Like a Hindu god with many arms, the couple dances on the bridge.
They are in love—the hero with rock star sunglasses and a black mustache like a brush, the princess with her bare midriff and a long rope of black hair down her back.
In my dream, they dance with great energy, their hands prancing in the air, as if trying to fling their jewelry from the bridge and into the stream below. They wear identical grins—the macho hero flaps his arms side to side and the woman shimmies until, overwhelmed by the power of love, she collapses into the waiting embrace of her lover.
But there is no kiss.
Like in dreams, I wake up before the good part. All of us wake up: the girl pulls away from the man and retreats to the shade of an oak tree. The hero wipes his brow, then smoothes his hair with both hands, staring into a face mirror held by one of a dozen gofers. The rest of us huddle at one end of the bridge while the audio technician rewinds the tape.
A team of Swiss hikers breaks past us and crosses the bridge, scraping walking sticks on the pavement and barely nodding to the legendary movie star who stands before them. He is Nandamuri Balakrishna, lord of the Telugu cinema and real-life hero to millions of moviegoers in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.
But we are not in India—we are in dreamy Switzerland, standing on a picturesque bridge that arches over a clear mountain brook next to mighty cliffs and more waterfalls than a movie set designer would typically allow in the background. Paragliders float along the cliff edge like three orange butterflies and for a moment, the cast and crew and myself are distracted and silent, craning our necks towards the blue heavens.
Then the director shouts and everyone jumps into position—the dream begins again. The tape deck plays a whiny Indian song with a heavy drum beat, stage hands hold up reflectors to shine the sun from below, lighting up the hero’s face as he runs across the little Swiss bridge and dances with the fair maiden.
She is young and seductive and her eyelashes are so long and heavy, the Swiss sun makes pointed mascara shadows across her cheeks. She is coy on camera but turns even more shy when the film stops rolling (yes, they are shooting on film).
Her name is Isha Chawla, she is from Mumbai and like me, she is visiting Switzerland for the first time.
“I love it here—I love the way people work here, their lifestyle, the beautiful gardens. And I love the good weather!”
Good weather means cool weather—cooler than India at this time of year.
“Yesterday we were filming up at Kleine Scheidegg and the temperature dropped to about 0° C. At first I was cold, but once you get into the mood and start dancing, it’s fine.”
Like so many Indian actors nowadays, Ms. Chawla and Sir Balakrishna are in Switzerland filming the song-and-dance segments to their upcoming Telugu film “Srimannarayana” (to be released next month).
Isha explains the plot to me—an ancient Vedic myth in the modern context. “We just come to Switzerland to film the songs—the story takes place in India, but this part here is all a dream.”
Behind her young actress face I can see the wall of snow-capped mountains, the light blue sky and so many perfectly-proportioned houses with flower boxes on every balcony.
“It’s a dream sequence we do here,” adds Isha, then repeats, “ . . . a dream sequence.”
Before coming to Switzerland, I had no idea so many Indian movies were filmed here—thousands, in fact.
“Most of the movies are shot here now. We shoot three to four movies [in Switzerland] every month,” says Rengarajan Jaiprakash, or JP, a locations director for Bollywood. I think he is one of the few people I have met who travels more than I do. In the past few weeks, he’s been shooting in Hong Kong, Greece and now Switzerland.
“Switzerland is the best—you don’t have to ask so much permission. You just get one permit and it covers everything. They are very supportive here—you just land and shoot.”
JP scouts out locations for specific scenes in all the movies he works on. He points to the bridge and the amazing alpine backdrop before us.
“Like this location—I just found it today!”
The interesting thing about Indian cinema is that movies are produced in several different languages. For this reason, JP is careful never to repeat the same Swiss location for the same Indian language.
“This movie’s in Telugu, so I won’t use it again for that, but we might come back for a Hindi or Tamil shoot.”
That Switzerland is ever-present in Indian cinema is not entirely coincidental. Long ago, Bollywood song-and-dance numbers were often shot high up in the Himalayas, specifically in the mountain wonderland of Kashmir. But today’s border conflicts and civil unrest makes it impossible to film in Kashmir.
Actor-hero Balakrishna mentions this, “We have Kashmir in India, but unfortunately, there are security problems there, so we come to Switzerland.”
Now that they have been featured in so many Indian films, the Swiss Alps have replaced Kashmir as India’s ultimate cool mountain destination.
“Ninety percent of the tourists to this region come from India,” says JP. I can’t personally vouch for that statistic, but I can confirm that the largest restaurant on the Jungfraujoch is called “Restaurant Bollywood” advertising a full Indian buffet with a photoshopped picture of the Taj Mahal on top of the Jungfrau.
Thanks to the dancing singing stars of Bollywood, the Swiss Alps have become a land of romance and dreams for Indians.
“The songs we are shooting are romantic songs,” explains Balakrishna “We want to bring a romantic feeling to them.” With theatrical flourish, he sweeps his hand across the view all around us. “Here you have mountains, green fields, beautiful lakes—all of this adds flavor to the song.”
He talks about the art of making cinema in Switzerland like the pro that he is. At age 52, Balakrishna is truly a legend back home, with over 100 movies under his belt.
“I do them all—the dramaticals, the comicals, the mythologicals, and the historicals,” says Balakrishna.
And the one he’s shooting now, here in Switzerland? Which is it?
“This movie here is a family movie, so it has all the ingredients—comedy, pathos . . . and action!”
Balakrishna truly loves Switzerland—he has filmed here before and aside from the “great weather” it’s the “gentle Swiss people” that he likes most.
“The Swiss are all very encouraging. Just yesterday I was filming a tough dance moment and when I finished, they all began clapping for us. We shot on the streets of Fribourg and Berne and everyone there was so encouraging.
Before the final shoot, the lead actors and I are seated in the producer’s car. The car stereo plays a lilting Hindu chant and JP offers me tea.
With a snap of his fingers, another on-set gofer runs over and passes a little metal tiffin through the rolled-down window, just like the ones I’ve seen in India.
“Chai, sir?” I am handed a cup of warm and spicy milk tea, just like in India. When the cup is empty, it is snatched from my hand with almost-Swiss precision.
“We clean up every last thing,” says JP. “Go ahead an litter. Drop something on the ground. When you come back it will be gone. Our crew sweeps up every location.”
The dream continues on the bridge one last time. Isha grins with love for the camera, Balakrishna plays the macho dancer, catching his woman in his arms. Behind them, the Alps shine so white and pure as the tune of Indian drumbeats echo through the valley.
It’s a wrap. The cast and crew take photos together and then we are back in the car, racing back down to quiet little Wilderswil for Indian food. (“It will be hot,” JP warns me.)
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Outside my window I see Switzerland—the perfect flower gardens, the cowbells hanging from geometric chalets, the swept sidewalks. Inside the car I am in far-off India—the Hindu chanting louder—Balakrishna singing along as he fingers the amulet around his neck. It is Lord Balaji—one of the supreme reincarnations of Vishnu. As we careen downhill, dodging bikers and cars, I begin to hope that protection from accidents is one of Lord Balaji’s dispensations.
“I hope you like my driving!” shouts JP to all of us.
“It’s India driving!” laughs Balakrishna, enjoying the comedy.
JP explains the shock of driving here, “In Switzerland, I have to look both ways. In India, when I drive, I’m always stuck between two other cars, so you never have to look!”
Balakrishna and JP share their amazement for well-behaved Swiss pedestrians.
“You don’t have to be scared that someone will jump out in front of your car,” points out JP.
“I know. In Switzerland, they stop!” exclaims Balakrishna. And JP responds, “There are many rules here—but it’s very easy to follow them.”
Balakrishna shouts to me in the back seat, “In India, we make up our own rules!”
Everyone laughs, even quiet Isha, who is staring out the window at the magnificence of the Bernese Oberland. Just like India, there are cows everywhere and nobody seems to mind them.
“No wonder they love it here,” I think to myself. Switzerland may be the only country that reveres cows as much as they do in India.
Ten minutes later, I am sitting in the kitchen of a century-old Swiss chalet, dipping my right hand into coconut curry served to me by an Indian chef who speaks to me in the Bernese dialect of Swiss German. A sprig of green curry leaves decorates the dish—one of the few herbs you will not find growing in the Swiss Alps.
Nevertheless, I am eating curry in Switzerland in a chalet filled with Indian cast and crew. Tonight they will board a plane in Zurich and return to their reality in India. In a month, millions of Indians will watch the happy couple dancing on the little Swiss bridge in Lauterbrunnen, sparking a dream of this cheery land that I am traveling in now.
All of us travel in our dreams, and where do millions of Indians go in their dreams? To the Swiss Alps—to the blue skies and white peaks of Kleine Scheidegg, to the magnificent Jungfrau and the clear waterfalls that tumble endlessly into emerald valleys.
I don’t blame them. I dream of Switzerland too, even now that I am here, hiking through cinematic landscapes and singing my own carefree Bollywood soundtrack in my head.
For me the dream goes on—Switzerland is very real and the plot possibilities endless. Thus I board a train to my next corner of this little country—not to seek out a new destination, but only to watch the sequel.