Small businesses have benefited from the Indian film industry's choice of Switzerland as a backdrop for song and dance sequences. But for some companies, it comes at a cost.
Erwin Fässler remembers the first time he saw a Bollywood movie. The silver-haired, 55-year-old from the Zurich Oberland received the 1998 Hindi blockbuster Kuch Kuch Hota Hain (Something Happens) as a present.
“I watched it with my family and we developed Bollywood fever after that,” he told swissinfo.ch.
A few years later, on a whim, he decided to hunt for some of the Swiss locations in a Bollywood film he had just seen. After five hours of searching for a specific bridge in the Bernese Oberland he found it when he had almost given up hope.
“My daughter started dancing on that bridge like in the movie,” he says. “I realised that if she was so moved by the experience, serious Bollywood fans would be overjoyed.”
He now runs a business that offers private tours of some of the most memorable scenes in Indian films shot on Swiss soil. A two-day Bollywood tour in his Range Rover isn’t cheap, starting at CHF590 ($594) per person, excluding accommodation and accounts for 20-30% of his income. But business has never been better for the enterprising Indophile.
Making fantasy a reality
"Since the late 1980s, over 170 Indian films have been shot in Switzerland starring Bollywood icons such as Aishwarya Rai or Shah Rukh Khan,” Claudio Zemp, India director of Switzerland Tourism told swissinfo.ch. “Swiss mountains, lakes, castles and historic cities are particularly popular with Indian film crews.”
However, despite excellent transport and infrastructure, as well as practical suggestions from Switzerland Tourism, Indian film productions sometimes need a helping local hand to make the most of the precious time they spend in the country.
That’s where Swiss experts like Dan Riesen come in. His Bern-based production company Aloco films has provided location scouting services to Indian film-makers.
“If they want to film a cow in a field I negotiate with the farmer to make it happen,” he says.
For this service he is paid around CHF800-1,000 per day, not including equipment hire. Riesen enjoys working with Bollywood productions even though the bulk of his work comes from Swiss commercials and documentary films.
“For me it is fun but not a main source of income,” he says. “I like working with people from different cultures.”
While Riesen can take Indian crews to any Swiss location, his expertise is limited to terrestrial destinations. Those with ambitions to take to the skies opt for the many Swiss helicopter services on offer.
“Indian film crews mostly hire our helicopters to capture scenic shots of the foothills,” says Martin Burgener of Swiss Helicopter.
His company has worked for around five Indian films in the past five years. With rates of around CHF40 per minute not every production unit can afford to remain up in the air for long. According to Burgener, the typical Indian movie helicopter shoot lasts an average of two days.
While hiring choppers can be considered a luxury, keeping film crews and actors well fed is essential.
“They are happy if they have access to Indian food and it is very important for a smooth functioning of the production,” says location scout Riesen.
Movie makers often contract a Swiss restaurant or catering services specialising in Indian cuisine to provide meals. That can include feeding a crew with members from different parts of the country and a variety of food preferences. The strenuous filming schedule doesn’t make things easier.
“Breakfast was served at 4am,” says Tony Soekhai who runs Zurich-based Saphire Catering and Events. His company was hired to fulfill the catering needs of the 2013 Bollywood film Dhoom 3 - which was the most expensive Indian film ever made at the time with a budget of $26 million.
Soekhai and his team served the film production for 15 days as they filmed sequences in Zurich and Ticino. His company received around CHF45,000 for catering the film.
Trouble in paradise
Unlike the storyline of most Bollywood films not all dealings with Indian film units are guaranteed to have a happy ending.
Many Swiss business complain about gruelling shooting schedules imposed on them. Working with Indian film makers usually means slogging from sunrise to sunset. An Indian film producer has even stated that because the sun goes down later in Switzerland, one can film longer and so make up for the extra travel costs.
“Bollywood films are ten times the work for only 10% of the revenue,” says Roger Neuburger of Allabout production & services. “If you’ve worked on a Bollywood production you can do any movie.”
Neuburger has worked for Hollywood films like Our Kind of Traitor, Kingsmen and Pirates of the Caribbean but rates his Bollywood experience as his toughest gig. He has also had a bad experience when it comes to payment for his work and claims that an Indian producer still owes him CHF40,000.
“They pay very late and want everything for a very low price,” says Syed Khawar, owner of the Tandoori Indian Restaurant in canton Lucerne. He has catered for Bollywood movies like Aur Pyar Ho Gya and Sur but has lost interest in recent years because of payment issues.
But perhaps late payment is preferable to no payment at all. Many businesses that work for film productions are also convinced that Switzerland is becoming less attractive as a destination for foreign film-makers, including Indians.
“Switzerland is getting more expensive and the Indians are getting to know about cheaper destinations like Austria with similar landscapes,” says location scout Riesen.
Another factor working against Switzerland is the absence of tax breaks for foreign film units.
“Italy and Austria offers a tax break of 25% which means that producers can claim back up to 25% of their expenses incurred while shooting in the country,” says Neuburger. “The Swiss government should also offer tax breaks, as a film can boost the local economy, promote tourism and offer valuable professional opportunities to local support staff.”
But perhaps the biggest threat to Switzerland as a Bollywood backdrop is the changing tastes of the Indian film-goer.
“Films in India are changing and there is less emphasis on song and dance sequences in exotic locales,” says Neuburger.
Released in 1964, Sangam was the first Indian film shot in Switzerland but it was the 1967 film Evening in Paris, that first used the Alps as a backdrop for singing, dancing and romancing. However, it would be a few more decades before Switzerland burst into the Indian consciousness, following the release of the Bollywood film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge in 1995, which featured superstar Shah Rukh Khan as a love-struck Romeo trying to win his lady love Kajol's heart in the midst of breathtaking Swiss scenery.
Many other films subsequently incorporated Switzerland as a backdrop cementing the Alpine nation’s place as a must-visit on any European tour aimed at Indian travellers.