Through ambitious new initiatives — including a likely tax rebate — India is putting itself on the international shooting location map.
It’s been more than four decades since Steven Spielberg landed in India to shoot sequences for Close Encounters of the Third Kind — he reportedly based the iconic design of the mother ship on an oil refinery he would see every day on his way to the set. But in the ensuing years, the country has struggled to establish itself as an international shooting destination. While there has been an uptick recently, with the likes of Life of Pi, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Hotel Mumbai shooting in the country, by and large India is not in the same league with well-established location sectors in Eastern Europe or Latin America. With a raft of fresh initiatives, however, India’s government is looking to change that.
The first step was cutting red tape. To that end, authorities in 2016 established the Film Facilitation Office with the aim "to streamline approvals for both foreign and local productions with a single window clearance system," according to FFO head Vikramjit Roy.
Soon after, the FFO became a member of the Association of Film Commissioners International, whose members include more than 300 commissions from 40 countries. That enables FFO to tap into AFCI’s professional development program to educate staff and participate in its flagship global event, Cineposium. "We have had interactions with leading global studios and producers to assess what is it that they require us to do to make India more film-friendly," says Roy. Responding to these demands, India in 2015 launched the F visa, or film visa, specifically meant for foreign cast and crew.
While India has yet to announce tax rebates and other incentives for foreign productions filming in the country — a policy reportedly is in the final stages — Roy’s current goal is to make the world aware of the versatility of Indian locales. "Every genre has a location in India, whether it’s adventure, romance, period epic, thriller, musical or action," he says. "You can come with a vision and leave with a film." Here’s a look at eight Indian locations that offer a range of options for international shoots.
It’s no surprise that a majority of foreign productions have filmed in Rajasthan, India’s celebrated tourism hub known for its historic palaces, lakes and desert landscapes. Recent projects include John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel, while a scene for Batman: The Dark Knight was filmed at the majestic Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, a desert region in northwest Rajasthan. Says Madden: "We made the films very close to the ground, and I just shot whatever’s there [instead of building sets]. I’d say that the two films brought India to a lot of people’s attention in a new way." Similarly, French feature Les Cowboys, which premiered at Cannes in 2015 and revolved around a family’s search for their missing daughter, was filmed in the western state of Udaipur. The project’s line production was handled by Mumbai-based La Fabrique Films, which also has handled the India shoots for various French productions. "India has a very colorful and exotic image with elephants and palaces, and Rajasthan matches that image," notes La Fabrique co-founder Déborah Benattar.
As the main production hub for Bollywood, Mumbai is a natural stop for any visiting filmmaker. In addition to the city’s hustle and bustle seen in such films as Oscar best picture winner Slumdog Millionaire, Mumbai also has Film City, offering about 40 outdoor shooting locations covering more than 520 acres (about a square mile). The facility also has shooting stages and VFX and postproduction studios such as those run by industry giant Prime Focus. One of the most high-profile international projects that filmed in the metropolis was last year’s Dev Patel starrer Hotel Mumbai. The film’s India line producer Pravesh Sahni, co-founder of leading line production company India Take One, played a key role in ensuring that most of the film, which is based on the 2008 terror attack on the iconic Taj Hotel, was shot at the actual location. Sahni, whose company also handled line production for Slumdog, says that as the entertainment hub of India, Mumbai "brings together the best of talent, access to the latest equipment and technology and the ease of filming across the city."
Famous for its beaches, ranging from popular stretches at Baga and Palolem to those in laid-back fishing villages such as Agonda, Goa is India’s top holiday destination. The state has also attracted major local productions such as 2001’s Bollywood hit Dil Chahta Hai, while the most high-profile Hollywood project that shot there was 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy. The Matt Damon starrer filmed its opening chase sequence at various locations, culminating with Jason Bourne’s car plunging into the Nerul River. Goa also hosts the International Film Festival of India, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in November.
India’s capital city is famous for its architectural heritage, reflecting its Mughal history and its British colonial legacy. In addition to being a top destination for Bollywood producers, the region is probably best known for hosting Richard Attenborough’s 1982 Oscar best picture winner Gandhi. Other films that have tapped the diverse locations in and around the city include Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding and the Julia Roberts starrer Eat, Pray, Love.
Located near the foothills of the Sivalik range of the Himalayas, the city of Chandigarh features lush greenery and wide boulevards and is a popular filming location for regional Punjabi-language films and music videos. One of the most high-profile Hollywood projects to shoot there was Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 drama Zero Dark Thirty, which included one major sequence that re-created a Pakistani market in the city’s Manimajra area. Given the conflicts and political tensions between the two countries, "creating Pakistan in India is not easy and no joking matter," says the film’s line producer, Tabrez Noorani, co-founder of India Take One. A few days into shooting, the production received a number of threats, including a local union’s attempt to shut it down, but Noorani stresses that foreign shoots can count on local support when it comes to security. "[The Chandigarh Police] were fantastic," he says. "They refused to be bullied and stood by us. Security was doubled and hotels were changed for certain crewmembers, and whenever Kathryn and key cast traveled, we had police escorts for them."
Once the capital of India during British colonial rule, Kolkata also is home to the thriving Bengali film industry. Some of the high-profile international projects that have filmed there include the 2016 drama Lion and the upcoming French feature Fahim, starring Gerard Dépardieu. For Lion, line producer Pravesh Sahni of India Take One remembers that during a location scout, director Garth Davis saw the city’s landmark Howrah Bridge "and was adamant to block the bridge for a scene," something that had never happened in the structure’s 76-year history, as it’s located next to East India’s biggest railway station, which runs around the clock. Lion co-producer Iain Canning recalls that India Take One "was able to pull off this miracle, which was to give us four hours on one of the main bridges in one of the biggest cities in India to be able to play out our scene."
The picturesque state of Kerala is reputed for its beaches, wildlife sanctuaries, scenic hamlets and, most of all, its breathtaking backwaters, a chain of lagoons and lakes lying parallel to the Arabian Sea coastline. The capital Thiruvananthapuram (formerly Trivandrum) and the city of Kochi serve as the nerve center of the regional Malayalam-language film industry, which is also known for its long-standing art house sector. Popular locations include the tea estates of Munnar, where parts of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi were filmed.
This former French colonial settlement on the western coastline is known for its beaches, backwaters, lakes, tree-lined streets and quaint villas. "It’s like shooting in a different country altogether," says Tabrez Noorani, local line producer on Life of Pi, which made use of multiple locations in the city. The immense scale of the production, which included hundreds of crewmembers, presented challenges for a relatively small place like Pondicherry, but Noorani says that since the film was such a source of local pride, residents were happy to accommodate the shoot. "The people embraced us all," says Noorani. "Everyone bent over backward, including the local government, and this made the shooting procedure much easier and a lot of fun."
La Fabrique Films
India Take One
Film Facilitation Office
Bombay Berlin Film Productions
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's May 18 daily issue at the Cannes Film Festival.