Nestled on the eastern seaboard of South India, Pondicherry’s scenic sea-front, heritage landmarks, and unique Indo-French identity make it a must-visit destination for domestic and international travelers alike. The city’s old-world charm has captured the attention of filmmakers who have featured it in multiple Bollywood and international films, including the award-winning “Life of Pi”. By Jyothi
With its scenic sea-front by the Bay of Bengal, an ensemble of heritage landmarks along the Promenade, a string of backwaters and a Boulevard of criss-crossing rues, the port-city of Pondicherry on the eastern seaboard of South India, exerts an irresistible charm to the domestic and international visitor.
The city-State, that presents a veritable mosaic of colourful visuals and a melting pot of cultures, can also resemble, in the eyes of film-makers and cinematographers, as a turn-key mise en scène curated to perfection by Nature.
It’s almost as if all of nature’s bounty has been compressed into a roughly 2 sq km downtown zone—a dream locale from a film-making perspective.
Extraordinarily pretty, considering the high aesthetic standards nature seems to have set for the southern region, Pondicherry has a unique identity that sets it apart from any other city in India. Its Indo-French legacy has been shaped by a host of diverse influences over the course of history.
The port town was home to a once-thriving maritime trade link with Greece and Rome, dating back to the 2nd Century BCE, and is mentioned in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, an anonymous Greco-Roman text of the 1st Century CE, and in Ptolemy’s atlas Geographia in the mid-1st Century CE.
After being under the reign of various dynasties of the region in the pre-colonial era, erstwhile Pondicherry saw the first wave of colonial traders begin with the arrival of the Portuguese around 1521, and the Dutch and the Danes during the 17th century. The possession of the port town would often change hands in a succession of wars involving the French, the British and Dutch forces.
Puducherry presents a veritable mosaic of unique architecture, scenic beaches and backwaters, spiritual spaces, etc, which attract both film makers and tourists alike. It is a melting pot of cultures, resulting from diverse influences over the course of its history- making it a dream locale from a film-making perspective. Film tourism can be a win-win for both the tourism and film industries, as well as for travelers who can get experience the magic of their favorite movies and TV shows in person
Puducherry is a small city in India entwined with Indo-French Culture and has a rich historical heritage architecture. I personally feel that the true potential in tourism sector is still untapped. The film makers of this universe can make use of the untapped potential of Puducherry and showcase the unique architectural buildings, Indo-French culture and make use of the local talent. Puducherry is the ‘the most welcoming region’ in India and is one of the best places to visit
Eventually, the port town would become a prized possession of the French Empire in 1814, a period coinciding with the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, and continue to be under French rule till accession to the nascent Indian Union in 1954.
The historical ties with France have earned a range of epithets for Pondicherry—“A Window to French Culture”, the “French Riviera of the East”, “Paris of the East” and “Little France”. It still has the reputation of the most “Francophone” of all cities in India, with a sizeable French-speaking population, and is home to the French Consulate and Asia’s oldest Alliance Francaise chapter.
It is a tribute to the heritage conservation efforts of government, and a robust civil society, that down-town areas of the city, especially the French and Tamil Quarter precincts that flank the Grand Canal, retain an old-world charm.
A stroll along the streetscapes within the Boulevard can turn the clock back to the 16th century, with its cobbled pathways, with Bougainvillea vines peeping out of yellow-tinted French villas, tree-lined avenues, and yes, even ancient rickshaw carts that still transport visitors around.
The sea-facing Goubert Avenue is dotted with symbols of vintage, from the now renovated Hotel de Ville, once the town hall and Mayoral seat, the Old Lighthouse, the French War Memorial or the marble statue of Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc), a garden centre piece of the Church of Our Lady of the Angels.
“It’s a filmmakers dream to shoot in Puducherry”
Ang Lee’s Oscar winning film “Life of Pi” was partly filmed in Pondicherry. The Zoo sequences for example were shot in the Botanical Garden. This film put Pondicherry on the global filmmakers map
The place is also renowned for its spiritual vibes thanks to its association with yogis through history, and relatively more recently, as home to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, a site of spiritual learning related to the philosopher-yogi Sri Aurobindo and his associate Mirra Alfassa, or The Mother to her followers across the world, who founded the universal township of Auroville as an experiment in human unity in 1968.
There is more diversity on the plate a few hours of travel away. The city-State also governs three enclaves that are at the centre of three others States—Karaikal (Tamil Nadu), which is home to Tranquebar, a former Danish settlement with a stillstanding Fort Dansborg of 1620 vintage, Mahe (Kerala) where a riverside artisanal village, the Le Domaine De Pres, is a chief attraction, and Yanam (Andhra Pradesh) defined by its landmark obelisk tower modelled on the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Pondicherry’s romance with cinema has been an organically evolving story with the city featuring frequently in Bollywood and regional cinema. Among the prominent directors who have cast the city in the storyline or simply set fabulously choreographed song sequences against the scenic backdrop are multiple national award-winners like Mani Ratnam and Sachin Kundalkar, whose Marathi fulllength feature “Pondicherry” was shot entirely on an iPhone.
However, the city truly shot to global fame when it served as the setting for the “Life of Pi”, both in its literary form and cinematic adaptation. Yann Martel’s arrival in the city around 2001 with the idea for a novel is part of lore. The author would complete the work after spending days writing at the Indian Coffee House—turning the place into a must-see spot on the bucket-list of tourists.
A few years down the line, Ang Lee would raise the stature of the city to a global scale when he shot several initial scenes in the movie in the city while translating his cinematic vision for the Booker Prizewinning novel. The film would go on to bag multiple Oscars in 2013.
While several notable French film-makers such as Jean-Pierre Jeunet and M. Night Shyamalan (Hollywood) scouted the locale for projects, some ventures have made it to the big screen, others have not due to various reasons.
Though Pondicherry and the cinema are a seemingly natural fit—with the city’s tryst with “Life of Pi” perfectly encapsulating the city’s singular ease to bring together local experience and a global appeal—it is only in recent times that the government has woken up to the potential of turning the city into an international film-making hub.
The Tourism Department has now been engaged in developing several other smaller beaches—all a short distance away from the city proper. Among them is the Eden Beach, which got the coveted “Blue Flag” certification of Denmark-based Foundation for Environment Education (FEE) for its eco-friendly standards. The Chunnambar boathouse and Paradise Beach are crowdpulling attractions while a short drive away takes one to the Serenity Beach, a surfer hangout.
As part of its commitment to extend all support to film-makers who choose the city as a locale and driven by its aspiration to turn into a cinema production hub, the government is formulating a film tourism policy. From offering a host of incentives and tax breaks to facilitation, the film policy will be dovetailed into a proposed master plan that takes a holistic view of tourism and balances growth with environmental conservation.
Quick Travel Tips
By Road, Pondicherry is a three-hour drive from the nearest International Airport in Chennai. The other international airports are Tiruchirappalli (203 kms) and Bengaluru (307 kms)
By Air Pondicherry domestic airport has daily flights connecting Bengaluru and Hyderabad.
By Train, Pondicherry is connected to Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai via the railway hub of Villipuram
Luxury cruises/passenger ferries to the Ports in Pondicherry and Karaikal are in the offing.
The city seems to pack an X factor that draws a large number of repeat visitors. One reason could be that in addition to being a retreat to unwind, the welcoming and hospitable nature of the city and its folk, seem to make them want to return, again and again. Added to this is the presence of hotels to suit every budget, from luxury properties and boutique inns to backpacker lodgings. And, of course, the sheer variety of the gastronomy experience that spans Continental, Mediterranean, Creole and typically Indian cuisines.
For the Pondicherry government, there could be no better occasion to showcase the present, and a future vision, than the 76th edition of the hallowed Cannes Film Festival. As it prepares to roll out the red carpet for film crews from across the globe, the place can be quite the pampering host leaving no stone unturned in ensuring ensure that every short stay or business trip blossoms into a life-long association!
This beachside town has a certain mystique and magic to it. It is unlike any other place in India. Its ecclectic mix of indian and western culture, as well as it’s architecture and food leaves an unique impression on both tourists as well as filmmakers. Its streets are full of character and are easy to navigate because of the size and structure of the town. Dotted with some lovely boutique hotels, Pondicherry has also a calming spiritual side to it.
I shot our Marathi feature film “Pondicherry” in 2019 entirely on an Iphone with a great support and welcoming spirit of the townsfolk, friends and the government administration. Every morning the sublime and magical visuals and sound of this lovely town used to greet me with warmth and enthusiasm. The ease of getting local support and the care of the local crew made my filming days a very memorable experience. Now I call myself a friend of Pondicherry.
Jyothi is a Pondicherry-based freelance writer with a vast and varied experience in the entertainment space. She is currently the founder-Director of the HR Consultancy firm “Risen HR (P) Ltd”