On the trail of the first Indian film shot in Switzerland
In 1964, the film Sangam gave Indian cinema-goers a taste for romance amidst snow-covered Alpine peaks. What do the sites of those iconic scenes look like now, 55 years later?
You’re on your honeymoon in Switzerland and it’s your wife’s birthday. Where do you take her? Sundar, the hero of the film Sangam, has no second thoughts. He embraces his wife Radha on the balcony of their fancy hotel and takes her for a meal on a Swiss mountain via a chair lift.
But at which hotel, restaurant and chair lift were these scenes shot? There are hundreds of options to choose from. In one frame of the film, I spot the name “First Bahn” on the chair lift station. It is in Grindelwald, a popular tourist destination near the tourist mecca of Interlaken.
Released on June 18, 1964, Sangam was the first Indian film shot in Switzerland followed a few years later by the film Evening in Paris in 1967. However, it would be a few more decades before Switzerland burst into the Indian consciousness, following the release of the Bollywood film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge in 1995. Many other films subsequently incorporated Switzerland as a backdrop cementing the Alpine nation’s place as a must-visit on any European tour aimed at Indian travellers.
For confirmation, I call Erwin Fässler, a tourism professional and Bollywood fan, who is an expert on Indian film locations in Switzerland. He validates my guesswork and offers to show me the spots as he is in the area helping an Australian filmmaker put together a documentary on Bollywood.
We meet at Interlaken’s 201-year-old Shuh café – featured in 1995 blockbuster film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge – where we are joined by Renato Julier of Interlaken Tourism.
“Sangam was very important for Interlaken because it gave most Indians their first glimpse of Swiss mountains, glaciers and other romantic spots. Today India is one of our biggest markets thanks to exposure in Indian films,” he says.
According to him, Indians are the fourth-largest tourist group from Asia and account for around 85,000 overnight stays in Interlaken. Julier knew where to find them. He escorts us to the statue of Indian filmmaker Yash Chopra in the gardens of the Kursaal Casino. It was installed in 2016 to pay homage to the contribution Chopra made to promoting the region through his films. As expected, Indians were lining up to take a picture with the statue.
“I knew about Interlaken from Yash Chopra movies. People should know that Switzerland is a real heaven,” says Deepika from Hyderabad.
Next stop is the five-star Lindner Grand Hotel Beau Rivage in Interlaken that features in the film.
“This is the first location I take Indian clients on my Bollywood tour as this is where it all started,” says Fässler.
Not much has changed. The lawns are immaculate, and the hotel looks as grand as ever. I spot the fourth-floor tower balcony where the movie couple embrace.
I also spot an Indian family having a picnic on the ground floor.
“If you didn’t tell us we wouldn’t have known that we are staying in the hotel where Sangam was shot,” says Prashant Patel, who has seen the film and coincidentally owns cinema theatres in Ahmedabad, India.
It is the family’s second trip to Switzerland and it appears that they have had their fill of scenic mountains. Today, the ladies just want to shop for fast fashion in Zurich or Bern.
Leaving the Patel family and the Beau Rivage hotel, we head to the First cable car station in Grindelwald. The entrance looks quite familiar but the quaint side-seater chairlifts for two have been replaced by six-seater cable cars. We go all the way to the top.
Indian tourists make up only around 7% of all visitors here but are strategically important.
“The Indian market is interesting to us as the tourists come in spring and it is a season where we still have the capacity to grow,” says Bruno Hauswirth, managing director of Grindelwald Tourism.
Hauswirth shows us some of the new attractions like the cliff walk and thrill rides called flyer and glider that give visitors the feeling of flying down the mountain.
The queue for photos at the edge of the cliff walk is growing. Korean couples and middle-aged Chinese ladies take their sweet time with selfies. It is hard to ignore the occasional screams of visitors as they plummet down the mountain at speeds of over 80km/h on the flyer and glider rides. We descend at a more sedate pace on the cable car and stop midway at the Berghaus Bort hotel and restaurant that featured in Sangam.
Fässler shows me the spot where in the film, three main protagonists of a love triangle have an awkward meeting.
Unaware of the Sangam connection to the place, the Peter family from Bangalore are posing for pictures on the meadow below the restaurant.
“I’ll probably watch the movie to see this place where we had ice cream,” says Benita Peter.
The restaurant, which is perched at 1,600 metres above sea level, also serves perennial Indian favourite rice and daal with a view of the north face of the Eiger mountain thrown in.
Film and tourism
“When I travelled to India in the 1980s people there always remarked how beautiful Switzerland is. When I asked them if they had visited the country almost none had,” says Fässler.
Fifty-five years on from Sangam, almost 350,000 Indian tourists visited Switzerland in 2018 spending over 780,000 nights in Swiss hotels. While the trend of filming song and dance sequences in Switzerland might have passed, tourism officials are promoting their regions in India in different ways.
“We work with influencers from the Indian movie industry. They are really helping us promote Interlaken and we are growing,” says Julier.