose. Having all the cast available in one location away from home can minimise disruptions sometimes caused by an unpunctual or absent diva!
Film makers are permanently on the quest for the perfect romantic backdrop. During the 60s and 70s, exotic meant snow. In fact, the first time I saw snow was probably in Junglee (Subodh Mukherjee, 1961). However, having endured my share of severe British winters, it’s difficult to see how sliding down a snow clad mountain on your front can inspire romance, particularly when you’re inappropriately dressed in a flimsy shalwar kameez and court shoes!
This scene was shot in Kashmir in India, which was widely regarded as ‘heaven on earth’. The pure white snow, crystal clear lakes, the spectacle of snowy mountains presented idyllic surroundings for falling in love on screen during the 50s, 60s and 70s. In fact, Kashmir’s scenery and landscape became so popular that lakes, trees and mountains became synonymous with romance in Bollywood. So much so, that when the militancy and terrorism threats of the late 1980s made the place inaccessible to film makers, substitutes for Kashmir had to be found overseas. This was a move that did wonders for my geography. Somewhat shamefully, I must admit that my initial knowledge of Europe’s beauty spots was probably culled from repeat viewings of favourite Indian films.
Switzerland and its lakes, snow-capped mountains and impossibly green alpine valleys quickly became an obvious replacement for Kashmir. Actually, you could argue that film director Yash Chopra (nicknamed the godfather of love because of his contribution to the romance genre), has single-handedly placed Switzerland in the Indian consciousness as an aspirational place to visit. Seriously, he has filmed so often at a particular lake that the Swiss Tourism Board has unofficially named it The Chopra Lake. Now, remember those relaxed rules of continuity? The heroine in Chandni (Yash Chopra, 1989) is fast asleep in her bed in India, and probably doesn’t even have the means to fly to Switzerland. Yet she is conveniently transported to the idyllic location, after a detour to the beauty salon it would seem, as she dreams about the man she loves.
I’ve never been to Switzerland, and to this day, what I know about the country is probably scraped together from Indian films I’ve seen that were shot there. You see, we were taught to look to Pakistan for inspiration. Pakistan was the ideal and we were leading second best lives in Bradford; there were times it felt like mum’s heart was still beating in Rawalpindi. Circumstance had brought us to Britain. After my father took another wife, mum didn’t want to depend on her parents. Thankfully, our British passports meant we could return to Bradford and the council quickly put a roof over our heads. It’s easier to make a life for yourself on your own in Britain. It’s less judgmental and more forgiving. And the distance allowed mum to pretend to her family that life here was much better than it actually was. It also meant she could indulge us in a love affair with her homeland. It became the place where everything was good, where the sun shone brighter and where the mangoes were sweeter. And so, I was conditioned to believe that my family’s dream destination could only ever be Pakistan, traipsing after mum who’d be diligently catching up on 10 years’ worth of births, deaths and marriages among her extended family.
I didn’t know much about The Netherlands either. It was only after watching Rekha and Amitabh Bachchan in Silsila (Yash Chopra, 1981), running through endless stretches of tulip fields that I linked the flower with the country. Actually, I doubt I’d ever seen a tulip until I watched Silsila. If I was to recreate this scene, my heroine would be running through pots of red geraniums because that’s the only blessed flower we had growing in our house throughout my teens. Mum wanted to grow something pretty on the window sill in front of the net curtains. Being the cheapest of all pot plants, and the only ones available in Morrisons anyway, even we could afford them on our budget. Not only were geraniums easy to grow meaning results were guaranteed, they came in a variety of colours and proved to be incredibly good value. If one of the long stems broke off accidentally, you simply buried it in moist soil and it would soon take root, without any fuss. So with her initial investment, mum soon had geraniums lined up all along our window sill.
Thanks to their glossy portrayal in Bollywood blockbusters, many overseas destinations have enjoyed a real boost from Indian tourists. Although the story of Fanaa (Kunal Kohli, 2006) was set in Kashmir, the snow clad terrain of the Tatra Mountains in Poland was used as a Kashmir replacement. This created a lot of interest from Indian tourists wanting to walk in the footsteps of Kajol and Aamir Khan. Singapore Tourism Board launched a tour package to coincide with the release of the superhero film Krrish (Rakesh Roshan, 2006) which was shot there. In her debut film, Jeans (Shankar, 1998), Aishwarya Rai managed to complete a round-the-world trip in just one song, taking in The Great Wall of China, Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, Taj Mahal, Pyramids, Roman Colosseum, as well as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Unsurprisingly, filming for the song ‘Ajooba’ involved a budget breaking 30 day round-the-world trip with the cast and crew.
Britain too has become a very popular screen location in Bollywood films. So much so that VisitBritain produced a Bollywood Movie Map to encourage Indian film fans to visit the British locations shown in their favourite films. The map highlighted old and recent Bollywood productions and included Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Karan Johar, 1998), whose title track was filmed at Glencoe, Ross Priory and Loch Lomond in Scotland.
Thanks to the casual approach to continuity, Scotland’s diverse landscape could provide the backdrop for the song even though Scotland had nothing to do with the storyline. However, recent Bollywood storylines have featured non-resident Indians (NRIs) to appeal to the huge number of Bollywood fans living outside India. It’s well worth keeping them happy because the higher ticket prices paid by audiences in Canada, USA, Middle East and Britain can recoup more than half the total earnings of a film. For instance, my cinema ticket guarantees a higher return because I probably pay twenty times more for it than someone in India! With all this in mind, it makes sense for Britain and Bollywood to strengthen their ties, which is exactly what Yorkshire had in mind when it successfully bid to host the prestigious International Indian Film Academy Awards in 2007. It goes without saying that the region would offer an impressive backdrop to song and dance sequences. However, in my next blog post, I’ll reveal Yorkshire’s other unique selling points which convinced the organisers to bring the Bollywood Oscars to our doorstep.
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