Cash-strapped tourism industry beckons Bollywood

Updated: Jan 31 2002, 05:30am hrs
Hindi cinema enjoys an unusual status in India. Where on the one hand, it is the opiate of the masses, on the other, it is an object of ridicule and disapproving censure among the classes. But when trouble beckons around the corner, what better saviour than Bollywood That is a sharp lesson the Indian tourism industry is learning today.

Cut to Rajasthan. Sources in the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation (RTDC) confirm that the September 11 attacks in the US and its aftermath have affected the inflow of foreign tourists into the state, which usually occupies first place on most India visitors itineraries. Even as the government readies its numbers, an official guesstimate is that foreign tourist inflow, which touched 6.23 lakhs at the end of December 2000, dropped to below five lakhs in 2001. We foresee a fall of almost 30 per cent in the foreign tourist inflow for 2001, say the RTDC sources.

Hardest hit is the plush, luxury train, the Palace on Wheels, usually booked almost exclusively by foreign visitors, which saw 50 per cent of the bookings for its 108 seats cancelled in 2001. Till now, the snobbish Palace on Wheels was out of bounds for film shoots. But now, RTDC has thrown its doors open to film-walas. The result is Talaash, a Kareena Kapoor-Akshay Kumar starrer, which has veteran director Pahlaj Nihalani at its helm. The gold and yellow Palace on Wheels is a constant in Talaash.

The Palace on Wheels really served as an ideal backdrop for the story line of our film, for when the hero lands in India, says Mr Nihalani. The Pahlaj Nihalani MoU is the first of its kind in this direction, says Bina Kak, Rajasthans minister for tourism, art and culture.

Both sides are equally happy with the arrangement. For the Bollywood producers and directors, who are ever looking out for fresh and exotic locales, the Palace on Wheels is a godsend with a bonus attached. For, if two-thirds of their film features the train, they can avail of a concession on the commission charged by RTDC. A concession that Mr Nihalani is obviously happy to avail!

And RTDC obviously has both sides of its bread buttered, too. The money that flows in from film shoots goes a long way in relieving its cash-strapped status. The surrogate advertising doesnt hurt either. Hindi movies are watched extensively by non-resident Indians (NRIs) and films such as Talaash will expose the train and its luxurious facilities to them.

In addition, as Ms Kak puts it, We know how to keep our dollars. They are dear to us. The shooting will not be at the cost of our hard-earned dollars. So, RTDC will lease out only stationery bogies of the Palace on Wheels for film shoots, that too only in the lean season.

Cruise liner operators frown equally at disturbing paying passengers with all the fanfare and messes that accompany the shooting of a film. It tends to disturb the rest of the passengers sailing with us since such shoots are time consuming and come with a lot of restrictions, says Vijay Puthran, in-charge of the west and south India markets for Star Cruises. But in a lean season, the lure of money wins over the hardiest of qualms.

And the season of 2001 has been very lean indeed. Star Cruises had hoped to attract 28,000 passengers from India last year, but managed to clock only 24,888. The company, however, insists that its total revenues are up because, in 2000, the total passenger count from India was only 21,000.

That is why Star Cruises, just like RTDC, beckoned to Bollywood. Kaho Naa Pyaar Hain had already brought cruise liners into the lives of the Indian rickshaw puller. Now, Venus Pictures and directors Abbas Mastaan will firm the concept in his mind via their latest production. Actors Amisha Patel, Bobby Deol and Akshay Khanna and a crew of 104 were taken on a 10 night-11 day shoot aboard Superstar Virgo of the Singapore based Star Cruises.

According to Star Cruise operators, this is the first time that Bollywood has shown interest in such a long-haul trip. What they are gung-ho about is the fact that the film allows Star Cruises screen presence totalling up to about 30 minutes since most of the script is woven around the ship.

Considering Star Cruisess intention of not increasing its advertisement budget, but simply maintaining it, this long reel role is manna straight from heaven for the company. We have got considerable mileage from the film since it gives the cruise 30 minutes screen presence and the script has been woven considerably around the ship, says Mr Puthran.

Nevertheless, none of the discounts normally available to bulk bookings were offered to Venus Productions. All Star Cruises did was to combine a couple of two-night and three-night packages to sail the entire film unit to Port Klang (Kuala Lumpur), Langkawi in Malaysia and Phuket Island in Thailand, from Singapore.

Way to go, what