The ‘Bollywood aliens’
What do names like Rachel Shelley, Alice Patten, Paul Blackthorne, Ilene Hamann, Sarah Thomson Kane and Barbara Mori have in common? They are foreign actors who came to act in Bollywood films. Sadly, few of them could send Indian hearts aflutter, even fewer bagged more projects. TWF Correspondent Shoma A. Chatterji tries to find out why
Rachel Shelley, a British television actress, portrayed Elizabeth Russell in Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Lagaan. Paul Blackthorne played her villainous and racist brother Captain Andrew Russell. Having spent his early childhood on British Military bases in both England and Germany Blackthorne’s performance was brilliant, and his painstaking training in Hindi for six months paid off. But it did nothing to fetch him more roles in Hindi films.
Alice Patten, the actress daughter of British actor Chris Patten won everyone’s hearts as an idealist filmmaker who arrives in Delhi to make a film on the basis of her late grandfather’s diaries in Rang De Basanti. She spoke her own lines in her heavily accented Hindi as it went with the character quite well.
“The film industry is becoming more and more global with every passing day. This is one of the reasons why actors from Europe, UK and USA are finding more work in India and this applies to Indian actors feeling Western waters as well,” she said then.
But then, why did she never appear in a Hindi film again? Brazilian model Giselli Monteiro was unheard of in India until she took the role of Harleen Kaur opposite Saif Ali Khan in Love Aaj Kal.
“I was looking for a Punjabi girl and Giselli suited the role, so I took her in the film,” said director Imtiaz Ali. Really? Is there a dearth of Indian actresses for Punjabi roles in Hindi films?
Tania Zaetta, an Australian who had previously appeared in Baywatch, featured in Salaam Namaste. South African beauty Ilene Hamann made her Hindi debut in Pooja Bhatt’s Rog, a Hindi ‘inspiration’ from a 1944 Hollywood suspense thriller Laura. But it turned out to be a terrible film and Hamann pushed the film further into oblivion with her absolutely ‘foreign’ screen presence and horrendous acting.
Foreign actors working in Bollywood films is not a new phenomenon. The ‘Fearless’ Nadia was an Australian who arrived in India with a Russian circus and stayed back to create a new genre around her screen image of the strong, muscular woman who wore a riding habit, held a whip and single-handedly took on the villains to rise in victory.
Australian strong man Bob Christo had a very successful run as the villain’s goon for many years till he retired from films and quit Bollywood. Tom Alter, a second generation India-born American, has stood the test of time with his impeccable Hindi and Urdu in addition to English.
He has never struck out as hero except in an offbeat Assamese film Adajya. But that does not take away his long-standing success, talent and commitment. But Toby Stephens, the biggest Hollywood actor to have acted in a Mangal Pandey – The Rising, as Captain William Gordon was never seen again.
Kalki Koechlin, born in Pondicherry of French parents, won the Filmfare Best Supporting Actress Award earlier this year for her debut performance in Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D. But she is still waiting in the wings for a big break.
Film trade analyst Taran Adarsh says, “Bollywood is suddenly being taken seriously by Western actors. There was a perception that Bollywood was a very down-market industry but that perception has changed in the last three to four years.”
This critic begs to differ. It is Bollywood that is taking Western and other foreign actors seriously than are the actors who are here expecting a fast buck and stardom that they failed to achieve in their homeland. Like it or not, the Indian audience does not really like to see an Indian hero profess love to a foreign girl and vice versa. It somehow does not jell with the cultural conditioning it has imbibed from mainstream Hindi cinema. This is a contradiction in terms. The average Indian wants a fair girl for a wife or a girlfriend. But cast a White girl opposite a brown actor and the film is surely headed to slide down. The same works the other way. Gurinder Chadda’s Bride and Prejudice was unacceptable less because it was a badly made film and more because of Martin Henderson who no one liked.
Steven Baker, currently doing a dissertation on representations of foreign background actors and dancers in Hindi film post 2000, says, “Having watched both Kites and Kites: The Remix, I would place the blame on Hrithik Roshan and not on Barbara Mori. Bollywood has set a trend in casting foreign actresses who have very little on their resume and are virtually unknown in their own country, let alone India.”
“Examples are many from Alice Patten in Rang de Basanti to Shannon Ezra in Salaam-E-Ishq. I wonder whether Indian directors fear that if they cast talented and established overseas actresses, they run the risk of the actress out-acting the male lead. In Kites, with no offence to Hrithik Roshan, this is exactly what seems to have happened. With more than 20 films to her credit, this pan Latin American star has outshone Hrithik,” says Baker.
He adds that this trend covers other racial communities and ethnic groups too and pleads for greater sensitivity in such portrayals. “We love Bombay cinema. But its representations of ethnic minorities are often problematic, particularly in the context of diasporic spectatorship. Karan Johar is a very good filmmaker. But he needs to learn all about presenting the ‘outsider’ in more sensitive ways. There are others too. From the portrayal of Chinese restaurant workers in Kal Ho Na Ho to representations bordering on the racist in the latter part of My Name is Khan set in a black community in southern USA, the international audience has reacted with disbelief.”
Current imports in actors and actresses in Bollywood are drawn from across the world – Pakistan, Bangladesh, Czechoslovakia, Norway, South Africa, Australia, Serbia, the US, Britain and Thailand.
What made Anurag Basu choose Mori, of Uruguayan-Japanese and Mexican heritage do the female lead in Kites? “I always wanted a Mexican or Spanish girl basically because Hrithik has something Spanish and Mexican about him. When I was writing the story I thought that he is one actor who has international appeal. I started looking for Mexican/ Spanish actresses and Barbara’s name was on top because at that time her My Brother’s Wife had just released. It was doing well and it had also won international film awards,” he says.
How does this explain the successful stint of actors like Tom Alter and Katrina Kaif, the numero uno of Bollywood today?
Says Baker, “In Tom Alter’s case, I think it is the difference between being a ‘star’ and being an actor. Tom falls in the category of an actor. The fact that he has been in the industry for over thirty years shows that he is doing the right thing, and has been accepted. His interests in performance extend beyond Hindi cinema.”
“For Katrina Kaif, the findings are interesting. Whether Katrina Kaif is half Kashmiri as was reported in the press when she was launched, or, that she is a full-blooded British girl as one of her director insists, it is irrelevant now that she has been accepted as a Hindi film heroine and her career graph has ascended to heights that would be any Indian actress and star’s envy. . Her styling and presentation, the chiseled features that look so Indian with long black hair and black eyes, her slow and steady imbibing of Hindi for recent films, have gone through and are still going through a gradual process of Indianisation. That is why the Indian audience has accepted her with open arms.”