Kashmir Sets The Scene To Lure Bollywood Stars Back To The Hills
26 October 2007
The Times (London)
Mumbai: As a backdrop for blossoming love on the big screen in India, Kashmir has been missing for nearly 20 years since insurgency in the disputed border region sent Bollywood directors running for safer hills in Switzerland. Now tourism officials from Jammu and Kashmir have renewed their pitch about the merits of the picturesque state to the Hindi film industry, which is still largely sceptical that things have changed for the better. Bollywood producers and directors at a Bombay trade show yesterday for potential film locations in India heard that Kashmir was 'as safe as anywhere in the country'. Sarmad Hafeez, the state's joint director of tourism, said: 'There has been a lot of negative publicity about Kashmir that is very unfair. Things are always blown out of proportion. They can happen anywhere in the world.' It is 17 years since tensions between India and Pakistan brought the neighbours to the brink of war, and Kashmir is promoting its unique selling points: a diverse topography including lakes and snow-capped peaks, cheap accommodation and labour, no location fees and its proximity to India's entertainment capital. In the 1970s and 1980s, directors and stars flocked to the Kashmir Valley for its stunning scenery. Its sylvan surroundings soon became synonymous with song and dance sequences from classics. The close association caused a generation of Hindi film fans to describe Kashmir as their 'paradise on earth'. The outbreak of militant violence, which has claimed thousands of lives, cooled the relationship and film-makers led by Yash Chopra, Bollywood's undisputed kingpin, searched for alternative locations. Switzerland soon reemerged as the favourite, having first been used in the 1960s by directors including Raj Kapoor and Shakti Samanta. More than 20 Bollywood productions a year are made in Switzerland and about 80,000 Indians visit annually to see the 'sets'. 'It's one of the most potent forms of advertising,' Navjot Singh Sidhu, the Indian batsman-turned-politician, said. 'I have never been to Switzerland but I have seen it on the silver screen and had an urge to go.' Its films are watched by an estimated 14 million people a day, making Bollywood a vital catalyst for tourism. With a lull in the violence and the tone of peace talks between Pakistan and India apparently positive, tourists are beginning to return to Kashmir. Officials hope that new attractions such as Asia's largest tulip garden, which opened this year, and a proposed £3.5 million adventure sports facility will boost numbers. Greater exposure in Bollywood, beyond films about the insurgency, would provide the real filip. Emerging rival destinations such as Malaysia and New Zealand are offering incentives including fast-track visas and discounted scouting packages. Kashmir's biggest inducement is less enticing: free security. Film-makers remain unconvinced. Rakesh Kumar, who filmed five movies in Kashmir before the violence erupted, including Mr Natwarlal, starring the Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan, said: 'We are all eager that a solution should come but it's not just a case of going there to sell goods. It's a creative job, so why go to a risky place?' Switzerland Highest point: Dufourspitze 4,634m Total area: 41,290 sq km Population density: 183 per km sq Bollywood film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, which ran for a record 500 weeks, was made almost entirely in Switzerland. The Schilthorn is also the location of Blofeld's lair in On Her Majesty's Secret Service Kashmir Highest point: K2 8,611m Total Area: 222,236 sq km* Population density: 34 per km sq Ninety-three Bollywood films, including blockbusters, were shot in Jammu and Kashmir before the outbreak of violence in 1990. Only three have been made since then. (*claimed by India).