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February 26, 2014

Greenlighting Gujarat

Text by Sitanshi Talati-Parikh (Information courtesy Gujarattourism.com)

Last year six movies were shot in the state – in four, the location and its people were a major part of their storyline. This year, a new TV channel launches with a show filmed only in Gujarat. Verve explores the mystique of the locale

When Amitabh Bachchan became the brand ambassador of Gujarat Tourism, one couldn’t have guessed that he would inadvertently wave a beacon heralding the future of Bollywood shootings in Narendra Modi’s state. Where once Chandni Chowk ruled roost – can anyone forget how Kajol immortalised the streets of Chandni Chowk in Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) – and Mumbai’s streets were fertile shooting grounds (no tasteless pun intended), now filmmakers (including those of the South) are unearthing previously undiscovered pastures. A lot of these happen to be in the Rann of Kutch or the splendid havelis of Gujarat.

From a rather obvious plate of dhokla in the recent Kareena Kapoor and Imran Khan starrer Gori Tere Pyar Mein (shot in and around Bhuj) to the lavish explosion of culture and colour in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela, Gujarat has swung into bright prominence. Bhansali, a Gujarati, returns with nostalgia to the local mise en scene and Ram-Leela (2013) is quite reminiscent of his earlier Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) in the riotous dance-and-song sequences. Taking up on Romeo and Juliet’s tragedy for the storyline, he places his characters in a gun-wielding Gujarati town while the protagonists are not averse to sending each other romantic Gujarati couplets on SMS. The film is not entirely shot in Gujarat, though – he has shot scenes in Udaipur and in Film City as well.

India’s latest Oscar entry was the Gujarati-language film The Good Road that was shot on location. Abhishek Kapoor’s Kai Po Che (2013), based on Chetan Bhagat’s The 3 Mistakes of My Life, is about three local boys whose friendship is set against the backdrop of the Bhuj earthquake and the Gujarat riots, shot in Ahmedabad and other places. But movies like Lagaan (2001) and Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola (2013) turned to Gujarat’s village setting (Bhuj and Mandvi) and haveli (Wankaner Palace) respectively, even when the story didn’t demand that particular state; while Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster (2011) tells the tale of a royal family of UP but was shot in Devgadh Baria, a princely town in Gujarat. Kareena Kapoor and Abhishek Bachchan’s debut film, Refugee (2000), favoured the Rann of Kutch for its shoot in much the manner of films like Nikhil Advani’s thriller D-Day (2013).

Film shootings have been happening in Gujarat for a very long time – but undoubtedly blockbuster movies like Lagaan and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam have brought with them a furore of interest in the last decade. They popularised the town of Mandvi, which has a private beachside estate of 450 acres, and the Vijay Vilas Palace. In Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, there is a momentous scene where Vanraj (Ajay Devgn) drags Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) through a heritage house, down a flight of stairs – this was shot in the Orchard Palace of the erstwhile Maharajas of Gondal (converted into a heritage hotel).

The town of Rajpipla is a popular location for Gujarati and Bhojpuri films, earning it the moniker ‘Gollywood’. It has numerous palaces and grand buildings including the Rajwant Palace Resort in the Vijay Palace (1915) with seven acres of gardens, a swimming pool, antique interiors, a view of banana plantations, and the Vadia Palace also known as ‘Gujarat’s Taj Mahal’.

For a new thematic channel, Epic, slated to be launched early this year, one of their primetime Hindi-language shows, Dariba Diaries, was shot entirely in Gujarat. It’s a fast-paced investigative thriller set in the 1850s cataloguing the life of a detective. Sid Makkar, who plays the lead, Mirza, says that the location – Ambika Niwas Palace – in a small 20000-person-strong town called Muli and its surrounding palaces fit the bill as they are beautiful and match the architectural brief accurately. The production also managed to single-handedly change the local economy by providing employment to tens of thousands of people living in the area.

While it’s true that Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has paved the roads, so to speak, for the movie industry to shoot in Gujarat, it is also the basic connectivity and proximity to Mumbai, and the clearances offered that may be important factors in its territorial growth. Ranjit Sinh Parmar, Yuvraj of Muli (whose family owns Ambika Niwas Palace) points out that Gujarat is brimming with a variety of landscapes and private heritage properties, and the very fact that many of them are largely undiscovered and less exposed than others popularly used in the country, makes it more beguiling for filmmakers. Also, the proximity of multiple heritage properties to each other affords variety in one location. He adds that Gujarat may be fast replacing Rajasthan for shoot locations because the latter’s higher level of tourism makes many of their palaces unavailable or particularly pricey. After all, it would have been nearly impossible to shoot a television show for eight continuous months in a specific location in Rajasthan. Gujarat provides an equally beautiful, cost-effective alternative that is half the distance from Mumbai.

While directors have pandered to the avid movie-watching Gujarati community in much the way they have to the North Indian Punjabis, with overt references like the NRI family in Johar’s Kal Ho Na Ho (2003) and sly references to local food in 3 Idiots (2009), it seems that this trend of including the state in the movie may be more about the location than the people.

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