Running Late

The Indian Railways' sluggish bureaucracy drives filmmakers away

Foreign-produced films such as Slumdog Millionaire must wrangle with a long approval process before they can shoot on Indian trains. {{name}}
01 February, 2016

In the opening sequence of the 2012 film Skyfall, the protagonist, James Bond, loses a fight on top of a moving train and falls into a canyon from a tall railway bridge. While the duel ends badly for Bond, it has worked wonders for Hacikiri village in southern Turkey, home to the grand structure in the scene—the Varda Railway Bridge, built in the Ottoman era. For the past few years, the village has seen a large influx of tourists, who travel to appreciate the bridge.

If not for bureaucratic resistance, that scene—and the resultant spike in tourism—could have taken place in India. Initially, the Skyfall team entered into negotiations with the then railway minister Dinesh Trivedi, hoping to shoot the scene on a railway bridge in Goa. Trivedi, in a Lok Sabha session in June 2014, related the three conditions he had stipulated to the producers: first, that they “would not show that passengers in India travel on roofs of trains”; second, that they would “not compromise with safety during the shoot”; and finally—a request he later claimed to have added in jest—that Daniel Craig, the actor playing Bond, would become a brand ambassador for the railways and say “Indian Railways is stronger than James Bond” as a promotional slogan. The producers accepted the second and third conditions, but not the first. “There will be a scene where James Bond is going to fight on the roof of the train,” Trivedi remembered them saying. “Otherwise, why would we come to India?” The talks fell through. Later, Trivedi told the Lok Sabha that he could not permit the film to “show us in a poor light.”

Pravesh Sahni, a producer who worked on obtaining clearances for Skyfall in India for six months before the plans were scrapped, told me that the real barrier to shooting in the country was “the time taken by the government” to process their request to shoot on railway property. And if revenue from film shoots is any indication of how readily the Indian Railways cooperates with filmmakers, the organisation appears to have become even more unbending in the years since Skyfall. Manoj Sinha, the current minister of state for railways, told the Lok Sabha last summer that this income had shrunk by more than half in the preceding three years. In 2012–13 and 2013–14, the railways generated a total of Rs 6.09 and Rs 6.74 crore from film shoots. The following year, they earned only Rs 3.2 crore, and by July of 2015—the month before the Lok Sabha statement was made—that figure stood at a meagre Rs 66 lakh. Despite this decline, the railways have made little effort to create a more hospitable climate for filmmakers.

This problem is not unique to the railways. According to a 2013 report by the LA India Film Council, a lobby group that facilitates collaboration between the Indian and American film industries, foreign producers often require about “70 approvals and licenses from different government authorities” before they can shoot in India. This “bureaucratic red-tape,” the report states, had lost the country “at least 18 big budget foreign movies” in the preceding four years. Sahni, who, in addition to Skyfall, handled production services for films such as Slumdog Millionaire, Life of Pi and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, explained that Indian government offices are abnormally slow to approve requests from filmmakers. In this country, “if you want to shoot from a helicopter, it takes six to eight months of clearance,” he said; but, “today, you go to Nepal and you will get the same clearance in 15 days.”