As Peter ‘Spiderman’ Parker (Andrew Garfield), snooping around the Oscorp office, bumps into a character in a black suit, we go, “Hey, look, Irrfan.” We’re not surprised. We’ve been singing paeans about ‘yet another Bollywood actor who’s made it into Hollywood’, so we sit up straighter, adjust the 3D glasses and wonder what his character is all about. Alas, by then, he’s disappeared. Not before speaking a few lines in a cringe-worthy accent that we could not place as either Indian or American. Had it not been for “is ticking”, we wouldn’t have known what “the claack” possibly meant. His character, Dr Ratha, makes another small appearance later, but remains mysterious and half-baked.
It’s hardly surprising that Indian characters are marginalised in American blockbusters — the scientist with an improbable name (Rajit Ratha) or the rich Indian businessman with an outdated one (Anil Kapoor as Brij Nath in Mission Impossible 4). What makes us wonder is the eagerness with which the biggest Bollywood actors sign up to play the teeniest of roles in big-budget projects.
Top star, tiny role Film critic Rashid Irani calls them “glorified cameos”, explaining, “It’s the glamour of being part of mainstream Hollywood. Irrfan and Anil are fine actors. Sadly, the roles they get do not tap their potential.” The role remained miniscule for Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in Pink Panther 2 (2009), and we hear it’s likely to be the same for Amitabh Bachchan in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.
And it’s not just the actors who are fascinated by Hollywood. Trade analyst Amod Mehra says, “I’m sure a section of the audience would go just to see a big Indian actor. Even way back in 1958, when IS Johar did Harry Black and the Tiger, Indians flocked to see the stupid film.”
Foreign phenomenon author and film critic Anupama Chopra reckons actors take up these projects for the experience: “No
cinema is global in the way Hollywood is. It’s bigger than our industry — in terms of scale, reach and money.”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a Hollywood film with a big director on your CV. And post Slumdog Millionaire (2008), the popularity of Hollywood films here, especially among the urban English-speaking audience, has grown. What else would explain a scene in The Avengers, shot in Mexico, being passed off as a slum in Calcutta? Even Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises is meant to have a scene in India.
Anupama reckons, “I don’t think anyone in Hollywood is specifically writing small roles for Indian actors to appeal to the desi audience. If that was the case, they would want to woo the Chinese.”
However, the market share for Hollywood films in India is small (it went from 4 per cent to 7 per cent between 2008 and 2011) but growing — Avatar (2009) made Rs 90 crore; The Avengers made Rs 47 crore; MI 4 made Rs 26 crore in just its opening weekend.
As these figures grow, you can only expect more actors to jump onto the Hollywood bandwagon. We, the audience, just hope for two things — that our stars get more significant roles (we’re looking forward to Life of Pi, where Irrfan and Tabu should have major parts); and that they fire whoever is teaching them those ridiculous American accents.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan: Sonia Solandres in Pink Panther 2 (2009)
Anil Kapoor: Brij Nath in Mission Impossible 4 (2011); President Omar Hassan in 24 (2010, TV series);
Game-show host in Slumdog Millionaire (2008);
Irrfan: Dr Ratha in The Amazing Spiderman; Older Pi in Life of Pi (unreleased); Tabu: Young Pi’s mother in Life of Pi (unreleased) ;
Amitabh Bachchan: Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby (unreleased);
Anupam Kher: Dia’s father in You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger (2010); Dr Patel in Silver Linings Playbook (unreleased)