I'll be in Bollywood afore ye

It may seem extravagant to bring an Indian film crew all the way to Paisley to film a six-minute sequence, but Bombay's film industry can easily afford it. And to the audience, Scotland is the ultimate exotic foreign location. By Richard Mowe
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
AGAINST A backdrop of heather, lochans, mountains and scudding clouds, a film crew watch an Indian couple apparently rehearsing a traditional dance. Suddenly the sound of sitar music blasts from a couple of strategically placed speakers, causing any curious wildlife to dive for cover. As cameras whirr, the two actors - he in skin-tight jeans and leather jacket, she in miniskirt and modestly revealing blouse - embark on their paces with studied intensity and grand gestures.

Cut! The director, Karan Johar, rushes forward to declare himself well pleased with his protagonists' efforts. The crew, all warmly wrapped against the rigours of a Scottish summer, pack up, stow gear into assorted buses and vans then head off into a gathering dusk and their base in Glasgow, some four hours' drive away. The next day they can look forward to another dawn rise, and another scenic location along hazardous single-track roads from Loch Lomond to Glencoe.

"Bollywood", the term coined for India's film industry centered on Bombay, has come to Scotland to film part of a pounds 1.5m blockbuster.

The two actors, Shah Rukh Khan and his leading lady Kajol, possess a level of stardom to eclipse the likes of Tom Cruise and Winona Ryder. While most of the crew of 35 have been accommodated, with their own chef, in a university hall of residence, Khan and Kajol bask in the luxury of a hotel.

In the film, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, (Something Happened in My Heart) they play star-crossed lovers who dream of coming to Scotland. The six-minute musical sequence takes place in their imaginations.

Why Scotland? "Because to Indian eyes it's an exotic place - and we chose places for their scenic beauty and sense of history," says Yosh Kohar, the film's producer (and Karan Johar's father). "This is a Romeo and Juliet story. She comes from an old-fashioned background; he follows her home, and eventually wins her family's heart."

Kohar's Bombay colleagues thought him "crazy" to go all the way to Scotland with a huge crew for this short sequence. "But this part has to be more beautiful than anything else in the film, and you cannot manufacture that in a studio," he says.

The producer helps to fund his film-making activities through an export business. "We make more films than any other country in the world, including the States - around 700 a year. And the quality is improving. The Americans would think nothing of coming to Scotland for such a short shoot, so why shouldn't we?'

He was lucky to get Khan. At home, the star would be mobbed everywhere. He managed to survive incognito in Scotland until the last day, when the news broke among the Asian community. The local paper headline was: "Exclusive - Indian movie megastar in Paisley." As a result a handful of girls waited patiently at the hotel to catch a glimpse of their idol. "We can't believe he's here in Scotland. I've seen every film he's ever made," said one. "We know everything there is to know about him; unfortunately he's married, and has a child, but we still like him. He can be the hero or the bad guy, and he's also very funny. When he's in a serious role he makes me greet [cry]."

If Khan is a Cruise clone who has made 26 films in the last four years, then Kohar must be a close copy of Steven Spielberg. He worked as a production executive with several of the big studios in Bombay before opting to set up independently. "What I make from my business activities, I plough into my films. It is a passion. Film-making all over the world is a gamble; just like going to the racecourse and seeing who the trainer is, and the rider, and assessing the pedigree and the form. My son always wanted to work in the cinema. He was an assistant on a film, People with Heart Will Take the Bride Away, written by a friend, which was a huge hit. Khan was also starring in it, and he suggested my son should direct this film."

Kohar detects a return to a taste for romance among Indian audiences; every day 15 million go to the cinema, paying 40 rupees (or 75p). "For the last four or five years we followed the pattern for big budget action movies from the West. Now love is back. Our audiences are poor and we have to provide what they want. Rich Indians have tennis, golf and racing, but the ordinary person only has cinema. When they buy a ticket, they want to spend three hours at least in front of the screen. I know that if I made a film of 90 minutes it would be a flop.

"They want songs, comedy, tragedy and romance; they would never accept boy meets girl and a kiss right away. You have to take time to establish a relationship.

"Yes, now lovers can kiss on screen, providing it is not vulgar. But the censor allows only a couple of kisses per film."

Most of the films are so culturally specific that they baffle foreign audiences. One prevalent ploy is to remake Hollywood hits - there have been three versions of Mrs Doubtfire and as many of Sleeping with the Enemy and Indecent Proposal. Male stars are usually strong of jaw and clear of eye; females are pallid and compliant.

Working practices are relaxed. Kevin Cowle, Scottish Screen's location manager, observed the shoot from close quarters. "There's a very ad hoc attitude to shooting. Normally you would have everything prepared down to the last detail. With them, you'd be driving along the shores of a loch, and they would say: `That looks nice, let's stop here.' At one point they blocked a single-track road, and we had to come back to move everything for a forestry lorry." Cowl was not amused. "They thought they could shoot anywhere without permission, including the ruins of St Andrew's Cathedral where they let off explosives. We didn't even know they were coming until after the event.

"They think nothing of working a 12- or even 14-hour day. At Fort William one day their coach broke down, and they hired taxis to take them to the location." Local businesses had no complaints: the Indians parted with pounds 40,000 during their stay, hiring a Scottish location manager, lighting and special effects crew who, bizarrely, had to manufacture a rainstorm to order.

Scotland has begun to acquire a reputation in Bollywood. Last year the director Dev Annand came to the Highlands to make Desire, helped by a Dundee restaurateur, Tony Hussain, who says: "Usually Indian film-makers think of Switzerland but Scotland has more to offer. I think of myself as a promoter. I was born here, but I want to give something back."

Bollywood's escape to Scotland will hit screens on 14 October, which has been deemed the equivalent of America's Independence Day prime slot for launching a movie. In addition to the 600 prints at home, almost 100 copies will be shown at the same time throughout the world in cities with sizeable Asian populations including London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Bristol and Leicester.

On that day Johar can expect queues round the block as fans in Delhi and Bombay jostle for admittance to the first show. That's a Bollywood tradition the moguls of LA would willingly trade.