Spring is in the air. The cherry trees are in beautiful, abundant bloom. The tulips and crocuses that were struggling and straggling in last month’s thaw have now turned their faces towards the sun. At first, watching the armies of gardeners spruce up an already beautiful Central Park in New York feels a little like watching a Hollywood diva paint her exquisite face. Neither needs the artifice to look gorgeous. Dig deeper and a different picture emerges. Central Park lies over what used to be, until the 1890s, an irregular terrain of swamps and rocky outcroppings, where poor Irish pig farmers and German gardeners lived in shanties. Elbow grease, dynamite (more than what was blown up in the bloody Battle of Gettysburg) and top-notch plastic surgery have transformed it into a public space so beautiful that it has starred in more movies than most Hollywood beauties.
Indeed, for film buffs, a walk though Central Park evokes a strong sense of deja vu. For since 1908, more than 250 films have used the iconic park as their backdrop for love scenes, song and dance numbers, car chases and even (think Ghostbusters) for a monster’s rampage. Remember the scene from Love Story(1970) in which Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw frolic in the snow? The beautiful backdrop of Central Park’s Wollman Rink played a starring role in it. The stunning ice rink, surrounded by barren trees with Manhattan’s tall skyline barely hinted in the background, made the scene that much more romantic. And when Stuart Little 2 (2002) flies through Central Park in his final showdown with the evil falcon, he finally defeats him on Bethesda Fountain. More recently, in the 2009 comedy Bride Wars, the park was effectively employed as the staging ground for the changing relationship of the two friends-turned-rivals, Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway.
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In many ways, my walk through the park is a homage, not just to the movies, but also to the venue that has played a starring role in so many of them. Entering from the Southern corner, I soon find myself facing the Duck Pond. A masterpiece of created nature, it is fringed by trees, overrun with flowers and has just the right number of ducks floating around. Behind it is the majestic façade of the Plaza Hotel [featured in movies as varied as Alfred Hitch-cock’s 1959 classic North By Northwest and Home Alone II: Lost In New-York].
What makes walking in Central Park so interesting, I soon realise, is that the vistas change every couple of hundred yards. Soon I find myself at the apex of one of Central Park’s few formal elements, the 40-foot-wide Mall. Flanked on both sides by rows of American Elm trees, it is definitely one of the most filmed locations in the park. I walk on it remembering the scene from the 2002 Jennifer Lopez romance Maid in Manhattan. From a bygone era, I remember Kramer vs Kramer, the 1979 film on marital breakup that once held a younger me in thrall. And who can forget When Harry Met Sally (1989), in which Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal stroll arm-in-arm following the exact same route as mine!
A detour takes me to the Bandshell, immortalised by George Peppard’s confrontation of Audrey Hepburn’s husband in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Humming “Moon River”, a song from the same film, I walk until I find myself on Sheep’s Meadow. This 15 acre area of Central Park was originally intended for use in military drills, but was used for grazing sheep instead. Today, on weekends, people jostle for space with their Frisbees and balls. As for weekdays, well, that’s when the film crews take over. This meadow has seen scenes from It Could Happen To You (1994), Wall Street (1987) and many other films. I cross the carriageway and find myself on Bow Bridge, a handsome cast iron bridge that somehow reflects perfectly in the water. It is so self-consciously photogenic that it’s no wonder that it has appeared in many films, from the tear-jerking Autumn in New York (2000) to Woody Allen’s 1979 classic, Manhattan.
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It’s been a longish walk, and I’m ready for a breather. But straight ahead is the famous Bethesda Terrace and Fountain, and I decide to stop there. The only sculpture commissioned in the original design of Central Park, the Angel of the Waters Fountain has made appearances in the acclaimed 2003 mini-series, Angels in Americaand films like Stuart Little 2.
I stop for a hot dog there, and discover that the hot dog man is Bangladeshi. Has he seen any film shootings here, I ask? They are commonplace in Central Park, he says. “But it’s still exciting when a Hindi movie is being shot here!” He tells me of the time when Ranbir Kapoor came quietly on several icy winter nights to learn how to ice skate for his role in Anjaana Anjaani (2010). He says that his brother (also a hot dog man) saw Hrithik Roshan and Barbara Mori when they came to Central Park to fly kites to promote their film Kites (2010). And, of course, many of Shah Rukh Khan’s films — including Kal Ho Na Ho (2003), Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (2006) and My Name is Khan (2010) have been shot here. “Remember the scene in KHNH when Preity Zinta is jogging?” he asks. “That was shot on Bow Bridge. And Shah Rukh sang the title song of the same film standing right where we are today.”
I stand there for a while eating my peppery hot dog and admiring the extravagant beauty of the man-made lake it faces. Behind me on the avenue, a horse drawn carriage from a century ago lumbers past. I look at it and wonder whether Central Park is actually little more than a film set, albeit a grand and beautiful one.
I think about this while walking to Strawberry Fields, the memorial to John Lennon. On the way are rows of benches dedicated to generations of people long gone. I see joggers, walkers, bird watchers and picnickers around, and realise that the park is much more than just a stage for the movies — it’s a vibrant stage in the middle of Manhattan’s concrete jungle, where the dramas, big and small, of life are played out as well.