Why India is obsessed with the mountains of Switzerland

Bollywood actors from India in summer costumes in the Swiss Alps - Ylan / Alamy Stock Photo
Bollywood actors from India in summer costumes in the Swiss Alps - Ylan / Alamy Stock Photo

In 1964 the legendary Indian film director Raj Kapoor released his first colour film, Sangam. The four-hour-long sweeping romance featured some of the nation’s biggest names at the time in a tale of star-crossed lovers and heroic sacrifice. But it wasn’t just the epic love story that had fans flocking to the cinema, this was the first Bollywood film to be shot in the snowcapped peaks of Switzerland – igniting a long-standing long-distance love affair with the country.

It’s estimated that up to 300 Bollywood films have been shot, or partially shot, in the country since, and as the credits roll, millions of visitors from Asia have flocked to the landlocked European bolthole in search of their own slice of the spotlight.

60s film poster - Dinodia Photos / Alamy Stock Photo
60s film poster - Dinodia Photos / Alamy Stock Photo

Alpine appeal

Until the 1960s, Indian filmmakers would traditionally head to the hills of Kashmir in northern India to film the spectacular song-and-dance routines and romantic scenes for which Bollywood is so famous. However, ongoing political tensions between India and Pakistan, meant that bosses had to look elsewhere – turning 4,000 miles west to Switzerland.

“When Raj Kapoor shot Sangam in Switzerland it was a bold move that proved to be very, very successful,” says Rajinder Dudrah, professor of Cultural Studies and Creative Industries at Birmingham City University. “At that time Europe was, for the vast majority of Indians, the land of imagination and the film was popular not just because of the star value and songs but because of the overseas tourist locations.”

Movies are big business in India and the country’s film industry is one of the largest in the world, producing well over 1,000 titles annually, around double the amount that Hollywood makes. Sangam’s outstanding box office success inspired other movie producers to look west and, during the 1980s and 1990s, an incredible 20 to 30 Bollywood films were being shot in Switzerland every year.

One such producer was Yash Raj Chopra, widely considered to be one of the greatest-ever Indian filmmakers. After falling in love with Switzerland while visiting on his honeymoon in the 1970s he returned to the country to shoot all the romance scenes for his movies. In doing so, he catapulted the country to the top of the wishlist for all young Indians.

“We call him the father of Swiss tourism,” says Ritu Sharma, deputy director of Switzerland Tourism India. Such was his impact and influence that in 2011 Yash Chopra was awarded the honourary title of Ambassador of Interlaken, the Swiss town at the heart of the nation’s mountains. In the same year, Jungfrau Railways named one of their trains the ‘Yash Chopra train’ and the five-star Victoria Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa in Interlaken named a cinema-themed suite in his honour. In 2016, a bronze statue of the late director holding his camera (Yash Chopra died in 2012) was unveiled in Interlaken.

A statue of filmmaker Yash Raj Chopra at Casino Kursaal in Interlaken - Eduard Vilo Perea / Alamy Stock Photo
A statue of filmmaker Yash Raj Chopra at Casino Kursaal in Interlaken - Eduard Vilo Perea / Alamy Stock Photo

Sky-high success

Yash Chopra shot many movies in Switzerland during his career but it was the 1995 film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (translated as The Big-Hearted will take the Bride), written and directed by his son Aditya Chopra, that skyrocketed India’s fascination with the country even further.

The film, more commonly referred to by its initials DDLJ, starred two of Bollywood’s biggest stars, Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, and told the tale of two young non-resident Indians, Raj and Simran, who fall in love while holidaying in Europe. It remains today one of the highest-grossing Hindi films ever and is also the longest-running film in Indian cinema history; the single-screen Maratha Mandir theatre in Mumbai has screened DDLJ every day at 11.30am for the past 27 years. The only other film to have played in cinemas longer is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which is still in limited release some 47 years after its premier.

The release of DDLJ also chimed with the opening of the Indian economy and the rise in the Indian middle class’ appetite to travel internationally. “After DDLJ, the number of Indian visitors to Switzerland went off like a rocket," says Erwin Fässler who started running private Bollywood filming location tours in Switzerland eleven years ago.

Mountains made for the screen

Most Bollywood movies were shot in the Bernese Oberland area, home to resorts such as Interlaken, Wengen, Grindelwald, and it’s this region that Indian travellers inevitably visit first. Lake Lauenen is unofficially known as Yash Chopra Lake because it featured so regularly in his films. In the town of Saanen stands the bridge featured in DDLJ where Raj tells Simran that he’s in love with her.

The Glacier Alpine 3000 Coaster, the highest toboggan run in the world, featured in Sangam; at Jungfraujoch, above the resorts of Wengen and Mürren, Sunny Deol leaps off the observatory deck in The Hero: Love Story of a Spy; and at the top of the Titlis Rotair cable car in Engelberg visitors queue to snap a photo with the aluminum cut out figures of the stars of DDLJ.

filming scenes on mountain side - Prisma by Dukas Presseagentur GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo
filming scenes on mountain side - Prisma by Dukas Presseagentur GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

Switzerland has both courted and catered to Indian visitors ever since the first Bollywood movies were shot on Swiss soil. In 2000, the Restaurant Bollywood opened on the Jungfraujoch where curries are served with views of Europe’s longest glacier. At the top of Mount Titlis there is GourmIndia, in Engelberg is Spice Bazaar and you’ll find the Mango Restaurant in Gstaad, a town more commonly known for Michelin-starred restaurants and European royal visitors.

Warming to winter

Although traditionally Indian visitors have favoured the Alps during the summer months in recent years there has been an increased interest in winter visits. “We are getting much more comfortable with the idea of winter travel,” says Sharma. “A few years ago people used to be scared of winter and didn’t understand why you would want to go to Switzerland where it’s so much colder.”

To cater to novice skiers, in 2014 the Jungfrau region launched a beginner half-day ski taster package. “It’s a good way to take a few photos for Instagram and to get a feel for what happens,” says Sunila Patil, founder of the Mumbai headquartered tour operator Veena World.

But for some, the appeal is much simpler. “Most of our Indian visitors simply like to go to the top of Europe and touch the ice and the snow – that’s the real highlight,” says Remo Käser, head of sales at Jungfrau Railways. India is the third largest market for Jungfraujoch with over 100,000 visitors annually.

Although fewer Bollywood films are being shot in Switzerland today – a combination of cost and attractive filming incentives from other European countries – there’s no denying that movies still make magic. Pre-pandemic, visitor numbers from India grew significantly year-on-year increasing tenfold from 1999 to 2019. And interest remains high.

“Switzerland is definitely in the top three favourite destinations around the world for travellers from India,” says Patil. “If not the first.” It seems the hills are still very much alive with the sound of Bollywood.