A 550-yer-ld backdrop to the stars in India
By Gayatri Jayaraman/Livemint
Alexandra Stoddard, a young tourist from Barbados and blogger at Tories’ Travels, was passing through Jodhpur in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan earlier this year when her guide offered her a chance to play an extra in a day’s shoot of a Bollywood film. It was Ayan Mukerji’s Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani, starring Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone, currently under post-production for release in 2013. The venue was the 550-year-old Mehrangarh Fort.
Mehrangarh, the quieter cousin of the more popular neighbouring Umaid Bhawan Palace, has been gently marking its presence on travel itineraries and shoot locales across the world. The fort plays a blink-and-you-miss it cameo in the music video of No Doubt’s latest single Settle Down that released last week. It also most famously served as backdrop to Christian Bale’s incarceration as the broken Batman in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. It rises again next week in a commercial for Tata trucks.
“When the gates of the Mehrangarh Fort are closed, we are almost like a film set—isolated, safe, yet, historic and beautiful” says Mahendra Singh Nagar, director (culture) at Mehrangarh Museum Trust, Jodhpur, adding gently, “Most importantly, we are also very clean.”
The Mehrangarh Fort stands, the colour of burnished gold, atop a 100ft hill, edging a perpendicular cliff, against the backdrop of Rajasthan’s Jodhpur district. It was built by Rao Jodha, the 15th Rathore ruler, when he shifted his capital from the crumbling Fort Mandore, then already 1,000 years old, in 1459. The origin of its name remains a mystery. The Mehrangarh Museum Trust was set up in 1972 by Maharaja Gaj Singh II, who remains its managing trustee.
The fort has long been a favourite with film-makers. It stoically served Sachin Tendulkar and Amitabh Bachchan in the Pepsi ads, it has been featured in Sprite, Siyaram, Visa and Kurkure ads. In films, Karisma Kapoor most recently attempted to make her comeback against its backdrop in Dangerous Ishq. Sunil Bohra, India producer of Freida Pinto-starring Trishna, once led 100 camels to the top of it for a film called Jeetenge Hum, which was later canned. It has more prominently been a film set in Akbar Khan’s Taj Mahal, Yash Chopra’s Veer and Nagesh Kukunoor’s Dor. In Hollywood, it is most memorable in The Far Pavilions, but most aptly placed in the films Kim and Jungle Book, both based on books by Rudyard Kipling, who logged its formidable proportions in his travels as “the work of angels and giants”.
Elizabeth Hurley and Arun Nayar may have been the most famous couple to do their saat pheras at the fort, but other affluent families have also chosen it as the venue for weddings. Jeweller Mehul Choksi’s daughter Priyanka had her wedding here in 2011.
Weddings here are catered to by the Taj property at the Umaid Bhawan Palace. “One could write poetry on Mehrangarh,” Choksi says. When location scouting for the wedding, he says he fell in love with it. “It is more expensive than most weddings, but it is worth the expense for a place like that. At night, when the fort is lit up, it is brilliant, it transforms into a magical place. They also offer you a show with dancers, etc. Of all the four days of the wedding, the night at Mehrangarh was the most beautiful one. It is well maintained, in comparison with other forts, but it could do with even stricter guidelines,” he says.
Karni Singh Jasol, director of the Mehrangarh Museum, who enthusiastically recalls watching Nolan shoot in the dust and the heat, says the trust tries to keep in mind the prime purpose of the fort. “We bottom-line conservation. It defeats our purpose if the publicity shuts the place to those who are drawn here for its history. So we don’t aggressively market the place,” he says. Film-makers who aspire to shoot here must adhere to a stringent checklist that among other clauses states: no nails may be driven into the fort walls, no big sheds, no heavy structures, etc. “We prefer simple straightforward shoots. If they can meet our formidable conditions, we consider the shoot,” Jasol says.
A day’s shoot costs Rs. 5-7 lakh, depending on the location and nature of the shoot. Nagar explains that the fort’s draw is also that it continues to serve its people as a fort. “It is one of the few ‘live’ forts in existence. Two hundred families still live within the fort. So, for instance, we do not permit shooting in the period room. We don’t permit shoots in the heart of the museum when it will disturb visitors,” he says.
Picky Mehrangarh is as enigmatic and quixotic as much- beloved character actors.