Here's How the Swiss Freeriding Haven of Engelberg Became Bollywood's Favourite Backdrop
More Indian, non-skiing tourists venture to Mt. Titlis each year than skiers from the UK
There are certain things you expect to see when you hit 10,000ft in the Swiss Alps; stunning views of spectacular valleys stretching endlessly into the distance for example, snow sitting perfectly on top of beautiful mountain tops, and of course, a cardboard cut out of the two protagonists from 1995 Bollywood smash hit ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’.
Yes, you read that correctly, and no, we’re not talking nonsense. As anyone who has been to the top of Engelberg ski resort’s Mt. Titlis will know, the cutout exists – and it’s responsible for almost half a million tourists coming to Switzerland each year. But we’ll get back to that in a minute.
Engelberg is a pretty gnarly place. It’s best made use of by those who utilise the off-piste. The 82km of pisted runs at the resort are largely set up for the more advanced skier or snowboarder themselves, but though 82km and 26 lifts isn’t a huge total, the 2,000m of vertical off-piste options are some of the best in the Alps.
A short hike with your gear in nearly any direction on the mountain will see you facing down untouched powder and routes that will leave you with a smile on your face.
If you’re not feeling the walk, even just nipping off to the left or the right of the marked slopes on a sunny day will provide you with a range of flowy alternatives.
There’s a little corner of blue runs at the top of the Jochpass chairlift that could keep you occupied for the majority of the day for example – easily turning into reds, blacks or little freestyle hit sessions if you nip past the markers.
International freeski teams frequent the area, and it’s not hard to see why. Staring out the gondola on the way up Titlis you’ll see more fresh lines than Fleetwood Mac did when they were writing ‘Rumours’.
From the pistes to the DIY stuff, the skiing in Engelberg is legit. It’s one hell of a play park. And it’s pretty snow-sure as well. The season usually starts around October and goes on until May. If you turn up wanting to get some serious shredding done, you’re in the right place.
So more to the point; why the hell is there a cardboard cut out – alright, alright, it’s actually made of metal, but that doesn’t make it any less weird – of the star-crossed protagonists of ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’ at the top of the mountain?
Well, we wondered the same. So we thought we’d find out. Long story short, the Swiss Alps have become Bollywood’s answer to Paris in the past 60 years, featuring as a romantic utopia in films from ‘DDLJ’ to ‘Kabhi Khusi Khabi Gham’ and ‘Mujhsse Dosti Karoge’, which we assume you’re all familiar with.
Switzerland first appeared in Bollywood way back in 1964 in a romance called ‘Sangam’, with the pristine backdrops complimenting an emotive storyline, and was further popularised when Yash Chopra, a famous Indian director, honeymooned in the country and began using it as the setting for much of his work. Since then it’s gone on to become an unlikely synonym for Indian cinema settings – and Engelberg is right at the heart of that. Kind of.
See, the connection of Engelberg to ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’ is actually a little bit tenuous. Several towns and Swiss settings are referenced in the credits of the film, and Engelberg doesn’t actually feature that heavily – but despite the fact that director Aditya Chopra has never actually been to the small Swiss town, they’ve done alright out of it.
It’s no mass trickery from Engelberg though. Mount Hahnen and Mount Titlis really are both common shooting locations for Bollywood films. The studios love it because you can wrap up a shoot that would take a month in India in a week in Switzerland – you’ve got hills, lakes, glaciers and complexes side by side. The audiences love it for the same reason us snow-lovers do meanwhile; it’s freaking beautiful.
“It’s hard to say when exactly the tourists started travelling to the Bollywood locations, but the travel is still as strong as ever," said Janicke Svedberg of Engelberg-Titlis Tourism.
“Switzerland was considered to be much safer than former Bollywood mountain scene locations in the Kashmir region"
“Switzerland was considered to be much safer than former Bollywood mountain scene locations in the Kashmir region, where situations were very unstable at times. We could provide more professional technical equipment as well."
Now, we have a confession to make. We’ve not actually seen ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’. We would’ve taken an afternoon off and watched it for research purposes had we been able to understand Hindi. But Wikipedia tells us the plot revolves around Raj and Simran, a couple of young ex-pat Indians who decide to travel through Europe with their friends. Raj tries to win over Simran’s family so they can marry, but having been promised to another man, his attempts are in vain – or are they? SPOILERS.
Anyway, needless to say the Indian public loved the romantic Swiss mountains as much as Raj loved Simran, which, again according to Wikipedia, is a shitload. Swiss Tourism figures show that in 2013 467,967 overnight stays were logged by Indians visiting the country every year, and Engelberg, just two hours from Zurich Airport, is their most commonly visited resort.
Hotel stats for 2015 show that 6.60% of all overnight stays in Engelberg were Indian. That's more than the 4.86% that were British - the main group are still Swiss, at 43.57% - and interestingly while approximately 90% of those Brits are skiers, only two percent of the Indians are there to ski or snowboard. That's roughly 55,000 non-skiers that came to the town from one country last year. Not bad for a resort which largely relies on ski tourism to make its keep.
Janicke continued: “Shooting Bollywood scenes in Switzerland actually started before Yash Chopra. But after Mr. Chopra shot several scenes and big movie parts in Switzerland things really took off.
“It’s a great contribution to Engelberg, and to the Titlis Cableway Company. Most guests visiting from India are visiting Mount Titlis. This is an important contribution to level out Alpine tourism, a business usually strongly dependant on seasonality and weather."
The Swiss aren’t exactly ungrateful either. Yash Chopra has been nominated as an ambassador for Interlaken. He has a lake named after him. He was given a Swiss government award for rediscovering the country and even has a train named after him in Jungfrau.
Standing at the 3,020m summit of Titlis, the Bollywood connection was hardly unnoticeable either. Trying to get a picture of that cut-out alone was like trying to get a quiet word with Harrison Ford at a Star Wars convention. It wouldn’t be everyone’s idea of perfection when they dream of mountainous getaways.
We ended up taking photographs for three Indian couples before we got the chance to dive in, pop our ski helmet on Simran and get a photograph of our favourite couple ourselves. I asked a wonderfully-friendly tourist named Vihaan to take the snap for me, and after asked him what he had come to Engelberg for.
“We don’t get this kind of scenery except in films," he told me.
For me, the thought of stepping foot on a snowy mountain without a pair of skis or a snowboard is completely unthinkable. For these Indian tourists, they’re just happy to be on the set of their favourite film on a once in a lifetime trip.
It’s not immediately obvious that there’s such a strong Bollywood connection back down in the resort town of course. There are Indian restaurants and eating options, yes, but without being told, you wouldn’t know the link.
You’ll still find your traditional fondues and wine galore on offer. There’s a beautiful monastery that makes cheese in the town, and if that ain’t your thing, the nightlife on offer is not bad at all either.
Once you wake up, set off to go clear your hangover and you jump on a lift to the top of Titlis though, you’ll quickly realise the Indian connection there. And it’s wonderfully surreal.
There’s something nice about being able to climb to 10,000ft, look out over some of the most stunning mountain tops you’ll ever see, walk over the highest suspension bridge in Europe, and then come back to the lift and meet a nice chap like Vihaan who happens to be in the same place at you exactly the same time, for reasons which probably couldn’t be more different.