“Cut to a song in Switzerland”. Foreign locations in mainstream Hindi cinema tend to exist as cosmetic devices. Western countries and touristy landmarks are presented as dreamy destinations. In a trend kick-started by Raj Kapoor’s Sangam, followed by An Evening In Paris and Love In Tokyo, the gaze fixates on what we want to see rather than what actually is. Most directors decide to treat the concept of “abroad” as a luxurious extension of big-budget Bollywood’s aspirational tone. The setting feels incidental. This brand of storytelling has its highs, but ‘a sense of place’ is not one of them. But there have been films – if not necessarily particular filmmakers – that suggest a sense of place very effectively in context of non-Indian environments.
These are movies that don’t insist on highlighting where they are based as much as why their characters belong there at a certain point of time. They don’t go “Look! It’s London!” – it’s more like “Look, a character away from home”. The location becomes one of many narrative devices. Some films internalize the culture, the climate, or even the colour tone of the new space better than others: There’s the NRI film (Indians settled abroad), the travel film (characters are more vulnerable – organically leading to conflicts and resolutions – in foreign spaces), the action/crime film (agents globetrotting for a higher cause) and the horror film (Indian ghosts have an affinity for Scottish castles).
Here are 11 of my favourites in no particular order:
Irrespective of how his vision turns out, director Anurag Basu makes you feel a place. From seedy Thailand in Murder to muddy Mexico/Las Vegas in Kites, from stuffy Mumbai in Life…in a Metro to vibrant Darjeeling/Kolkata in Barfi!, Basu creates the kind of atmospheric sub-universes that thrive on suggesting how his characters could exist nowhere else. None better than the bleak, moody story of an on-the-run gangster (Shiney Ahuja) and his young lover (Kangana Ranaut) struggling to belong in Seoul. It’s surprising that not more Hindi films have been shot in South Korea. Gangster – which hinges on one of Ranaut’s early ‘broken’ performances – weaponizes its cold, blue palette to evoke a sense of longing and depression unlike any other contemporary Bollywood movie. The film’s most striking moment – where place seamlessly merges with emotion – features betrayal and heartbreak outside a hauntingly empty Seoul station at midnight.
DILWALE DULHANYA LE JAYENGE (1995)
I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t a Yashraj Films (YRF) production the absolute antithesis of what qualifies for this list? Mostly, yes. But Aditya Chopra’s debut – the headliner of Bollywood NRI folklore – was a smart cultural riff on his father’s trademark chiffon-saris-in-Swiss-alps sequences. Aditya Chopra fleshes out the tiny peeks of destination dreaminess that Yash Chopra had often teased us with. DDLJ’s opening voiceover and the subsequent middle-class London routine captures the displaced-Punjabi-immigrant syndrome to the T, even if the movie used a rich protagonist to showcase exotic European sights across a package tour. But there was perhaps no other situation in which Raj’s brashness and Simran’s sheltered-ness could have merged, which is why India and Punjab actually felt like the ‘foreign land’ in the film. After all, Raj takes Simran “home” – back to London – in the end.
There’s something about Kangana Ranaut in a non-native land. She is aggressive about her off-screen outsider status, which is perhaps why it feels oddly affecting to see her vulnerability as a tourist (an outsider) on screen. Not many writers know how to channel her unorthodox voice, jittery gait, darting eyes and inherent small-town pride – a combination that humanizes the girl defying the big bad world. But Queen truly got her. As a wide-eyed West-Delhi girl on a solo honeymoon to Europe, she informs the places as much as the places feed off her wonderment. Her Paris hotel, Amsterdam hostel (low-budget European hostels are an ecosystem otherwise at odds with the emotional politics of mainstream Hindi cinema) and multicultural friends make for a genuinely intimate picture of the middle-class Indian discovering the West – a rare instance where the makers are perhaps as curious as their protagonist.
DIL CHAHTA HAI (2001)
One of many things Farhan Akhtar got right in his first film, even before Imtiaz Ali, was the deployment of a physical ‘journey’ as a transformative device. The cocky Akash (Aamir Khan) is shipped away to Sydney to handle his father’s Australian office branch, but soon finds himself lonely and homesick after Shalini (Preity Zinta), his only friend there, (Mahesh Uncle and Steve are his future NRI versions) is detained by her jealous fiance. As a result, the mournful song ‘Tanhayee’ shatters our initial rose-tinted impressions of Sydney – it goes from bright hero to constricting villain, from fantastical destination to distant reality, in a matter of scenes. Irrespective of what parts of the city the makers choose to show, it acquires a distinct emotional identity; Akhtar isn’t afraid to de-glamourize our perception of its sunniness. All in all, the joyous rollercoaster ride turns into a shady underground metro station – with the entire essence of the Akash-Shalini arc contained in between these two moments.
AA AB LAUT CHALEN (1999)
Rishi Kapoor’s starry-eyed NRI-aspirant movie trumps Nikhil Advani’s Kal Ho Naa Ho in the New York category only because the plot device – of a sincere Indian man out to snag a wealthy bride – enables AALC to highlight aspects of both the good and bad of the American dream. From the seedy highway motels to the unchecked secularism of Jackson Heights, from Manhattan high-society to local Asian pockets, the makers display 1990s USA as more than an idea at a time when a green card (by hook or by crook) was the ultimate goal for ambitious Indian professionals. The America it shows us is a proud, stuffy, endearing, immigrant one – the kind we don’t see enough in glossy Bollywood palettes, and the kind not even its own President acknowledges anymore.
ZINDAGI NA MILEGI DOBARA (2011)
When you’re “stuck” on an expensive trip together, there’s no way out except to let the new country – its cultures, adventures, possibilities, pace – heal a fractured history. A lot can be debated about in Zoya Akhtar’s privileged male-bonding movie, which can also be construed as a tale about the DCH gang growing older, growing apart and reuniting for a super-expensive adult holiday. But credit where it’s due: No contemporary Hindi film has balanced the affection and curiosity for a foreign land with the narrative confidence of the Indian gaze. The boys’ upper-middle-class-ness allows them to discover the South of Spain and the pretty inner towns that enable the dusty, sepia-tinted frames to inform their distinct personalities. Their bronzed togetherness is injected with tiny coming-of-age moments, in effect producing a picture that hints at the psychological positives of ‘millennial wanderlust’ – a term that is otherwise frowned upon by proud, lake-resort-loving middle Indians.
ENGLISH VINGLISH (2012)
Looking at New York through the eyes of Sridevi’s spunky Shashi Godbole – a desi homemaker at odds with her ‘modern’ English-speaking family members – felt like the gentle deconstruction of Bollywood’s plastic interpretation of the West through the eyes of a new-age Indian storyteller. Gauri Shinde does a wonderful job of turning our reverential gaze of all things American into a dramatic allegory of social diversity. In the process, the intimidating high-rises of Manhattan and manicured lawns of America’s suburbs start to look accessible, normal even, as Shashi gains a foothold in a world both literally and figuratively alien to her.
KABUL EXPRESS (2006)
You can sense that Kabir Khan, a former documentary maker, has a way with places. All his popular films (New York, Ek Tha Tiger, Bajrangi Bhaijaan) and even his duds like Phantom and Tubelight exude an adventurous trekker-like energy about the faraway spaces they inhabit. But it was his raw fictional-film debut, Kabul Express, a “middle-Eastern road movie,” that really paved the path for Bollywood actioners to go beyond the scenery and evoke an urgent sense of politics about tropical environments. Shot almost entirely in post-Taliban Afghanistan, with a non-starry cast and semi-journalistic gaze (John Abraham and Arshad Warsi play Indian reporters), Kabul Express doesn’t rest on the achievement of exposing a conflict-ridden region to a population of largely ignorant Indian viewers. You feel the danger, you feel the hostile eyes, but you mostly feel the passion of the local supporting actors – sweaty citizen-artists who keep Kabul Express from turning into a wide-eyed YRF mythmaker. In the context of this list, the film ranks above swankier spy-action thrillers like Baby (the Nepal portion), Agent Vinod, Kurbaan, Bang Bang, Dhoom 3 (Chicago), Kick (Poland), Don 2 (Berlin) and Force 2 (Budapest).
Starring an adult Barkha Madan (otherwise known as the little girl from Bhoot) as an illegal Punjabi immigrant named Jeet in Canada, a modest Surkhaab came and went without much fanfare in the same week as Tanu Weds Manu: Returns. Jeet, too, like Ranaut in the latter, is a small-town athlete: a victim-of-circumstances ex-Judo champ who puts her fate in the hands of dodgy travel agents to escape an Indian prison sentence. Despite a messy third act, the film weaponizes her penniless journey and reveals Toronto through the eyes of a desperate survivor in search of a second life. Most of its camera angles are at ground-level aiming upward, with Jeet engulfed by glassy high-rises. We see chases in littered streets, backyards, cramped houses and even some bitter weather – making for an unlyrical Canada in which smiling Asians cannot be trusted…a Canada that lies at the opposite end of the snowy Tum Bin spectrum.
The French island of Corsica is an unusual choice for Indian tourists. But out of all of Imtiaz Ali’s escape-from-reality arcs (Prague for Rockstar, Himachal Pradesh for Jab We Met, half of Europe for Jab Harry Met Sejal), Tamasha’s Asterix-land stays in the head for how literally the escape-to-fantasy tone is manifested through its magical nowhere-ness. It isn’t meant to look reachable. Corsica represents a land so unknown and fairytale-ish that Ved can be anyone he wants here, with whoever he wants, setting the stage for a personality disorder only hinted at in the rest of the film. By the end, Corsica becomes a feeling – of love, familiarity, truth and most of all, identity – because of how Tara chooses to remember the nameless man she met in her “Once Upon A Time” story. By the end, Corsica becomes a reality.
THE NAMESAKE (2006)
It took Jhumpa Lahiri and Mira Nair, and Irrfan Khan and Tabu, for an Indo-American film to really uncover the meaning of a place rather than the concept of it. The middle-class immigrant America that we see in The Namesake – where a Bengali boy’s name is intricately tied with his sense of home – is like the silence between sentences: Unassuming, uncool but true. Whether it’s a mother struggling with her sari in suburban New York or a father oozing the family’s uprootment in every gesture, Mira Nair’s movie is a classic example of how an authentic book-to-screen adaptation is more than just a camera recreating a written world.
Simran (Atlanta/Vegas), Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (Budapest), Awarapan (Hong Kong), Airlift (UAE), Kaante (LA), Company (Hong Kong/Kenya), Badla (Scotland)
There also exists a Lucky: No Time For Love category of below-average Hindi movies, where geographical awareness is the only redeeming aspect of tired narratives:
A sanitized copy of South Korean cult thriller Oldboy, Sanjay Gupta’s Zinda blue-fies Bangkok to present a murky dimension of a South Asian city that too many travel guides have categorized as a ‘bustling’ holiday destination.
Feroz Khan’s Feroz Khan starrer isn’t the best Godfather remake out there, but it did manage to exploit Afghanistan’s rugged topography to justify some cool action sequences featuring pretty horses and gun-toting gangsters.
The Anurag Basu movie relocated the Romeo+Juliet template to the wild Nevada+Mexico landscape. From neon-lit apartments to parched highways and Shakespearean cliffs, nothing was spared in terms of coverage to compensate for the sepia-t(a)inted Hrithik Roshan-Barbara Mori chemistry.
DO LAFZON KI KAHANI (2016)
Deepak Tijori’s movie features Randeep Hooda as an ex-boxer, a “cheery blind girl” and trainer Mamik (big brother Ratan in Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar). But Kuala Lumpur by night is the best actor in this film – it gels well with the loneliness of its sad-wolf hero.
8 X 10 TASVEER (2009)
Out of all the supernatural misfires shot at clear-aired corners of the globe, this rare Akshay Kumar ‘experiment’ directed by Nagesh Kukunoor really uses Calgary (and some of Cape Town) to invoke a sense of mental seclusion.
AROUND THE WORLD (1967)
Understandably, a sense of awe (the look-where-we-are syndrome) overrode the overseas plots of ‘60s Hindi cinema. India’s first 70mm film, starring an ageing Raj Kapoor, was one of them. But at least it spared no caricature between Japan and Honolulu to supply the newness of this narrative gimmick.