Actor Juhi Chawla
Bollywood has been even more welcoming towards foreigners in the past few years. No doubt, high-budget mainstream Bollywood films have always been fetishistic towards foreign flesh, usually white guys from any corner of the world (‘if you’re fair and lovely, you are right. Foreigner and white? Even better!’), be it Germany or France or America or Russia or Poland or Chzekhoslovakia. A German friend of mine told me once his two buddies were approached by a casting director while on a trip to Mumbai. Too bad they chose to sleep at the wrong time – it would’ve been the best mememto ever once they returned to Munich.
Anyway, speaking about the contribution of foreigners in Indian cinema, notable names pop to mind (some are part-Indian): the shimmering, sexy item girl (although the term ‘performer’ would be more appropriate in her case), diva, vamp, the evergreen Helen, the daring action heroine Mary Evans, popularly known as ‘Fearless Nadia’, Salman’s former flame, the plastic beauty who’s sometimes pretty, Miss Katrina Kaif, the bubbly American dancing queen Lauren Gottlieb, who won the fifth season of the reality show ‘So You Think You Can Dance’, shone in a Remo De’Souza film titled ‘ABCD’ and then came runners-up in ‘Jhalak Dikhla Ja’, the desi Dancing with the Stars (in which she was the contestant! I still couldn’t digest this part – didn’t anyone peruse her profile?), straight out of Barbie’s factory Elli Avram, a Swedish Green actress who first snagged a role in the mediocre Mickey Virus (and didn’t amount to much) and then entered Bigg Brother’s Indian counterpart Bigg Boss (and spent her days quietly until her eviction after a considerable time; guess the ‘If you’re silent in a reality show, you’re useless’ rule doesn’t apply to firangi babes), to name a few: “Phew!”.
Lesser known facts: Prem Sanyas, a silent film on the life of Gautam Buddha made in 1925 was directed by Franz Ozten, a German director. Well-known fact: stars like Shahrukh Khan, Manoj Bajpai and (disgraced has-beens like) Shiney Ahuja got their training under Barry John, a British theater director and actor who’s established his acting studio in Mumbai. Another British actor, Jennifer Kendal married Shashi Kapoor and acted with him in a number of films and also without him in a few memorable ones like 36 Chowringee Lane.
Dutch actress Sippora Zoutewelle chose an alternate path by opting for television serials over films. She now plays the lead role of (Take a guess. There’s 96% probability you’ll get it right) a firagi bahu in an Indian family; the serial’s also titled ‘Firangi Bahu’ and is currently running on Sahara One (my advice: if its foreigners you want to see, you better watch them in better things. Oh well, you’re never gonna listen, are you?). Alexx O’Nell, ex-husband of television starlet Shweta Keswani also has a good track record: an opportunity to shake a leg at ‘Nach Baliye’, a few films both in Bollywood and in the South (saw a poster featuring him during my internship at a Chennai multiplex) and now a role in Jhansi Ki Rani.
The whites (be it American or Russian or even a Swede) are usually kept to play baddies who’re more than willing to humiliate ‘those bloody Indians’ and grab their land, or to learn some Indian dance moves and perform as backup dancers (who remain absent for the rest of the film, and so you’ll basically watch a movie set entirely in India that’s sporadically invaded by white men and women turning out of nowhere during song and dance sequences). African-American actors are usually seen less; the last time I remember seeing one was in Fukrey where the guy played a boneheaded henchman. A couple of films give surprisingly meatier, more layered roles to foreign actors. For example, the character of Sue in Rang De Basanti doesn’t just play Aamir Khan’s love interest but is also a pivotal force for furthering the plot; in the film, she plays a director who comes to India to shoot a film on the life of Bhagat Singh. I also loved Mehdi Nebbou’s performance in English Vinglish because he’s given an actual, truthful character to portray, something foreigners seldom get in Bollywood.
Now, the East also has a few achievements to boast of. We’ve had esteemed actress Shabhana Azmi working alongside legendary Shirley Maclaine in Madame Sousatzka. We’ve seen Amrish Puri as a demonic thuggee opposite Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Irrfan Khan and Tabu played husband and wife in Meera Nair’s The Namesake as well as Ang Lee’s Oscar winning Life of Pi. Dev Patel and Freida Pinto became a household name after their appearance in Slumdog Millionaire; Pinto has gone on to work with the likes of Woody Allen, Michael Winterbottom and Tarsem Singh, while Patel has worked in Shyamalan’s disastrous The Last Airbender and John Madden’s charming The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. And Roger Ebert was so bewitched by Aishwaria Rai’s beauty in The Mistress of Spices and Bride and Prejudice that he called her the ‘most beautiful woman on the planet’ in both his reviews. It should be noted that a number of foreign films featuring Indian actors in major roles are usually made by Indian-origin directors. Indians rarely get the best parts, and the only way they can gain recognition is by shining in supporting roles or working with an Indian-American/British director. Archie Punjabi did a wonderful job in ‘The Good Wife’ and deserved the Emmy she won in 2010. Now we wait to see whether an Indian’s talented or lucky enough to win the Oscar (i.e. in the acting categories. We’ve already seen Bhanu Athaiya, A.R. Rahman and Satyajit Ray honored with the ‘naked glimmering golden guy’ for Costume Design, Original Music and Lifetime Achievement Respectively)…
Actor Om Puri
Well, it could happen next year. Oscar winning British actress Queen Elizabeth II, oh I mean Helen Mirren, is going to team up with Manish Dayal, Om Puri and Juhi Chawla for the film ‘The Hundred-Foot Journey’, based on Lasse Hallstrom’s novel of the same name. The film is about a displaced Indian family settled in the village in France which decides to open up an Indian restaurant just hundred feet across the street from a Michelin-star French restaurant. Om Puri has already worked in foreign productions such as East Is East, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Code 46 and British Television dramas ‘White Teeth’ and ‘Second Generation’, while Manish Dayal has done guest appearances as well as played recurring characters in shows like 90210 and Rubikon. Juhi Chawla, on the other hand, is working for the first time in a Hollywood film. Fortunately, she may have a strong team to back her up. This includes not just the cast, but also the producer and director. Lasse Hallstrom, the director, has made a number of music videos for ABBA. His achievements in cinema include ABBA: The Movie (duh!), What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, Salmon Fishing in The Yemen and (the poorly made) Safe Haven. The producers are big: there’s TV mogul Oprah Winfrey, Hollywood royalty Steven Spielberg and billionaire Indian business tycoon Anil Ambani. Here are a couple of things spoken about the film: Om Puri speaks of his experience working with Helen Mirren. He says he ‘fell on his knees (when Mirren entered) in front of her and confessed he was a fan’. He also speaks of his satisfaction watching the film’s rushes. Manish Dayal, who plays the protagonist Hassan Haji, hasn’t made a statement about the film yet.
Hundred Foot Journey’s Producer Oprah Winfrey (left) along with British acting icon Helen Mirren
Whatever the outcome, its still a welcoming change to see collaborations that transcend national, cultural, ethnic boundaries and stereotypes slowly slipping away. I don’t usually appreciate films which stamps traits on characters based on their nationality. Not every Russian is a cold-blooded Commie with ties to the Mafia. Not every African American has to be cantankerous and oafish. Indians aren’t always doctors or scientists, and not everybody is unsporting towards ethnic jokes; many urban Indians in fact can handle jokes at their expense. And not all Americans and Englishmen are racists and white supremacists.