SCREEN INDIA: THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO Screen India ; Britain's simply gone Bollywood-crazy. If you can't get enough of the all-singing, all-dancing action, why not go on location, says RHIANNON BATTEN
Publication date: 2002-08-03
WHERE DO I START?
Britain is in the middle of an Indian summer. In recent years, the art- house films Bandit Queen and Monsoon Wedding have been instant hits, while Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical, Bombay Dreams - which offers a slice of the kitsch side of Indian cinema - has attracted large numbers of British Asians. Channel 4 is promoting its own "Indian Summer", tying in cricket coverage with free screenings of Indian films and music events in Regent's Park, close to Lord's. Even the Victoria & Albert Museum (020-7942 2000, www.vam.ac.uk) is in on the act with a poster exhibition, "The Art of Bollywood", running until 6 October. But, to get behind the marigold-strewn scenes of India's screens, there's only one thing for it; book a flight east.
BOLLYWOOD OR BUST, THEN?
Not exactly. Bollywood means Bombay, or Mumbai as it has been re-named - the biggest film-producing centre in the country; a whopping 1,215 films were made here at the industry's peak in 1991. But Bollywood caters only for the Hindi film industry. Madras, now known as Chennai, comes a close second; it is the centre of the Tamil film industry. And, in such a film-crazed nation, it's not surprising that most states produce local genres; Telugu films in Andhra Pradesh, Malayalam epics in Kerala, Punjabi melodramas in Punjab, Bengali narratives in Kolkatta (Calcutta as was) and so on. One place you may wish to avoid is Gujarat. The Oscar-nominated Lagaan was filmed here, but cinemas in this strife-torn state are being used as shelters for refugees.
The obvious place to start is Mumbai. There's a good chance you will see films being made here. Usefully, it is also one of the best cities in India in which to be a tourist. From the grandiose Gateway of India to crowded Crawford Market, there are enough attractions to keep you entertained for weeks. Transport is cheap: a taxi between the city's main sights costs around 30p and, further afield, trains are cheap and reliable. A cosmopolitan citizenship means street hassle is minimal.
Start your homage to Bollywood at Film City, about 30km north of downtown Mumbai. This is the city's most famous studio, and the site of many a Bollywood drama, on-screen and off. It is dusty, dirty and dilapidated but interesting - if you can get in. The studios are not officially open to visitors but, if you're willing to schmooze the public relations people first (00 91 22 840 1533), you may be able to wangle your way through the gates.
Apart from a Rajasthani palace or Greek temple incongruously sited in the Mumbai hinterland, there isn't a lot to see here unless a big film is shooting. Otherwise, head straight for the TV studios to watch Bollywood boys and girls in spangly outfits filming dance routines for TV shows. To get there, take a train from Churchgate station to Goregaon (12p, 50 minutes) and an auto-rickshaw from there to the main gate (50p, 20 minutes).
Follow in the footsteps of a celebrity two millennia ago - St Thomas - to Chennai, on the south-east coast. Here, the neglected MGR Film City (00 91 44 235 2212) is an extraordinary place - a near- derelict collection of elaborate film sets in a suburb of the city. As a production centre it is moribund, and you would be lucky to see a film being shot. Even so, it is an atmospheric place which is well worth a few hours' exploration. You can reach it in about half an hour in an auto-rickshaw from the centre of town for less than pounds 1. It opens 8.30am to 7pm daily, admission 15p. There's also a jaded-looking theme park, Fun World, on site; open 10am- 8pm, entrance pounds 1.
BUT I WANT TO ACT, NATURALLY
As any good film should, choose your location carefully. There probably isn't much call for Westerners in, say, a Keralan drama about an oval- faced Kathakali dancer who's seduced by the evil, moustachioed long-lost twin of her blind (but hairy-chested and handsome) childhood sweetheart before being rescued by her now- miraculously-sighted-again hero, before singing, dancing, swimming and generally shimmying her way to the altar with Mr Right. So go back to Mumbai, India's city of showbiz dreams, and hang around in the travellers' ghetto of Colaba. The best chance of being spotted is in Bollywood, where there is some demand for foreigners, especially if you can master a haughty sneer and could pass for a colonial scumbag.
Sit in any of Colaba's internet cafes, or check into the budget hotels and wait for long enough, and there's a good chance someone will come up and ask you to be in their film. But you will not get rich quick. The pay is around pounds 10 a day, with food and drinks thrown in. But such is the nature of filming that you will spend most of the time sitting around in the heat, waiting and waiting. Even if you eventually get called it's likely you'll be dressed in a suit and asked to be part of a crowd walking across a lawn. The really fun scenes - singing and dancing extravaganzas - rarely need foreigners.
I'LL JUST STARE AT THE SILVER SCREEN, RATHER THAN STAR ON IT, THEN
Good idea. In the heat of a real Indian summer, spending an afternoon in the air-conditioned comfort of a cinema is a great way to pass the time. Even if you do not understand the language, the exaggerated expressions make what story there is pretty easy to follow. If you lose the plot, there's usually a friendly person sitting nearby who's happy to translate. Tickets cost between about 50p and pounds 1.50. Films usually last for around three hours, with a 10-minute interval in the middle for munching a box of masala popcorn. If you are travelling in the next few months, the big one to watch out for is the latest version of Devdas (see box). And, hard to avoid will be the story of Bhagat Singh. He was an early 20th-century freedom fighter whose story has so gripped the nation that no less than five films based on his life story were released last month. Finding a cinema isn't hard in India but, if you want some direction, try the dilapidated art deco wonders of Mumbai - Eros (Churchgate), Metro (Mahatma Gandhi Road) and Regal (Wellington Circle) are good - or the opulent Raj Mandir Cinema in Jaipur.
WHAT ABOUT STAR-SPOTTING?
For watching of a different kind, head back to Mumbai to mingle with the stars. Bollywood nights are notoriously sociable, though the action in this 24-hour city doesn't get going until at least 10.30pm. In the centre of the city, the swanky Indigo restaurant and bar (4 Mandlik Road, 00 91 22 236 8999) is usually packed cheek to famous cheek with screen stars, while uptown in Pali Hill, the Moroccan tent at Olive (14 Union Park, 00 91 22 605 8228) is the place to be seen. Phone for a "cool cab" (00 91 22 613 1111) to arrive looking the part and, before you get there, make sure you've mastered that hair-flick (girls) or the "I've just stepped off a big, throbbing motorbike" swagger (boys).
WHAT'S THE BEST PASSAGE TO INDIA?
Plenty of airlines will take you there, though non-stops on Air India, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic tend to be expensive. Trailfinders (020-7938 3939, www.trailfinders.com) has return fares of pounds 387 from various UK departure points to Mumbai on KLM, and to Chennai from Gatwick with Emirates from pounds 440. Charter flights to Goa and Kerala are available from October to March. Don't forget your visa. Three-month tourist visas currently cost pounds 30 and are available from the High Commission of India, India House, London WC2B 4NA (020-7836 8484, www.hcilondon.org), the Consulate General of India, 20 Augusta Street, Birmingham, B18 6JL (0121 212 2782) or the Consulate General of India, 17 Rutland Square, Edinburgh EH1 2BB (0131 229 2144). You need a valid passport and two passport-sized photographs.
CAN I GO ON LOCATION?
Absolutely. While Kashmir is still firmly off the movie map, Indian film- makers' craving for cooler climates is increasingly being satisfied by Switzerland, Scotland and New Zealand. But, from the Taj Mahal to Tibetan- style temples and from Goan beaches to Tamil villages, many parts of India have been used as a film backdrop at some point. So far, no one seems to have set up any specific film tours of the country but many tour operators include film locations in their standard packages. Here are some of the options.
Bangalore: the Bangalore Palace, a replica Windsor Palace where parts of the acclaimed Merchant Ivory movie A Passage To India were filmed, is now officially off-limits to tourists, but you can usually gain access to the gardens. And, if all this action is making you thirsty, you'll be pleased to know that Bangalore has a thriving pub culture.
Somak (020-8423 3000, www.somak.co.uk) includes Bangalore in its Enchanting South tour, an 11-night adventure that takes in Chennai, Bangalore, Mysore, Ooty and Cochin. Prices start from pounds 1,200, including flights, transport and bed and breakfast accommodation.
Most visitors to Kolkatta bypass the city's slums, where Patrick Swayze was filmed as a doctor caring for the lowest of the caste system, the Untouchables, in 1992's City Of Joy. Even if you can't bring yourself to re-enact some aspects of screen India, the Bengali- British city's reputation as the cultural capital of India makes it well worth a visit. Gateway to India's (0870 442 3204, www.gateway- to-india.co.uk) 17-day Look East tour includes Kolkatta in its itinerary, along with Delhi, Agra, Khajuraho, Varanasi and Darjeeling. Prices start at around pounds 2,050, including flights, transport and bed and breakfast accommodation.
A less frenetic film backdrop is Kerala where, three years ago, producer Ismail Merchant turned his hand to directing the poorly received colonial melodrama Cotton Mary. Don't let that put you off visiting Cochin, where most of the film was shot. This quiet and historical corner of the country boasts grand old houses, peaceful backwater boat-trips and a thriving art scene. During filming the actors stayed at the elegant Malabar House Residency and, once you see it, you'll probably want to as well. Double rooms, decorated with the owner's collection of Asian art, start at around pounds 120 (00 91 484 216 666, www.malabarhouse.com). If you prefer to join a tour, Colours of India (020-8343 3446, www.partnershiptravel.co.uk) offers tailormade 14-night Hilltops and Hideaway packages that take in Kovalam, the Backwaters, Periyar and the treehouses of the Wyanad Hills as well as Cochin. Prices start from around pounds 1,600, including flights, transport, accommodation and some food. You can pay extra to stay at Malabar House.
In the 1999 film Holy Smoke, the Australian traveller played by Kate Winslet was filmed being brainwashed by an Indian guru at Pushkar, further north. Today, despite the presence of tourists, the only thing you're likely to be brainwashed by here is the view of ghats and temples overlooking the lake. Most travellers - and film- makers - come during the annual camel fair in November, although some people prefer to avoid it for the sake of peace and cheaper room rates. Explore Worldwide (01252 760 000, www.exploreworldwide.com) runs an 18-day Rajasthan Desert Safari, taking in Delhi, Bikaner, Pushkar, Udaipur, Jodhpur and a three-day camel safari from pounds 1,575 per person, including flights, accommodation, transport and most meals.
Salaam Bombay was the director Mira Nair's 1988 study of street children in Mumbai. Last year she turned her attention to the other end of the scale, arranged marriage in a wealthy Delhi family, with Monsoon Wedding. You might catch a marriage while you're in town, but don't plan to hang around too long. While the Indian capital has such respectable attractions as the crowded Red Fort, stately Rajpath, leafy Humayun's Tomb and lotus- shaped Bahai temple, most travellers use Delhi as a starting point for seeing other sights in the region such as the Taj Mahal at Agra, the pink city of Jaipur and the deserted city of Fatehpur Sikri. Cox and Kings' (020-7873 5000, www.coxandkings.co.uk) seven-day rail journeys on the Palace on Wheels covers these, plus Jaisalmer and Udaipur, for pounds 2,995 per person, including flights and full-board accommodation. Other operators offering trips to India include Abercrombie & Kent (020- 7730 9600, www.abercrombiekent.co.uk); Greaves Travel (020-7487 9111, www.greavesindia.com); Dragoman (01728 861133, www.dragoman.co.uk) and Travelbag Adventures (01420 541007, www.travelbag- adventures.com).
WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?
Of the heavyweight books about India's film industries, one of the best is Bollywood: Popular Indian Cinema by Lalit Mohan Joshi (Dakini, pounds 34.95). Penguin's pocket-sized Bollywood by Ashok Banker (pounds 3.99 from Amazon) is also good. For a more light- hearted introduction to behind-the-scenes Bollywood, try Justine Hardy's recently published travelogue, Bollywood Boy (John Murray, pounds 17.99). As Hardy chases after an interview with the genre's latest hunk, you get a whirlwind tour of the reality and absurdity behind the Hindi film industry. For background music while you're reading, track down a copy of the Rough Guide to Bollywood CD (pounds 7.99).
Online, try www.filmfare.com or www.bollywoodworld.com. Once you get to India, filmzines and fanzines are hard to miss. National newspapers have local sections stuffed with film gossip. Or head straight for the magazine racks; Filmfare, Stardust and CineBlitz are the most popular.
For travel information, Lonely Planet publishes a separate guide to Mumbai (pounds 8.99) as well as the more general guide books. The Government of India Department of Tourism has a useful website (www.indiatouristoffice.org), or call the London office on 020-7437 3677.
Spoilt for choice: film posters plastered on walls in Mumbai
©Copyright 2002, Independent - London