The very English Amy Jackson was just recovering from the disappointment of having lost the Miss England title (after scooping the Miss Liverpool crown in 2010) when a call from India changed the 17-year-old’s life dramatically.
Somewhere in Chennai at that time, director A L Vijay was planning his next film. Vijay, who had earlier worked as director Priyadarshan’s assistant, saw Amy’s pictures on the ‘Miss England’ website and knew immediately that she was the fresh face he was looking for to play the lead role in his blockbuster Madrasapattinam.
Today, Amy is romancing one of Bollywood’s most desirable hunks, Prateik Babbar, in Gautham Menon’s Ekk Deewana Tha. A dream start, some would say. No, it’s sheer hard work, says Amy.
When 39-year-old New Yorker Poorna Jagannathan decided to take a break from moonlighting in American TV shows like the medical drama Royal Pains, the legal drama Law & Order and the dark comedy Rescue Me to attend a wedding in Mumbai, she had no idea her flight to Mumbai would be a flight into Bollywood.
One audition and six months later, Poorna, the mother of a five-year-old, became Menaka the feisty journalist in the Aamir Khan production Delhi Belly. Firang hysteria, some would say. Presumptuous is how the Indian-American actress describes it.
Till about three months ago, few Indians had heard of adult film actress Sunny Leone. But after her short but well appreciated stint in Bigg Boss 5, the Indian-origin actress has become a household name. While some filmmakers are waiting to sign her up, Mahesh Bhatt has already confirmed Sunny Leone for the sequel of his hit movie, Jism.
Sex sells, some would say. Yes, it does, says Sunny.
Then there’s Nargis Fakhri. The half Czech, half Pakistani actress just romanced Ranbir Kapoor in Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar. Sri Lankan import Jacqueline Fernandez had a quiet start in Bollywood opposite Ritesh Deshmukh in Aladin, but now she’s actor-director Sajid Khan’s muse and will be seen in Sajid Nadiadwala’s Housefull 2 and Vikram Bhatt’s Raaz 3D.
Model Lisa Haydon (her mother is Australian, father Indian) started in a supporting role in Aisha, but soon played the lead in David Dhawan’s Rascals. And the most recent import, Angela Jonsson (father from Iceland, mother from Mangalore) has been cast opposite Salman Khan in Sajid Nadiadwala’s Kick. Is this an invasion of aliens?
It isn’t as if Bollywood hasn’t had white-skinned foreigners on its sets before. For instance, Raj Kapoor cast Russian actress Kseniya Ryabinkina in Mera Naam Joker, to name just one of the foreign lovelies (see box) who made their way to B-Town. But white foreigners were mostly cast in colonial roles or only had character parts. Then in the last few years, blonde backup dancers descended on Bollywood in droves. That worked for everyone.
What’s happening now, however, is different. Over the last three years, a surge of actresses and models from abroad have been trying to make it big in mainstream Bollywood, playing Indian girls in Indian roles, eagerly signed on by directors like Imtiaz Ali, Sajid Khan and Mahesh Bhatt. So what happened?
“It’s the reverse Slumdog effect,” says Prashant Chadha, director of Azaan.
“It’s not as if foreign actresses were not coming to the industry earlier, but after Slumdog Millionaire in 2008, we realised that if Freida Pinto could fit in Hollywood, then we could also import actresses from other countries and create a selling point of their exoticness.”
Chadha proves his point with a string of foreign names that came into Bollywood before 2008, and almost immediately vanished. They were British actress Alice Patten in Rang De Basanti, her fellow Briton Rachel Shelley in Lagaan, Tania Zaetta in Bunty Aur Babli and Salaam Namaste, and Ali Larter in Marigold.
Ditto for South African beauty Ilene Hamann who was seen in Pooja Bhatt’s Rog, Baywatch beauty Brande Rodericks in Out of Control and Serbian model Jelena Jakovljevic in the Pritish Nandy Communications’ film Popcorn Khao Mast Ho Jayo. Canadian-Indian actress Lisa Ray also briefly shone on screen, most notably in the famous makeout scene in Kasoor, before almost disappearing from our shores.
But post 2008, actresses like Jacqueline Fernandez, Giselli Monteiro and Lisa Haydon are steadily moving up the ladder. Even newer imports like Nargis Fakhri, Amy Jackson, Angela Jonsson and Poorna Jagannathan seem to be here to stay. Though that, as director Mahesh Bhatt points out, is ultimately up to them.
“There’s no 100 per cent success rate, but today the industry is far more accommodating,” says Bhatt. “Even the audience is ready for this change. It is now up to these foreign actresses to be the masters of their own destiny.”
These days, selling a film is as important as making one. To sell a film, you have to make it the talking point for the junta and half your job is done. So filmmakers have realised that an exotic name will get the audiences talking – especially in a country that still overdoses on fairness creams and ‘gori-chitti’ brides.
“Fair skin has always been our weakness. The film industry has been cashing on it for years, but now they’ve realised that fair and exotic is a bigger selling factor,” says a casting agent on condition of anonymity.
“Look at Mahesh Bhatt. He could have cast anyone for Jism 2 but he decided to cast Sunny Leone who is not only fair and firang but also a porn star. His film is already hitting big numbers online, all because of Sunny’s popularity.”
Bhatt agrees with this assessment to an extent. “I agree we have a fair skin obsession. It is hardwired in our beliefs but you can’t dismiss the fact that sometimes a role has certain requirements. In Sunny’s case, the role deals with a girl who makes a living out of dubious means. It will be easier for people to believe the character with Sunny playing it,” he explains.
This also explains Playboy model Candice Boucher’s popularity in Prashant Chadha’s Azaan. The Playboy tag stuck with her and Chadha took full advantage of that. “Of course Candice was a selling factor for us,” says Chadha. “She kept Azaan alive in conversations, the media couldn’t get enough of her and the hype about her meant hype for the film.” Even though the film tanked, Candice became a ‘star’ in her own right.
However, this makes Indian models and aspiring actresses very angry. They feel filmmakers prefer foreign girls simply because they are foreigners.
“When we go for auditions, we are treated like minions while the foreign girls are always treated nicely. Why? Because we still haven’t gotten over our firang fascination,” says Preksha Tripathi, an aspiring actress.
And it’s not just Indian girls who believe there is discrimination. Angela Jonsson too believes the firang tag gives you an edge. “Indian culture is biased towards white skin and you see that everywhere – in advertisements, TV shows, matrimonials, and to an extent in films. But that’s not the only reason why foreign or NRI girls are getting roles in films,” she counters.
Today, everyone agrees that Bollywood is the new buzzword. It has become an identity in itself, so much so that international television shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Got To Dance recognise Bollywood as a dance form. Naturally, with the outlook of Bollywood becoming global so rapidly, more and more actresses are looking to try their luck in B-town.
“The lines between Sita and Julie are blurred now,” says Bhatt. “If an actress fits the role, why bother about her origin? Plus the migration of actors is a good sign. It shows that Bollywood is now seen as a serious industry and growing in its aspirational levels, not just with NRIs but also with foreigners. What is wrong in having the best of both worlds? Exploiting the ‘aah’ factor makes sense.”
Even the actresses feel that being a foreigner is no longer a limitation. Brazilian Giselli Monteiro who played a Punjabi kudi from the ’60s in Love Aaj Kal was very convincing. British actress Amy Jackson, who will be seen in saris and salwar-kameezes in Ekk Deewana Tha also manages to look the part.
“I have naturally dark hair. They made me wear dark contact lenses, salwar kameezes and saris (which I adore) and my look was complete. Don’t I look desi in the film? I think I do and I love it,” laughs Amy.
But the story is a little different for NRI actresses. Going into Bollywood is like going back to their roots. Girls grow up watching Bollywood movies, idolise actors, practice all the jhatkas and matkas in front of the mirror and dream of being the next Katrina Kaif.
“No matter where in the world we Indian girls are, a huge part of our identity comes from Bollywood,” says Poorna Jagannathan.
“We are attracted to Indian stories – whether it’s Jhumpa Lahiri or Mira Nair telling them. So naturally, Indian actresses from all over the world want to be part of that narrative. Not to mention the fact that you can act in all the Hollywood movies you want, but your mom will only really be proud of you when you bag a plotless masala film in mainstream Bollywood.”
Also, sometimes a foreign actress is cast in a role solely on the filmmaker’s whim.
“You can’t battle a filmmaker’s ego,” says Chadha. “If he feels a certain girl fits the role, then nothing can stop him.” Gautham Menon, who puts it more subtly, says, “How a filmmaker perceives and develops a character is very intrinsic. When I saw Amy, I knew I wanted her in Ekk Deewana Tha. No other reason.”
If you look at some of the recent choices, it becomes apparent that there is no particular reason why an actress is cast in any role. Sometimes the experiment succeeds, like Giselli Monteiro in Love Aaj Kal, and sometimes it fails, like Nargis Fakhri in Rockstar.
People assumed that Giselli was in fact a Punjabi girl and Imtiaz Ali’s experiment worked. But Nargis Fakhri stuck out like a sore thumb in Rockstar and Imtiaz Ali’s experiment failed.
Of course, there is another important reason why foreign actresses are the flavour du jour in Bollywood. And that has to do with their ‘bold’ moves. Even though Indian actresses have moved away from their pure and pristine avatar, filmmakers still believe that the audience is still more likely to accept a Barbara locking lips with Hrithik Roshan than a Priyanka Chopra.
Also, foreign actresses are less likely to reject films just because it has a bold scene or two or three.
“It’s not as if we are ready to go risqué at the drop of a hat, but yes, I think we are definitely more comfortable in our skin,” explains Yaana Gupta, former model and Bollywood item girl. “I was used to shooting for lingerie catalogues back home and it didn’t make me feel uncomfortable. Abroad, people are much more free and relaxed with their body. So I was very surprised when people said my Babuji song was racy!”
Poorna too agrees that she wouldn’t reject a script on account of its bold scenes. And she had no problems pulling off an onscreen fake orgasm and a scintillating lip lock in Delhi Belly.
Finally, some people think everyone’s making entirely too big a deal about the influx of foreign actresses. For instance, Samrat Solanki, the owner of Tulip Casting Agency in Mumbai.
“Bollywood is one of the biggest film industries in the world and produces some of the finest movies today,” points out Solanki. “Every film industry has foreign imports, so why not Bollywood? Did the media create such hysteria when Freida Pinto, Aishwarya Rai, Anil Kapoor, Gushan Grover and Irrfan Khan worked in Hollywood? I feel that sometimes we act like wide-eyed children who can’t believe that people from across the world would want to work in our industry.”
Now, what else is there to say?
Be kind, rewind
If you turn the clock back, you’ll find that Bollywood has always attracted foreign actresses.Kseniya Ryabinkina:
Raj Kapoor introduced this Russian actress in his 1970 film Mera Naam Joker. Jennifer Kendall:
She starred in Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane in 1981. Shashi Kapoor produced the film, and then married her. Sylvia Miles:
This American actress was seen in the Dharmendra starrer Shalimar in 1978.Zahida Zahira:
This sexy British actress was in Gambler opposite Dev Anand.Zeba Bakhtiyar:
This Pakistani actress starred in box office hit Henna in 1991 opposite Rishi Kapoor.Somy Ali:
One of Salman Khan’s many ex-girlfriends, this Pakistani import started her career in Bollywood with Anth in 1993. Babita:
This Bangladeshi actress got her golden chance in Satyajit Ray’s Asani Sanket.Helen:
This Anglo-Burmese item girl was perhaps the first – and definitely the most well-known firang babe.
Sunny side up
Bollywood’s latest import, Sunny Leone, is no aspiring starlet. She has a full-fledged adult film career and is one of the top porn stars in the world. Now starring in Mahesh Bhatt’s Jism 2, Sunny explains her Indian move.
Was working in Bollywood your big dream?
What went through your head on the flight to India?
Bollywood always intrigued me. I grew up watching Hindi films and I absolutely loved them. Being an actress in Bollywood is every little girl’s dream – to wear those clothes, sing those songs, do those sexy moves. I was no different. But because I am an adult film actress, I never thought people here would accept me. So I didn’t really think of Bollywood seriously.
I was very apprehensive about my safety. What I do in the US is legal, but in India pornography is illegal.
So I had to really weigh my options before coming here. I didn’t want any legal hassles. I was also very worried about political outbursts
because of my background, but luckily nothing happened.
Why did you sign up for Bigg Boss?
I was desperate to be on the show because it’s a challenge for an adult film actress to be seen on a family television channel. And I knew that
if the fans got to know me, they would love me.
Do you feel you are the perfect choice for Jism 2?
When Mahesh Bhatt came to the Bigg Boss house, I didn’t know who he was. But when he offered me the film, I realised what a big name he is in the industry. I am very excited about Jism 2. Have you seen the poster? Wow! The script is really strong and I feel like it’s meant for me. It’s bold and beautiful, just like me.
Would you change anything about your life?
No! Why would I want to change anything about my life? I am not ashamed of being who I am. I love my profession. I am an adult film actress and I have no qualms about it. I express my creativity in a different way. Had I not been a porn star, I wouldn’t be here talking to you. I wouldn’t even get a Bollywood film.
Life as it is
Babuji girl Yaana Gupta was barely 19 when she came to India seeking spiritual guidance at Pune’s Osho ashram. She had been travelling the world for modelling assignments since she was 16, and needed a break. But suddenly, she became beauty company Lakme’s brand ambassador.
“At that time I saw India as a poor country and didn’t think there was any ‘good’ work happening here. I didn’t even know about Bollywood at that time,” recalls Yaana. “But suddenly I became famous. It still seems quite surreal.”
British model Amy Jackson, who started her Indian film career with A L Vijay’s Madrasapattinam also refers to her journey from Liverpool to Mumbai as surreal.
“I was 18 years old and I was going to be a Bollywood actress! I couldn’t believe my luck,” says Amy. But leaving home was nerve wracking.
“When I came to India, I was overwhelmed,” she says.
“I had never seen anything like this before. I didn’t understand the language, the food was too spicy for me, I didn’t understand the mannerisms of the people. It took me a while to settle down. Now I feel I belong to Mumbai.” Amy has learned to speak Hindi – though her British accent remains as strong as ever.
Kingfisher calendar girl Angela Jonsson, who will soon be seen in Sajid Nadiadwala’s Kick opposite Salman Khan, is also working on her Hindi. But ask her to say a line or two in the language and she bursts into nervous laughter. “Don’t put me in a spot!” she says. “I’ll fumble.”
All Bollywood actresses face media pressure. But the foreign girls have it worse. “One thing I realised quickly is that public image is everything in Bollywood,” says Amy. “Not only do you have to look good all the time, but you must sound virtuous as well.”
Poorna Jaggannathan is more candid. “In Bollywood, there’s something called ‘the Kingfisher Syndrome.’ As long as you look like a Kingfisher calendar girl, you’re in demand in Bollywood,” she laughs.
From HT Brunch, January 22
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