It is not unusual for the viewer of a Bollywood movie to be transported to the pyramids of Egypt, the Swiss Alps, or even the metropolis of midtown Manhattan, as the backdrop for actors’ most intense emotion–whether that is romantic love or a sense of being lost in the world. Recently, the Thajiwas glacier, in disputed territory between India and Pakistan, became the set for Bajrangi Bhaijan, a Bollywood movie that explores relations between the two countries through the story of a young girl and a good Samaritan.
The movie, released this summer, stars Salman Khan and is directed by Kabir Khan. It tells of the heroic quest of Pawan (played by Salman Khan) to return a lost young girl to her parents. But Shahida, the young girl, (played by Harshaali Malhotra), cannot speak—she is mute. As Pawan and Shahida journey, Pawan must try to communicate with her and find out where she is from. He eventually learns that he must go to Pakistan to return Shahida to her family.
Shahida’s home is in the Pakistani Himalayas, but to get there, she and Pawan must cross through the varied geography of India, from the Thar Desert in the north of the country, to the mountainous region near the Thajiwas. The greenery of mountain grasses combined with the snow-covered Himalayas has been referred to as “Asia’s Switzerland”—Shahida actually tries to communicate where she is from with a photo of what turns out to be Switzerland during the movie.
Once he gets close to Shahida’s home, Pawan is captured by the Pakistani authorities, whom he defied by illegally crossing the border. A Pakistani security agent is forced to confront a conflict between the justice of Pawan’s mission and his duty to his higher ups–corrupt government bureaucrats who want to portray Pawan as an Indian black agent. He decides to let Pawan go. Pawan is escorted by thousands of supporters who force the border agents, at a made-up border crossing at the Thajiwas, to let Pawan return.
In reality, the Thajiwas glacier, and the locations where the scenery were filmed, are located in India, not Pakistan. The region is in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which is a disputed area between India and Pakistan (GlacierHub in 2014 covered the conflict between India and Pakistan in glacier-covered territory here and here). The relationship between the two countries and the competing religious identities is a major theme of the movie. The beautiful scenery is depicted as belonging to both countries and being part of a shared cultural heritage, challenging the political status quo.
The Himalayas are shared between India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, China, and Bhutan, so this region is vulnerable to the political instability between these countries. However, tension between these countries does not deter tourists, who flocked to the Kashmir Valley at a rate of 1.4 million in 2011/2012. The Thajiwas glacier and its nearby town of Sonamarg are major tourist attractions, with sledding and pony rides that enable tourists to explore the region, which is inaccessible to cars after a certain point. The movie shows the beauty of this area as well as the surrounding landscape, including the alpine forests, which draw tourists every year. The local economy depends on these tourist dollars, which generally come in during the summer.
Filming in this location presented logistical challenges due to the elevation and accessibility. The scene shot at the glacier involved 7,000 extras, who needed to be transported to the area. Though the movie depicts the area as a border crossing, there is no actual crossing there, and a combination of a set construction and CGI were used. A promotional video of the making of the movie shows a brief glimpse of the set being built and the crew shooting and positioning at various locations in the snow and on the glacier. Though several stories covered the feat of filming in the location, there was no mention of the environmental impact of having such as large operation take place on the glacier.
The director, Kabir Khan, stated at a press conference that he is “always looking out for locations that are inaccessible…it was about an hour’s trek from the nearest road. But that’s what makes it special—that’s how you reach special locations, and ultimately when you see it on the screen all that trouble taken to reach that location is worth it.”
Watch the trailer here: (click CC for subtitles)