Nargis at Chateau Marine in Bombay in the 1950s (Courtesy: Film History Pics)
LAST MONTH, I HAD a wonderful holiday in Sicily. I had been meaning to go for years but every time I was able to, the weather would be too cold or too hot. This year, the stars were correctly aligned but I hadn’t realised that I was going to be joining an upsurge in visitors dazzled by the star TV show, HBO’s The White Lotus, screened last year, which showed Taormina and Noto. It is said to have made hoteliers consider not closing for winter as usual given the high number of bookings.
I didn’t aim to visit the The White Lotus locations. I did note when booking that the Four Seasons’ San Domenico Palace Hotel, where much of the second series was based, had suites at £36,000 pounds (`36 lakh) for a week. However, the series had reawakened my desire to visit Taormina, lying under one of Europe’s few active volcanoes, Mount Etna. I had seen images of the dramatic views from the Greek amphitheatre and gardens down the cliffs and along the coast. It is little surprise that the town has been attracting visitors for many years, popular with the travellers on the Grand Tour.
I also visited Noto, where some of the The White Lotus characters went on a day trip, but, as there are other reasons for tourism, notably history, I immersed myself in the Baroque architecture of the city that was rebuilt after an earthquake in 1693. There was also the beautiful island of Ortigia with its fountain where papyrus grows, another Baroque cathedral, and the Greek settlement of Siracusa. Then I couldn’t miss the Greek ruins, dating back to the sixth century BCE at the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, Selanunte and Segesta, or the fine Roman mosaics (fourth century CE) of Villa Romana del Casale or the Norman cathedral at Cefalu. Palermo and its surrounding areas have Byzantine mosaics at Monreale and elsewhere, a visual legacy of the Normans replacing the Fatimids, as well as the Teatro Massimo opera house where Tanya (The White Lotus) saw Madama Butterfly.
Even within the series, the characters are influenced by film locations. Tanya wanted to follow her fantasy of being Monica Vitti, driven around on a Vespa in Sicily. However, when she dresses in pink, the manager, Valentina, tells her she looks more like Peppa Pig. Some of the men in the film want to see The Godfather location, Castello degli Schiavi villa, where Michael Corleone’s first wife, Apollonia, is murdered. Visits to Corleone are popular but the accounts in Peter Robb’s brilliant book, Midnight in Sicily (1996) confirmed my decision not to go.
I loved Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (1958), the tale of an aristocratic family during the time of Garibaldi’s Redshirts in Sicily but also, as is rare, enjoyed just as much Luchino Visconti’s film (1963) with Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale. However, retracing this lost world proved beyond me.
Visiting the locations of films and OTT series is big money. Nearly half of the visitors to the UK come to see sights now familiar to them from film and television. If you pass 221B Baker Street, it seems that the crowd is mostly Indian, eager to see the home of the legendary (or, rather, fictional) detective.
Many Indian visitors to the UK and Europe come to see places made famous in Indian films. Vineet Lal has made maps of Bollywood’s Britain, specifically Bollywood’s Scotland for VisitScotland, to encourage tourism. Perhaps some of the Indian tourists at Eilean Donan Castle or Crossraguel Abbey have come to see where Karan Johar’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was shot, even 25 years after it released.
I wonder if taxi drivers still negotiate some parts of Mumbai by stars’ houses? And yes, I look up at Chateau Marine where Nargis lived every time I pass. It would be lovely to be able to find this information more easily. Maybe, I’m just looking in the wrong places
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The Swiss were so delighted at the Indian tourists who visited scenes from Yash Chopra’s films that they set up a statue of him in Interlaken and the Jungfrau Railways named a train after him. His son, Aditya Chopra, also showed locations in Switzerland, including the church of St Mauritius in Saanen, Bernese Oberland, Zweisimmen station and Gstaad that are still visited by fans even today.
India could do more to promote tourism to film locations in India. Although sometimes it seems that the same locations are used repeatedly (just how often did the Princess Street flyover onto Marine Drive feature?), some films, notably Mani Ratnam’s, show spectacular locations in India which are often relatively unknown and difficult to find.
(I was once in Kanpur when Mani Ratnam was looking for locations and a local journalist wrote a story about foreigners visiting Green Park stadium, blissfully unaware of the far more important guest. Still, it’s likely to be the only time I appear on a sport page.)
I adored Yash Chopra’s Deewaar (1975) so much as it has some of the best dialogues in Hindi film. My friend Jessica and I once walked into the Oberoi pool area to recite the dialogue, “Business toh aapko karna nahi aata sethji…” I think we terrified the pool attendant.
It is possible to visit film studios (I once went to Ramoji Film City, which was stunning, but I was most excited to recognise MS Sathyu who was shooting, so I could be a total fangirl about Garam Hawa (1973).
There have been publications about film locations in cities and I saw a lovely recreation of ‘Rimjhim gire sawan’ this year by an elderly couple. People really love visiting places made famous by stars and films and feeling that their cities are part of the world of Bollywood. Visiting locations for shoots takes more time and effort but has the knock-on benefit of increasing tourism. I can’t believe anyone who has seen Umrao Jaan (1981) hasn’t gone to Lucknow, or anyone who loves Satyajit Ray hasn’t visited Kolkata. Anirudh Bhattacharjee who wrote a fascinating book on SD Burman, took me straight to his former house to see the name plate once when I was in Kolkata. I wonder if taxi drivers still negotiate some parts of Mumbai by stars’ houses? And yes, I look up at Chateau Marine where Nargis lived every time I pass. It would be lovely to be able to find this information more easily. Maybe, I’m just looking in the wrong places.
I mentioned history as another major pull for tourists and I went by road to Murshidabad to get an idea of the city in relation to Kolkata to understand the historical events, and, of course to visit Palashi (Plassey) on the way. No prizes for guessing why I went to Kurukshetra but perhaps why I went to Tryambakeshwar may be less obvious. (It was where DG Phalke’s father was the priest.)
I must be honest and mention that there is also another reason I wanted to visit Sicily, and that is the food. Unlike the characters in the The White Lotus who eat all their meals in their hotel, I enjoyed a wide range of restaurants. Pasta alla Norma, pasta with aubergine and cheese, named after Bellini’s opera; panelle, the chickpea fritters, often in sandwiches; the cakes (white ones topped with cherries are called “the breasts of the Virgin”); and the cannoli—remember the Godfather line, “Leave the gun, take the cannoli”?); gelato or granita with the fragrant Sicilian lemons for those of us daunted by the popular ice cream in a brioche bun. I’m afraid I didn’t try famous delicacies of innards, let alone horse and donkey. Again, I was influenced not just by print media but also by watching Stanley Tucci’s programmes, just as Raja, rasoi Aur Anya Kahaniyan on Netflix provides entertainment and serious education in Indian food. It would be wonderful to see Hindi films and other media promoting Indian tourism beyond the obvious attractions, opening our eyes to the infinite pleasures of travel in India.