Out of all the possible choices and people in the world Baz Luhrmann chose Amitabh Bachchan to play the role of Jewish gangster in his $127 million summer mega-release The Great Gatsby. The role is more of a presence than anything else but Luhrmann came to Mumbai and offered Bachchan the role in person. Now, Bachchan might be gracious enough to not make much of a cameo, which in his own words is so small that you might miss him if your eyes lingered long enough on your popcorn, but his presence in The Great Gatsby which is headlined by A-List Hollywood names like Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire does somewhere signal a new phase for Indian actors in Hollywood. For a few years now there has been a gradual increase in the presence of Indian faces in mainstream Hollywood films but the thing that might just separate this phase from before is that now it's perhaps normal to see an Indian actor such as Anil Kapoor (24) or Anupam Kher (The Silver Linings Playbook) portraying characters that needn't necessarily be exotic.
Baz Lurhmann's Indian connection goes back a few years when he included Annu Malik's Chamma Chamma in the soundtrack of Moulin Rouge but Hollywood's first Indian contact was someone that we have long forgotten. Sabu Dastagir, the star of films like Thief of Bagdad, Jungle Book and Arabian Nights was born in India to a mahout and went on to become a Hollywood star in the 1940s. The first Indian export to Hollywood in the right sense of the word, Sabu became a US citizen and even served in the US Army but his roles were largely limited to playing the exotic creature. Things would have changed for Indians when it came to Hollywood films had Dilip Kumar accepted David Lean's offer to play Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia, the role that made Omar Sharif into a global star. Apparently Dilip Kumar didn't want to play the second fiddle and while it's certain that his life wouldn't have changed as much as Omar Sharif's, who till then was an unknown Egyptian actor, it would have created an atmosphere where Hollywood couldn't look beyond Peter Sellers playing Hrundi V.
Bakshi in The Party or Sir Alec Guinness and his atrocious accent for Professor Godbole in A Passage to India. It might have just given Richard Attenborough enough gall to go ahead with Naseeruddin Shah as the Mahatma in Gandhi. Yes, there was a Shashi Kapoor in Merhcant-Ivory productions, a Kabir Bedi in TV shows like Sandokan, Dynasty and General Hospital besides films like Octopussy and Persis Kambata in Star Trek but they were largely summoned to play very specific foreign characters. Even till early 2000s for Indians it was still about playing an exotic Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) or lampooning the desi with Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle with a very personal The Namesake nestled in between. Things really changed for Indian actors with the success of Slumdog Millionaire, a film that neatly divides Hollywood's love for Indian actors in a 'Before' and 'After' phase. Following Slumdog Millionaire Frieda Pinto, Dev Patel and even Anil Kapoor have made it possible for Hollywood to look at Indians playing ordinary everyday characters. Pinto has managed to get cast in films where she isn't expected to play an Indian like in The Rise of the Planet of the Apes; she is getting the same treatment that a Salma Hayek got in the initial stages of her career and Patel with his stint on television's The Newsroom has made it fine for important characters to be 'Indian'. Like Frieda Pinto Anil Kapoor being an Indian didn't matter for the producers of 24.
But it is really time for Hollywood's great Indian act? Well, not yet. The success, and more importantly, the acceptance of Life of Pi by the American audiences is the second step in the India - Hollywood romance but the it's still a long way before you could see an Indian actor on an Antonio Banderas like ride. Had Life of Pi been in any other language and didn't have an Asian, especially an Indian protagonist, the lead would have in all likelihood notched up an Academy award nomination or the Best Actor. The film grossed over $600 million worldwide and got eleven Oscar nominations but Suraj Sharma, who practically carried the entire film on his shoulders was sidelined by the Academy. In spite of everything there are more silver linings to be happy about in the present scenario. It's very rare for Asian stars like Beat Takeshi (Brother), Jackie Chan, Gong Li (Memoirs of a Geisha), Ken Watanabe (Letters from Iwo Jima) or Zhang Ziyi (Rush Hour) and Jet Li to break the stereotype but when compared Anupam Kher's Dr. Patel, psychiatrist in The Silver Linings Playbook and Irrfan's Rajit Ratha need not be an necessarily be Indians. And Pinto doesn't have to suffer on the account of a Salma Hayekesque accent! Some years ago the thought of Amitabh Bachchan playing Meyer Wolfsheim wouldn't have crossed anyone's mind and even if it did it would, at best, be an exotic idea. Now such a thing is an exciting prospect and that says something nice about the road ahead.