In 1964, legendary Indian film director Raj Kapoor released his first color film, Sangam. It featured some of the country’s biggest names at the time in a gripping tale of four hours of gripping romance, hapless lovers, and heroic sacrifice. But it wasn’t just the epic love story that got fans flocking to the cinema, it was the first Bollywood movie to be shot on the snowy peaks of Switzerland and sparked a long-standing, long-distance love affair with the country.
It is estimated that as many as 300 Bollywood movies have been shot or partly shot in the country since then, and while the credits flow, millions of visitors from Asia have flocked to the landlocked European bunker to find their own spotlight.
Until the 1960s, Indian filmmakers traditionally traveled to the hills of Kashmir in northern India to shoot the amazing song and dance routines and romantic scenes for which Bollywood is so famous. However, the ongoing political tension between India and Pakistan meant bosses had to look elsewhere – turning 4,000 miles west, to Switzerland.
“When Raj Kapoor hit Sangam in Switzerland, it was a bold move that proved to be very, very successful,” says Rajinder Dudrah, professor of Cultural Studies and Creative Industries at Birmingham City University. “At the time, Europe was the land of the imagination for the vast majority of Indians, and the film was popular not only because of its star value and songs, but also because of its overseas attractions.”
Movies are a big industry in India, and the country’s film industry is one of the largest in the world, producing more than 1,000 titles a year, about twice the amount Hollywood earns. Sangam’s phenomenal box office success inspired other filmmakers to look west, and during the 1980s and 1990s, between 20 and 30 Bollywood films were shot in Switzerland each year.
One such producer was Yash Raj Chopra, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest Indian filmmakers ever. After falling in love with Switzerland on their honeymoon in the 1970s, she returned to the country to shoot all the romantic scenes of her films. By doing so, he threw the country at the top of the wish list for all young Indians.
“We call him the father of Swiss tourism,” says Ritu Sharma, deputy director of Switzerland Tourism India. His influence and influence was so great that in 2011 Yash Chopra was awarded the title of honorary Ambassador of the Swiss city of Interlaken, in the heart of the country’s mountains. That 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 honor. In 2016, a bronze statue of the late director holding his camera (Yash Chopra died in 2012) was unveiled in Interlaken.
Yash Chopra has made many films in Switzerland throughout his career, but the 1995 film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (To Get the Bighearted Bride), written and directed by his son Aditya Chopra, further increased India’s admiration for the country. Further forward.
More commonly referred to by its initials DDLJ, the film stars two of Bollywood’s biggest stars, Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, and tells the story of Raj and Simran, two non-native Indians who fall in love while vacationing in Europe. Today it remains one of the highest grossing Indian films ever and is also the longest running film in the history of Indian cinema; The only screen Maratha Mandir theater in Mumbai has been showing DDLJ at 11.30am every day for the past 27 years. The only other movie to run in theaters longer is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which is still in limited release nearly 47 years after its premiere.
The launch of the DDLJ has also aligned with the opening up of the Indian economy and the increasing appetite of the Indian middle class to travel internationally. “After DDLJ, the number of Indian visitors to Switzerland has skyrocketed,” says Erwin Fässler, who began organizing private tours of Bollywood filming locations in Switzerland eleven years ago.
Mountains made for the screen
Most Bollywood movies have been shot in the Bernese Oberland region, which is home to resorts like Interlaken, Wengen, Grindelwald, and this is the area Indian travelers inevitably visit first. Lake Lauenen is unofficially known as Lake Yash Chopra as it is featured so often in his movies. In the town of Saanen stands the bridge shown in DDLJ, where Raj tells Simran that he is in love with her.
The Glacier Alpine 3000 Coaster, the world’s highest toboggan run, located in Sangam; In Jungfraujoch, above the resorts of Wengen and Mürren, Sunny Deol jumps from the observatory 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 aluminum carved figures of the stars of the DDLJ.
Switzerland has both courted and catered to Indian visitors since the first Bollywood movies were shot on Swiss soil. In 2000, Restaurant Bollywood opened in Jungfraujoch, serving curries with a view of Europe’s tallest glacier. At the top of Mount Titlis you’ll find GourmIndia, the Spice Bazaar in Engelberg, and the Mango Restaurant in Gstaad, a town mostly known for its Michelin-starred restaurants and European royal visitors.
warming up for winter
Although traditionally Indian visitors prefer the Alps during the summer months, interest in winter visits has increased in recent years. “We become much more comfortable with the idea of winter travel,” Sharma says. “A few years ago people were afraid of winter and didn’t understand why you might want to go to Switzerland, which is much colder.”
To appeal to novice skiers, in 2014 the Jungfrau region launched a beginner half-day ski tasting package. “For Instagram, it’s a good way to snap a few pictures and get an idea of what’s going on,” says Sunila Patil, founder of Mumbai-based tour operator Veena World.
But for some, the appeal is much simpler. “Many of our Indian visitors love to go up to the top of Europe and touch the ice and snow – that’s what counts,” says Remo Käser, head of sales at Jungfrau Railways. India is the third largest market for Jungfraujoch with over 100,000 visitors per year.
While fewer Bollywood movies are being made in Switzerland today – a combination of cost and glamorous film incentives from other European countries – it’s undeniable that movies still make magic. Before the pandemic, the number of visitors from India increased significantly, increasing tenfold each year from 1999 to 2019. And interest continues to be high.
“Switzerland is definitely one of the top three favorite destinations in the world for travelers from India,” Patil says. “If not the first.” It seems the hills are still very much alive with the sound of Bollywood.