In October 2008, Philadelphia Magazine wrote, “With big-budget films from Marley & Me to Transformers 2 shooting here, Philadelphia is staking its claim to the title of Hollywood East. But could we also become Bollywood West?” Both statements are laughable, but Philadelphia has played host to its fair share of Bollywood film shoots in recent years.
A quick primer for those who have yet to venture into Bollywood territory: “Bollywood” refers to India’s mainstream cinema scene. The “B” refers to “Bombay” (now Mumbai) and was supposedly coined by a journalist in the early 1990s. These films are typically associated with long running times (2.5 hours is usually the minimum), extravagant song and dance numbers (I’d say about 75% of modern Bollywood films still have major musical components), and an aversion to on-screen affection (a countless number of directors have found creative ways around this rule, the origins of which are actually political rather than cultural). Bollywood also has a habit of adapting foreign material to varying degrees of success. Some notable examples of this include 1965’s Gumnaam based on Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None (popularized in the opening credits of Ghost World), 2005’s Sarkar based on The Godfather, and 2003’s Koi…Mil Gaya, which is a strange hybrid of E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and White Men Can’t Jump.
The Philadelphia area’s most reliable source for major theatrical Bollywood releases is the Regal Burlington Cinema 20 in Burlington, NJ. They screen a new film just about every week of the year, sometimes two run simultaneously, and the films’ release dates abroad often correspond with their domestic premieres. I’ve seen dozens of films at this theater over the years including the aforementioned Koi…Mil Gaya, the surprisingly affecting Amitabh Bachchan vehicle Waqt: The Race Against Time (2005), and the extraordinarily bonkers Forrest Gump riff My Name is Khan (2010).
Bollywood’s time spent in Philadelphia is probably best remembered in the form of a “scandal” that followed the local filming of Kurbaan in 2008. Checks written to a variety of local parties that totaled upwards of $100K bounced and the film’s producers weren’t quick to respond. I never saw a follow-up to that story, but I remember that it initially made the cover of the Daily News. There’s an article about it on Philly.com that has some interesting user comments.
So let’s take a look at Kurbaan as well as three other Bollywood films that filmed in Philadelphia during the late 00’s…
Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna [Never Say Goodbye] (2006)
Filled with big stars, extravagant song and dance numbers, and improbable moments of happenstance, the New York City-set Never Say Goodbye is the perfect introduction to the world of Bollywood. Soccer champ Dev (superstar Shah Rukh Khan) is married to successful fashion reporter Riya (the gorgeous Preity Zinta). Dev meets teacher Maya (Rani Mukerji) on her wedding day, which happens to fall on his own wedding anniversary. Maya marries her childhood friend Rishi (Abhishek Bachchan, the famous son of Bollywood’s most beloved actor Amitabh Bachchan who also appears in the film as swingin’ bachelor “Sexy Sam”) and four years later their relationship is revealed to be as empty as that of Dev’s following an accident that stole his athleticism and made Riya the family breadwinner. Dev and Maya eventually bump into each other and you can guess how things progress. The bouncy first half of the film moves along at a clip, notable events include a youth soccer game montage complete with cartoon sound effects and some really weird hospital-set shenanigans, but the post-intermission half is a serious drag. Everything is ultimately wrapped up in narration: “The road to their destination was paved by broken hearts.”
It’s your typical Bollywood romantic comedy with top-notch musical sequences, tension-filled melodrama that the filmmakers often feel requires triple takes, and a sincerity that’s easy to dislike (it was well received by critics and audiences and is currently the fourth highest grossing Indian film in overseas markets). Philadelphia stands in for NYC with the film’s penultimate scene taking place on a platform at 30th Street Station. They also supposedly filmed on Delancey Street and at Independence Hall, but I didn’t catch those. The mind starts to wander a bit during the latter half of this 188 minute epic.
Kurbaan [Sacrificed] (2009)
Dharma Productions, the people behind Never Say Goodbye, returned to Philadelphia in 2008 for this heavy-handed post-9/11 drama starring real life couple Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor. A college student (Kapoor) falls for and eventually marries her Muslim professor (Khan). They move overseas to a suburban Indian neighborhood near New York City where Kapoor soon learns that her husband is a member of a Muslim terrorist group who just happen to operate out of their next door neighbor’s home (his terrorist leanings are explained by the death of his former wife and daughter at the hands of U.S. forces). In a rather tacky sequence, the terrorists successfully send a suicide bomber to blow up an airplane containing our country’s UN delegates, an incident that prompts a grieving journalist to infiltrate their ranks and take them down. Expect lots of (exaggerated?) racial profiling, terrorist preparations, and some discussions regarding politics and religion that include mentions of the CIA’s creation of the Taliban and the U.S.’s illogical attack on Afghanistan. It’s a 161 minute bore that doesn’t contain any musical numbers, just a few songs for montage purposes. And speaking of the songs, controversy surrounding the film wasn’t limited to the unpaid Philadelphians mentioned above as a good citizen back home filed a failed petition to block Kurbaan‘s release due to the obscenity of some of its song lyrics. The film was poorly received by both critics and audiences.
Once again standing in for NYC, Philadelphia’s involvement in the film seems to be limited to its climax that involves a city-wide subway attack. The interior of 30th Street Station is quite visible as are a few random city streets. The fourth picture below is somewhere in the northeast.
New York (2009)
Another post-9/11 film filled with racial profiling, interrogations-via-torture, and references to the Patriot Act. Omar moves to the titular city for college where he quickly becomes best friends with Sam and Maya. In the aftermath of 9/11, Omar moves to Philadelphia while Sam is held prisoner as a suspected terrorist and tortured for nine months (the tiny box he is kept in is disturbing, but I’m not sure about the torture-by-strobe light/heavy metal music sequences). Moving forward to the present, Sam has married Maya and become a ruthless terrorist. The FBI bring in taxi driver Omar to infiltrate his old friend’s gang, which he does like a trained professional. Things reach a bloody climax followed by a long and blatant explanation of the film’s major theme: “we should move on from 9/11.” A forgettable 150 minute film that raises a few interesting talking points, but is ultimately another heavy-handed preach-fest that forgoes choreographed dance numbers in favor of eight minute musical montages.
Philadelphia serves as both itself and as yet another stand-in for New York City. Local spots include the Girard El stop, 30th Street Station, and Old City. Perhaps most notable is the west side of City Hall where a car chase climaxes with government agents surrounding a taxicab right in front of Centre Square. The film’s big rooftop climax may have been shot atop the PNC building, but things are hard to recognize from that high up. The Italian Market is renamed the Brooklyn Market.
Badmaa$h Company [Rogue Company] (2010)
What begins as a post-collegiate buddy comedy morphs into an almost completely dialogue-driven international smuggling caper. Set in 1994, four young friends take a trip to Bangkok where they learn about the ways of sneaking goods past customs. Their methods are ridiculously intricate, but “Friends and Company” manage to amass a fortune until in-fighting tears them apart. Their leader, Karan (Shahid Kapoor, former boyfriend of Kurbaan actress Kareena Kapoor), ends up in prison and resigns to get the group back together as a legitimate business once he’s a free man. The film was panned by critics and ignored by audiences; its hip hop-infused songs feature minimal choreography and are easily forgotten. The highlight is a spot-on Michael Jackson impersonator.
Yup, Philly is once again a stand-in for NYC. The TLA Video formerly at 4th and South Street serves as a Hindi video store while other notable locations include JFK Boulevard and 1818 Market Street. I recall a shoot happening above the El Bar or somewhere near there on Front Street, which, if true, is probably the location featured in the final picture below with the El going by in the window. I can’t place exactly where that Philly Laundry is, but the sign is convincing for this city (UPDATE: I happened by this location recently, it’s at the corner of 7th and Girard and is now called Daily Laundry). Scenes were also shot in Atlantic City’s Trump Taj Mahal.
If you know of any other Bollywood films that have filmed in the area or if you know the outcome of that Kurbaan mess then please let us know in the comments.