Bollywood Movies

When Wellington starred in a Bollywood spy thriller: a scene-by-scene breakdown

April 11, 202410 Mins Read

Subways, palaces, gold heists, rockets on trains and luxury nightlife? You Bollywood in Wellington.

I still remember the first Bollywood movie I ever watched. The year was 2001, I was eight years old, and my cousins had just brought home a copy of Khabbie Khushi Khabie Gham that they’d bought from an uncle in Sandringham whose whole business model was pirated Indian DVDs.

K3G as it’s now known was nothing like the Kollywood (Tamil) movies I’d watched throughout my childhood – there was more glitz, more glamour, more bangers, and fewer OTT fight scenes featuring vulnerable vegetable carts. This one movie sparked a lifelong love affair, both with Bollywood in general, and Hrithik Roshan in particular.

So when I found out about the high-budget, star-studded movie Players (2012), filmed in part in foreign and exotic Wellington, I thought I’d discovered a new favourite. Bollywood, but make it local? What could go wrong?

The movie, a remake of the 1969 and 2003 versions of The Italian Job, was carefully calibrated to appeal to Indian audiences. In the end it flopped completely, both within India and worldwide due to its “poor performances, predictable suspense, average direction and too many loopholes”.

But for me personally, it was a fascinating and bizarre work of art. I’m used to code switching between Bollywood and English language movies, thoroughly enjoying in one genre what I’d dismiss as unrealistic in the other. But you can’t operate solely in either world when Abhishek Bachchan is driving a Mini Cooper across Wellington’s City to Sea bridge.

It’s like when Nick Jonas married Priyanka Chopra; these are two very separate parts of my life. And yet, somehow, when combined, neither side is done justice. It’s Wellington, but not from a local point of view. It’s Bollywood, but not what I’m used to. In the end, I gave up trying to make it make sense, and had a great time instead.

The Italian/Russian heist

The movie begins with lead character Charlie deciding to rob WWII-linked Romanian gold from a Russian train, so he can help his old mentor build an orphanage for crime-inclined children. It’s not particularly important, but the main point is that this film is going to be international, it’s going to be grand, and it’s going to be fun.

Cut to the end of the first half. Charlie and his gang of thieves have successfully secured the gold through a complicated scheme that includes hacking satellites, rockets attached to a train, a nightclub called “The House of Rasputin” and the seduction of a Russian general through a dance number (“Why do Indian [sic] always mix music and sex?” he asks, in one of the movie’s many self-referential moments). So far, so good.

As I said, a rocket attached to a train

But then, one of the “players”, Spider, betrays the rest of the group, stealing the gold and attempting to kill them all (he doesn’t succeed). He then flees to the most obvious place to start a gold-based criminal empire: New Zealand.

Aucklanders don’t understand geopolitics

The second half of the movie begins with a glamour shot of Auckland. It’s actually somewhat jarring to see the Sky Tower treated so lovingly, like it houses international intrigue instead of just an expensive revolving restaurant.

The gang hits up an unnamed local gold dealer about his local gold supply. In order to trick him into revealing Spider’s location, they ham up their “Indianness” – laying their accents on thick, making calls to their “astrologer” to make sure the deal is auspicious, and at one point causing a distraction by starting a fight amongst themselves because “I am India, he is Pakistan, and we are fighting, like always!”

Now, I don’t know how much a 2012-era local gold dealer and his thugs would know about international geopolitics. The movie seems to assume not much at all. All non-Indian New Zealanders we meet are portrayed as glamorous but kind of dumb. It’s hard to tell whether this is for comedic effect, or if it’s how we’re actually seen abroad?

Wellington – the huge, international metropolis

Eventually, the players trace Spider to Wellington, but not his exact location. They despair: “How are we going to find him in the huge city of Wellington?” (“It’s not that big,” says my flatmate Grace.)

We’re treated to a stunning shot of Evans Bay Parade. A slow zoom of the CBD. The word “Wellington” appears onscreen letter by letter, accompanied by a spy-thriller soundtrack. I’m used to seeing this convention used for London, Tokyo, San Francisco – but lo! Here’s Frank Kitts Park.

The crime hotel for dogs

The players set up shop in a local hotel that’s designed to look like a miniature yellow castle, surrounded by hills and long grass. Only it’s not a hotel, it’s a building near the Brooklyn wind turbine that used to be a luxury dog kennel called Woofingtons. It looks grand onscreen, but in reality, it has a dodgy reputation and has been repeatedly raided by police. Which explains the highwire fence. But our team of international criminals seem blissfully unaware of local history.

Local crimes aside, we’re now so close to finding Spider. The gang follows one of his henchmen down Oriental Parade. Then they’re stopped by a police officer with the most American accent imaginable, who checks the boot of their car because something has been stolen from the “local museum”. He doesn’t specify which museum that is. Te Papa? Or Wellington Museum? The New Zealand Cricket Museum at the Basin Reserve?

Unaffordable housing

They turn right towards Mount Victoria, then take a left. They’ve found it. Spider’s mansion. Except it’s not Spider’s mansion. The shot actually features Catherine I’s summer palace, which is apparently nestled somewhere in Roseneath. Spider reportedly purchased it for $10m, but it’s almost certainly worth 1,000x that.

Talk about Wellington’s unaffordable housing.

Soon after, one of the gang gains entrance. And immediately, we spot what’s been stolen from which museum. Beneath Spider’s two-piece furniture set/throne is Te Papa’s old interactive light-up map of Aotearoa. 

(They probably just filmed this scene in Te Papa, but it’s far more fun to imagine the logistics of floor theft.)

The hottest club you’ve never been to

Just like 2001’s Kaho Na Pyaar Hai, where the filmmakers hide the fictional Club Indiana in a New World car park, the filmmakers chose not to spotlight any of Wellington’s actual nightlife. 

Instead, the gang end up somewhere lush, velvety, casino-esque, with interesting architecture – a far cry from local heavyweights like Mish Mosh, or Dakota. No one would wear an evening gown like that to Eva Beva.

This scene is a fantasy, created for an audience who might expect Wellington to be an international metropolis, rather than a quirky city less obsessed with bars than with bike lanes. 

The longest traffic jam in Aotearoa

The players now know where Spider is keeping the gold, but they can’t access it. They need him to move it out of his Roseneath/Russian mansion. So they decide to:

  1. “Turn Wellington into Mumbai” by causing the mother of all traffic jams
  2. Sequester the truck carrying the gold by exploding a waiting zone on Featherston Street, thereby…
  3. Dropping the gold truck into Wellington’s underground railroad tunnels, so they can rob it

First and foremost, I am sceptical of their ability to hide gold inside public transport systems that don’t exist. But as a fan of Bollywood, I am ready for action. The traffic lights on Featherston are duly hacked, a four-way collision happens on a one-way street, and Wellingtonians immediately start honking and cussing like only we can (but never) do.

A quick shot shows that the traffic jam has also completely gridlocked Spaghetti Junction in Auckland, a testament to our incredibly connected system of motorways. Simeon Brown can die happy.

Gandhi isn’t the vibe

With the truck safely blocked outside Ibis Hotel, the team drive their iconic red, yellow and blue Mini Coopers to the Wellington train station. 

In complete disregard for pedestrianism, they use the footpath, entirely forsaking the actual road that is right there. But I’m willing to forgive them for it, because they park right in front of Wellington’s statue of Mahatma Gandhi. 

This could have been the moment of cultural unity we’ve been waiting for, when the movie acknowledges the actual connection between India and Aotearoa, and that we’re not so different after all. But maybe Gandhi just doesn’t fit the international playground vibe of Wellington city. He’s visible for just a split second, before he’s out of shot and the cars drive through the station entrance.

Sorry Gandhi, not today.

Public transport gets a makeover

Remember our fantastic subway system? Because Players sure does. The cars drive down into the underground tunnels, then out onto the above-ground platforms so they can drag race some trains.

To create the illusion that we have a better public transport system than we do, they filmed this scene at night to make it look like they’re actually underground. But I have an alternative proposal: since we care so much about the Wellington film industry, why don’t we just build an actual subway system? It could better connect the CBD and outlying suburbs, and be faster and easier to use than our current system. More importantly it will be a useful backdrop for future international film crews.

The Wellington (car) playground

Now comes the pièce de résistance – the iconic Mini Cooper chase scene through a foreign and exotic city. 

We hit all the main tourist attractions – the Wellington airport tarmac, the Auckland airport tarmac, the Terrace car park, the City to Sea bridge. We carefully rush through crowds watching circus performers outside Te Papa, good thing someone’s installed a handy railing!

Then it’s off to Shelly Bay for the final showdown. 

The metaphoric nature of crayfish cages

This bit takes place on a dock, with the city on one side and the more scenic landscapes on the other. 

But I’m no longer paying attention to the Wellington backdrop, because the action has captured my attention. Three plot twists, two betrayals and a fight scene later, we discover that there is no gold in any of the boots of the Mini Coopers. It’s all safely stowed elsewhere.

(We later find out that the cars themselves were made of the stolen gold, in a final plot twist that defies almost every science known to man, as well as the laws of time.)

Spider is killed, collapsing dramatically next to some empty crayfish cages, for one last bit of local flair. The filmmakers head back to India, where John Key visits them in Film City in a bid to attract more Bollywood to our shores. And Charlie builds his orphanage, presumably eradicating child crime forevermore. 

Maybe in Players, we mostly all win.

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