The first time I travelled to Switzerland, I expected a cliché—the somewhat underwhelming version of what I had already seen on screen a hundred times. I didn’t expect that the lakes, mountains, historic towns, and picture-postcard Alpine villages would astonish me. Everywhere I turned, I saw mountains, yet the scene changed each time, dramatically rendered in different technicolour shades, depending on the time of day or night. As I walked my solitary way along various paths, occasionally looking for a phantom hand to hold on to, to share the romance of the moment, memories of the movies came flooding back.
Switzerland has always been much more than a mere prop to cinema. A dynamic canvas that has been adapted to romance, drama, and tragedy, its landscape has been rendered forbidding, benevolent, and thrilling by turns. Dastardly murders, chiffon-clad romances, and edgy, high-speed car chases have all happened here. Generations of filmmakers used the dramatic peaks and blue lakes as a perfect foil to the adventures of spies, detectives, divas, and villains. From 007’s cat-and-mouse games to Bollywood’s young lovers cavorting on the snowy ridges of the Jungfraujoch col, the world of motion pictures would not be the same without these magnificent locales. Big budget commercial cinema permanently catapulted Switzerland into every movie buff’s imagination.
In the world of Bollywood, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman in love must wear bright chiffon saris and dance with gay abandon against the backdrop of the snowy Alps, accompanied by a hero in colour-coordinated outfits. The scenes are often framed with musical cows and country churches, and nearly always feature cathartic slo-mo sequences at a train station. This type of glossy love story popularised by the late film-maker Yash Chopra has, over the years, become a template for Hindi cinema. In the Yash Raj formula (named for Chopra and his son’s studio), Switzerland is an essential ingredient for romance. From the tiny lanes of Gstaad to the train station at Saanen, from the meadows of Interlaken to the streets of Bern, and from the mighty Junfraujoch to the awe-inspiring Rhine Falls, there was a Swiss dimension to nearly every Bollywood love story in the 1980s and ’90s.
As Yash Chopra romances brought Switzerland into a billion living rooms, Indian travel agents were inundated with requests for holiday itineraries featuring places like Gstaad, Saanen, and La Chaux-de-Fonds. Romance for these travellers was a sum of images culled from films like Silsila (1981), Chandni (1989), Lamhe (1991), Darr (1993), Dil to Pagal Hai (1997), and above all Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge or DDLJ (1995).
On late night walks, my mind wandered to all the candyfloss Bollywood romances set in this utterly beautiful landscape. Despite my disdain for ludicrous plots and absurd choreography, I couldn’t help but feel a surge of pride when Swiss, German, and Russian people chatted with me about Raj Kapoor or Shah Rukh Khan. These actors were the dots connecting me and the subcontinent to which I belonged with the country I was visiting. The characters they played became wraith-like companions on my trip. Sometimes, I heard the strains of half-remembered songs or Sridevi’s eerie cackle from the film Chandni (1989) as she rolled among the buttercups, resonating in my dreams.
The Swiss Alps also became a place of secret hideouts, highly classified facilities, and an apt setting for daredevil high-speed car chases. In particular, this stark white scenery, in which super villains and their henchmen plotted world domination, became forever associated with the exploits of the greatest spy that ever lived, the unflagging British secret agent James Bond.
As Bond battled his enemies, rescued damsels in distress, and seduced his assassins all in a day’s work, his adventures made for some absolutely unforgettable scenes. The one that immediately comes to mind is Goldfinger (1964), in which the inimitable Sean Connery as 007 is chased by Tilly Masterson across the stunning Furka Pass. The glamorous sequence through this breathtaking 7,969-foot-high paved pass features Bond’s iconic Aston Martin, and is counted among the best in the history of cinema. Fans can relive this moment—albeit within speed limits—on the driving route along the Grand Tour of Switzerland. While there might not be an Aston Martin on offer, the other cars available on this tour are posh, and will make you feel quite sophisticated.
Another sequence that is as bold in its conception as in its choice of setting is from GoldenEye (1995). The film features Pierce Brosnan as Bond jumping off the edge of Contra Dam near Lugano. This 720-foot jump is regarded by some as the best movie stunt of all time, and the site has become a famed bungee point for those intrepid enough to take on the challenge.
Besides the action sequences, some less dangerous locations have also become intrinsically associated with Bond films. One example is the legendary revolving restaurant of Piz Gloria on the Schilthorn, the headquarters of Bond’s nemesis Blofeld in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). Here, fans can enjoy a James Bond 007 breakfast buffet to relive the on-screen excitement.
Switzerland’s film heritage extends beyond spy films and romances too. Looking up at the purple mountains of Grindelwald, I imagined they looked as other-worldly as they did when they featured as the peaks of the planet Alderaan in Star Wars: Episode III- Revenge of the Sith (2005). On the shores of Lake Geneva on a rainy evening, I almost saw a young Mary Shelley sitting on the promenade in Montreux, staring across the lake on a stormy night in Rowing with the Wind (1988), a film about the author and the monster she created in her novel Frankenstein. In my last few hours in the country, I recalled the burgeoning romance between a young chef and a sommelier in Bon Appetit (2010) while warming myself with a midnight cup of coffee in an industrial suburb of Zurich.
The brilliant colours of fall were rendered even more vivid with my celluloid memories of this landscape and all the magnificent dramas, romances, spy thrillers, and edgy action films set against this painter’s backdrop. And when I returned home, changed by the things I had seen and people I had met, I felt a desire to go back, to see the mountains and yellow-red trees one more time. Back in Mumbai, I watched Paolo Sorrentino’s brilliant film Youth (2015) in an old art deco theatre, and was unexpectedly transported back to the land I had just left.
Sitting back in my chair during the closing sequences of Youth, I felt close to these towering mountains. The film’s surreal, artistic portrayal of the binary of youth and old age unfolded through a collage of startling images under the cold, starkly beautiful Alps. Right then, I decided I would have to return to Switzerland to find the very valley where this film was shot.
Appeared in the March 2016 issue as “Mountain Movies”.
Diya Kohli is the former Senior Associate Editor at National Geograpic Traveller India. She loves the many stories of big old cities. For her, the best kind of travel experience involves long rambling walks through labyrinthine lanes with plenty of food stops along the way.