In 1964, legendary Indian director Raj Kapoor released his first color film, Sangam. The four-hour affair featured some of the nation’s biggest names at the time in a tale of unhappy lovers and heroic self-sacrifice. But it wasn’t just the epic love story that drew fans to the cinema, it was the first Bollywood film to be shot on the snowy peaks of Switzerland – igniting a long-distance love affair with the country.
It is estimated that up to 300 Bollywood films have been filmed or partially filmed in the country since then, and as the credits roll, millions of Asian visitors flock to the inland European hole in search of their own piece of the spotlight.
Until the 1960s, Indian filmmakers traditionally went to the hills of Kashmir in northern India to shoot the spectacular dance routines and romantic scenes for which Bollywood is famous. But ongoing political tensions between India and Pakistan meant the bosses had to look elsewhere – turning 4,000 miles west to Switzerland.
“When Raj Kapoor shot Sangam in Switzerland, it was a bold move that turned out to be very, very successful,” says Rajinder Dudrah, Professor of Cultural Studies and Creative Industries at Birmingham City University. “At the time, Europe was a land of imagination for the vast majority of Indians, and the film was popular not only for its star rating and songs, but also for its overseas tourist destinations.”
Films are big business in India and the country’s film industry is one of the largest in the world, producing over 1,000 titles a year, roughly twice that of Hollywood. Sangam’s extraordinary box office success inspired other film producers to look west, and in the 1980s and 1990s, an incredible 20 to 30 Bollywood films were shot in Switzerland each year.
One such producer was Yash Raj Chopra, widely regarded as one of the greatest Indian filmmakers in history. After falling in love with Switzerland on his honeymoon in the 1970s, he returned to the country to shoot all the romance scenes for his films. Thus, he catapulted the country to the top of the wish list of all young Indians.
“We call him the father of Swiss tourism,” says Ritu Sharma, deputy director of Switzerland Tourism India. His influence and influence were so great that in 2011 Yash Chopra received the honorary title of Ambassador of Interlaken, a Swiss city in the heart of the country’s mountains. In the same year, Jungfrau Railways named one of its trains the “Yash Chopra train”, and the five-star Victoria Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa in Interlaken named a cinema-themed suite in his honour. In 2016, a bronze statue of the late director holding a camera was unveiled in Interlaken (Yash Chopra died in 2012).
Yash Chopra made many films in Switzerland during his career, but it was the 1995 film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (translated as The Big-Hearted will take the Bride), written and directed by his son Aditya Chopra, that raised India’s fascination with the country even next.
The film, more commonly referred to by the initials DDLJ, starred two of Bollywood’s biggest stars, Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, and told the story of two young non-resident Indians, Raj and Simran, who fall in love while on holiday in Europe. To this day, it remains one of the highest-grossing Hindi films ever, as well as the longest-running film in Indian cinema history; Mumbai’s single-screen Maratha Mandir theater has been showing DDLJ daily at 11:30 am for the last 27 years. The only other film that has been shown in theaters for longer is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which is still in limited edition 47 years after its release.
The release of the DDLJ also coincided with the opening of the Indian economy and the growing appetite of the Indian middle class for international travel. “After the DDLJ, the number of Indians visiting Switzerland skyrocketed,” says Erwin Fässler, who began organizing private tours of Bollywood film locations in Switzerland eleven years ago.
Mountains made for the screen
Most Bollywood films were shot in the Bernese Oberland, where resorts such as Interlaken, Wengen, Grindelwald are located, and it is this region that Indian travelers visit first. Lauenen Lake is unofficially known as Yash Chopra Lake because it often featured in his films. In the city of Saanen, there is a bridge from DDLJ where Raj tells Simran that he is in love with her.
Glacier Alpine 3000 Coaster, the world’s tallest toboggan run, at Sangam; in Jungfraujoch, above the resorts of Wengen and Mürren, Sunny Deol jumps from the observation deck in The Hero: Love Story of a Spy; and at the top of the Titlis Rotair cable car in Engelberg, visitors line up to take pictures with the DDLJ aluminum star figures.
Switzerland has both solicited and catered to Indian visitors since the first Bollywood movies were shot on Swiss soil. In 2000, a Bollywood restaurant opened on the Jungfraujoch, where curries are served overlooking Europe’s longest glacier. At the top of Mount Titlis is GourmIndia, in Engelberg is the Spice Bazaar and in Gstaad, a city better known for its Michelin-starred restaurants and European royal guests, is Mango Restaurant.
Warming up for winter
Although traditionally Indian visitors have favored the Alps during the summer months, interest in winter visits has increased in recent years. “The idea of winter travel is becoming more and more appealing to us,” says Sharma. “A few years ago, people were afraid of winter and didn’t understand why they would want to go to Switzerland, where it is much colder.”
To meet the needs of beginner skiers, in 2014 the Jungfrau region introduced a half-day trial package for beginners. “It’s a good way to snap some photos for Instagram and get a feel for what’s going on,” says Sunila Patil, founder of Mumbai-based travel company Veena World.
But for some, the appeal is much simpler. “Most of our Indian visitors just like to drive up to the top of Europe and touch the ice and snow – that’s a real highlight,” says Remo Käser, Head of Sales at Jungfrau Railways. India is the third largest Jungfraujoch market, visited by more than 100,000 people a year.
While fewer Bollywood films are shot in Switzerland today – a combination of cost and attractive film incentives from other European countries – there’s no denying that films still create magic. Before the pandemic, the number of visitors from India increased significantly year-on-year, increasing tenfold between 1999 and 2019. And interest remains high.
“Switzerland is definitely in the top three of the world’s favorite destinations for travelers from India,” says Patil. “If not the first.” It seems the hills are still buzzing with the sound of Bollywood.