Indian films’ new fixation with unusual foreign locations
The not-so-obvious reasons why our movies travel abroad
You can pretend you are in India," says Feisal Malik, line producer with Visual Africa, a film production company in Kenya. “A lot of Indian weddings take place in Kenya, so you have many Indian background dancers and props available. There are Indian-origin actors as well, ones who know what they are doing in front of the camera." Kenya has a white-sand coastline, lush green plantations, and the famous Savannah grasslands. Not too far away, South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal region offers cityscapes, jungles, mountains and the sea in close vicinity, as well as parts of Durban that look like India. “There are cramped buildings, temples and mosques here," G. Simphiwe Ngcobo, production and development manager, KwaZulu-Natal Film Commission, South Africa, told me at the India International Film Tourism Conclave in Mumbai last week.
The idea of going to Africa to recreate India may seem strangely self-defeating, but for film industry insiders, it is business as usual. The decision to shoot in a foreign country depends on its natural and cultural offerings as much as on the financial incentives, the efficiency of the local crew and the permits to shoot. Marijke de Souza, an executive producer at Dharma Productions, is looking for shooting locations that can pass as India for Ayan Mukerji’s planned fantasy adventure with Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt, tentatively titled “Dragon". “If you are filming at a certain time of the year, you can’t go to certain parts of India because of the extreme weather. Sometimes the actors’ dates don’t match. And if you need to blow up cars, we don’t have the highways to do it. Some other countries have infrastructure that allows that," she says.
This is where smaller countries see a business opportunity. The countries that took part in the conclave weren’t the UK, France or Switzerland but Kenya, Portugal, Finland, Malta, Fiji, Sri Lanka, Jordan, Romania, Cyprus and Slovenia, among others. In the two-day B2B event, which resembled a trade fair for film locations, representatives from tourism boards, armed with catalogues and audiovisual presentations in their respective stalls, met production houses and film-makers. There were representatives from the Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayali, Kannada and Bengali film industries.
“We have the best of landscapes and pristine waters, but ultimately, it all comes down to how much it costs to shoot in one place or the other, and what kind of local crew you find there," says Luís Araújo, president of Turismo de Portugal, a country where Imtiaz Ali recently finished filming The Ring with Shah Rukh Khan.
These countries have a model that benefits both parties: the more you involve their local economy, the less you pay. “You get a 20% tax rebate if you only use the location," Ngcobo says. “If you hire local crew and equipment, it goes up to 35%. And it goes up to 50% if you employ black locals. If it’s a co-production in KwaZulu-Natal, you get $150,000 (around ₹ 1 crore) as funding." He adds, “It is actually possible to make your entire movie with soft money that you sometimes don’t have to pay back."
Film location tourism is serious business in these countries and competition is stiff. But there is space for everyone. Finland, which launched its campaign in January, is a late entrant compared to its Nordic neighbours. But it’s not worried because “Iceland is booked for the next two years", according to Teija Raninen, film commissioner, West Finland Film Commission (which offers a costume manufacturer on the sets). “Film production demands a huge network and many supporting industries," Raninen says. “It took a while to convince our government that it will create new jobs and companies." In 2014, Shamitabh became the first Indian movie to be shot in Finland—in Lapland, which boasts of snowy wildernesses and the Northern Lights.
Given the way Indian popular cinema is driven by its aspirational qualities, foreign locations add value, literally. Shyam Kurup, vice-president of the Aries group of companies, a UAE-based multinational that invests in movies, describes it as a budgeting tactic. “If I shoot a song in Fiji, my budget may go up by 10% but the returns are more because our distribution value also goes up."
Some directors, like Imtiaz Ali and Vikas Bahl, follow their characters on their travels, shooting in whichever country the plot takes them to. “Given her arc, Rani’s final destination in Queen had to be Amsterdam, a city bustling with cycles, music and people," says Bahl. This doesn’t mean there’s always a good reason for a foreign shoot, though. Rohit Shetty could presumably have shot Dilwale in any place that resembled Bulgaria and Iceland. “In my film Ra. One the lead characters live in London," says director Anubhav Sinha, who attended the conclave. “It could have been (set in) any other country."
Perhaps the most amusing rationale comes from Vinod Unnithan, line producer of Raees, Delhi Belly and Dhobi Ghat. One of the main reasons for shooting abroad, he says, is to keep the film’s stars in a controlled environment. “If we are shooting in India, especially in Mumbai, stars arrive late and are always looking to leave the set early for home or to meet friends. But outside India, they don’t have many people to socialize with. They have nowhere to go and are generally stuck between the hotel and the sets."