Shahrukh Khan with Kajol during the shooting of My Name is Khan. Image Credit: Supplied picture

It was supposed to be a simple scene. Bollywood’s top director Karan Johar knew exactly what he wanted for the six-minute sequence for his film Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna – a regular day at Grand Central in New York, where the king of Bollywood Shahrukh Khan would be shooting. All he needed was the normal hustle and bustle, which he thought would be easy considering he had made Bollywood movie Kal Ho Naa Ho there in 2003.

But the film’s line producer Anadil Hossain, listed as one of the 20 most powerful Indians in Hollywood, wasn’t convinced. As the head of Dilwood Inc, she’s worked on countless Bollywood potboilers in the States before, and knew that the shoot would be difficult because of the stellar cast – Shahrukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, Rani Mukherji and Preity Zinta.

With such a hugely popular cast, she was worried that once word got out the actors were in town, they wouldn’t be able to control the crowds that would inevitably gather. So to be safe, she warned the Grand Central Police and suggested deploying more forces to control the fans. “But they scoffed,’’ says Anadil. “They said, ‘Yeah, whatever, we’ve had Tom Cruise here – I’m sure we can handle it.’”

They’d underestimated the magnetic power of SRK and his co-stars. Within hours, thousands of Indians had discovered the shoot and were texting, calling their friends and family, tweeting and posting on Facebook. The result: the shoot wasn’t finished on schedule.

“All it probably took is one tweet by a bystander, ‘Rani and Shah Rukh are in Grand Central shooting’, for the people to swarm there,” says Anadil. “We couldn’t technically stop anyone from coming since it was a public space, but it no longer looked like a regular day at Grand Central since it was swamped with Indians. It ended up looking like Little India!”

They may not have an American visa or even a passport, but everyone from a farmer in a remote village to a street urchin in Mumbai has visited Times Square, Fifth Avenue and the skyscrapers of New York – thanks to all the Bollywood movies that are shot in the US.

Location shooting in America is one of the hottest trends in Indian cinema at the moment, and most of the superstars have danced their way through the streets of Manhattan. From Kal Ho Naa Ho to the latest English Vinglish, New York City has become a mainstay in several Bollywood movies.

Dostana and Kites were shot in Miami, Las Vegas and New Mexico, and the upcoming Dhoom 3 starring Aamir Khan and Aishwarya Rai was made in Chicago.

While Indian filmmakers have gone location shooting across the globe, the US – especially New York – remains hugely popular, because America embodies so many immigrant dreams, high energy and the global youth culture.

The huge Indian presence in the States means Indian filmgoers can connect easily with the stories set in American cities.

New York may not be Hollywood, but making films is big business here. According to the New York Mayor Bloomberg’s office, the film, television, commercial and music video industry supports employment for 100,000 New Yorkers and contributes $5 billion (Dh18.4 billion) to the City’s economy annually.

Hungry for more

The appetite for America has grown so much that Prashant Shah of Bollywood Hollywood Productions has worked on more than 17 pictures with Indian filmmakers. He estimates that he has brought more than 95,000 jobs to America, and indeed he was recognised in 2010 by the US Congress with the Producer of the Year Award for this accomplishment.

The last film he line-produced in New York was SRK’s Ra One, with a budget of $28 million. He’s done five films for Yash Raj Films and three for SRK. “Our industry works mainly on relationships and the trust factor,” he says.

Being a line producer for a foreign production is not easy – everything from visas to hotel rooms to locations to sets has to be organised. Prashant recalls the hard time he had when shooting Kurbaan, starring Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor, in the US.

Since it had a terrorism theme, the film had been refused shooting permission in London, New York, Australia and Los Angeles. Finally, with the entire crew sitting in the US, Prashant managed to get permission to shoot in Philadelphia. “We found the solution and made the film,” he says.

Indian filmmakers have made a beeline for the US – where settings are often stunning and picturesque, which goes toward creating the ultimate Bollywood fantasy film – utilising the services of Indian-American line producers.

Prashant has fond memories of working with the late legend Dev Anand on Love at Times Square. Shooting in Times Square was imperative to the story, but since 9/11 had occurred just a month earlier, it was hard to get permission, especially on New Year’s Eve for the ball drop.

Finally Prashant managed to get permission. “It was minus two degrees, but Dev Anand said, ‘I may be 70, but I have the energy of a six-year-old!’ He stood with me for ten hours in the freezing cold and we got what we wanted.”

Ta Ra Rum Pum, starring Saif Ali Khan and Rani Mukerji, was another film where the director, Siddharth Anand, had an unusual request. “I want Times Square emptied out”.

This seemed an impossible task, but Prashant worked with the authorities and took control of the traffic lights to orchestrate a full five minutes without a single human or vehicle in the seven blocks of Times Square. The director was happy and could shoot the Hey Shona song in a deserted, surreal Times Square.

Prashant has plenty of anecdotes about the stars. One which immediately comes to mind is of Salman Khan’s legendary lateness, he says.

For the shooting of Jaanemann, South Street Seaport was only available at 6am, and Prashant had pleaded with Salman to be on time so they didn’t miss the slot. When Prashant reached the location at 5.15am, he was surprised to find Salman already there. Rather than be late, he’d slept in a van right outside the location. “I still remember him telling me triumphantly, ‘I was here before you!’” says Prashant.

The shooting of My Name is Khan, which took place over 70 days in Los Angeles and San Francisco, was when the star power of Shahrukh Khan was abundantly evident. “I’m not exaggerating, but in the morning we’d see three of four fans near where Shakrukh was shooting, then by afternoon, around 15,000 people would show up and we’d have to get cops to control the crowds,” he says.

On the UCLA campus where some scenes were shot, 20,000 fans turned up, and to get 50 cops would have busted the budget. But Prashant had an idea: he promised the crowds that if they were orderly and didn’t use flash photography, they would get a visit from SRK.

Even the police were amazed at how well controlled the crowds were. In fact, one of them asked Prashant, “What did you say to them in Hindi?” The secret weapon of course was SRK, who stopped by to meet the fans to thank them for being so co-operative.

Sajid Nadiadwala’s Kambakht Ishq, which stars Kareena Kapoor, Akshay Kumar and Sylvester Stallone, was shot in Los Angeles. Stallone surprised Prashant by driving himself to the sets. Asked if he’d like anything special for lunch, he asked for ‘good fresh Indian food.’ Recalls Prashant, “I arranged for an actual tandoor for the first time on the sets of Paramount Studios, with fresh naan, kebabs and chicken tikka. Sylvester actually asked to take a tray of it home.”

Prashant was also the line producer for Rakesh Roshan’s Kites, which was shot in New Mexico and Las Vegas, with Hrithik Roshan and the Mexican actress Bárbara Mori. While it’s usually forbidden to shoot in casinos, Prashant managed to do it for Kites, thanks to his contacts.

Personal organiser

With the huge increase in the number of Indian films being shot in the US, Prashant is becoming an extremely busy man. He organises just about everything for the producers – from immigration to cargo, Hollywood costume designers, digital work and stunt teams. He even has a catering truck that provides everything from Thai to Chinese to Italian on location, be it in Las Vegas or California.

“All the stars are very health conscious – none of them eat anything that is deep fried,” he says. “When they are shooting, it’s always grilled foods and salads, a bowl of chhola or daal for protein. I’ve never seen SRK eat roti or rice.”

One of the early players in aiding Bollywood producers shoot in the US is Tirlok Malik, a New York Emmy Award-nominated filmmaker. He made a pioneering film on Indian-American experiences, Lonely in America, which has been shown in 74 countries and at 37 film festivals.

“I am a New Yorker and I make the most of my movies here,” says Tirlok, who recently made Khushiyaan and is a line producer for movies made by Bollywood producers in the US. “I find New York is a great city to film. It’s very easy to shoot here because the Mayor’s office gives you lots of support.”
His Apple Productions has collaborated with many filmmakers from India as a line producer on films starring Rajnikanth, Sanjay Dutt, Kamal Hasan, Mammootty, Sunny Deol and Kangana Ranaut – top actors from across India.

Some of the films include Mehbooba starring Sanjay Dutt and Manisha Koirala, Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu starring Kamal Hasan, Sivaji – the Boss with Rajnikanth and I love New Year with Sunny Deol and Kangana Ranaut.

There are so many Bollywood fans in New York and the grapevine is so powerful that crowd management can become a problem. “Once we were shooting a song with Raveena Tandon on Park Avenue,” says Tirlok. “A taxi driver saw us and informed all the taxi drivers in the area. Within minutes, so many of them turned up at the location, we had to stop.”

Rita Powers is another important player in the Bollywood game in the Big Apple. She has been the casting director for the films of all the top three production houses – Yash Chopra, Karan Johar and Nadiadwala – and has also worked with the highly acclaimed Gauri Shinde on English Vinglish.

She helped give the movie its New York punch by finding the right actors for the roles of students and teacher. “I couldn’t have done it without you,” Shinde told her, and even gave her first credit for her casting work. Rita just finished doing casting work for Dhoom 3, which is being shot in Chicago.

For all those hankering to work on a Bollywood film, Rita is the person to get to know – she is constantly on the lookout for Indian actors in America. So do hopefuls with Bollywood dreams approach her? “They usually do,” she laughs. “I do have the most experience in the US. Bollywood is like my family to me.”