After spending years trying to crack the Hollywood firmament, Bollywood actors have finally started shining in the American film industry.
Anil Kapoor will appear in the next enactment of the Mission Impossible franchise while Irrfan Khan has bagged a ‘major role’ in the next Spiderman film. Part of the reason for the momentum gathered by the Hindi film industry’s veterans is finally plugging in to the Hollywood network, with entertainment agencies, led by the Beverly Hills-based Brillstein Entertainment Partners or BEP, getting into the act.
Irrfan Khan has benefited from Brillstein’s efforts, having gained not just the Spiderman part, but also roles in the Life of Pi film based on the bestselling novel by Canadian Yann Martel, to be directed by Ang Lee, and the HBO series In Treatment.
Jai Khanna, a partner at Brillstein who represents Khan, says that he’s focused on “creating this open channel” between the two film industries.
Formed in 1969, Brillstein is a Hollywood powerhouse that represents stars such as Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler and Brad Pitt. In fact, it is also involved in the production of movies such as The Departed and television serials such as The Sopranos and does films for Brad Pitt’s Plan B company.
Of course, while Brillstein may be the first to have adopted an institutional approach towards Bollywood, others have helped some stars go truly global.
For instance, AR Rahman captured America’s imagination partly due to the efforts of the Burbank, California-based Gorfaine/Schwartz, which specialises in representing composers, musicians, and songwriters. As Sulekh Suman, president of Anhad Inc, a film marketing and distribution company based in Hollywood, says, “Representation is key. AR Rahman has become the most recognisable Indian talent in Hollywood with consecutive Oscar nominations.”
Freida Pinto figured in Woody Allen’s You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, plays a Palestinian in Miral and has been cast with the likes of James Franco in Rise of the Apes. Pinto is represented by Hylda Queally, a motion picture talent agent with the Hollywood-based Creative Artists Agency or CAA. Queally’s roster includes Kate Winslet and Penelope Cruz.
Interestingly, each of those who have made recent strides into Hollywood — Irrfan Khan, Anil Kapoor, AR Rahman and Freida Pinto — had something to do with Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Beyond that ecosystem, directors like Shekhar Kapoor and Tarsem Singh, both part of the CAA stable, have gained recognition.
Khanna is convinced that talent in India cannot be limited. An official Brillstein release put its venture in perspective: “Khanna heads up BEP’s new efforts to explore the Indian market by signing select clients including Irrfan Khan and Hrithik Roshan as well as developing a number of films to be shot in India.”
While there are limited instances of Indians actors like Aishwarya Rai and the Slumdog set gaining a profile in the United States, with the growing global visibility of Bollywood, and of Indian-Americans in American society, this may just be the beginning of a new phase of discovery.
Behram Shahparast, a New York-based film consultant, says that the cross-pollination of ideas and actors and films was bound to happen. “As the South Asian population in North America and across the world grows we are bound to see more and more representation in all forms of media here,” he says.
“Just 20 years ago we hardly saw an African-American in ads or on TV, or making films. As more mainstream Americans first accept South Asian actors in the roles of doctors, businessmen and most importantly, as their neighbour, we will see a healthy upswing in this trend.”
Bollywood’s megastars started eyeing the American market seriously just last year. Aamir Khan courted the New York media and appeared at the Sundance Film Festival, both for his production, Peepli Live.
Meanwhile, Shah Rukh Khan even rang the bell at the Nasdaq stock exchange in Times Square, while an international version of My Name is Khan (MNIK) was released in a handful of American theaters.
They can obviously sense the possibilities. After all their films, 3 Idiots and MNIK, grossed $6.5 million and $4 million, respectively, at the North American box office, shattering the previous record of $3.6 million for Om Shanti Om. The bottomline is that realisation had dawned that an audience exists for Bollywood actors.
It’s not just actors but also India itself that is part of the new Brillstein strategy. Other than producing films such as Eat Pray Love and Shantaram, others projects in the pipeline include River of Gods, based on the book by Ian McDonald, which will be set in a futuristic India. They will also produce Hope Lost — an underworld battle between good and evil — a crossover between the Matrix and Hindu mythology.
Aseem Chhabra, festival director of the New York Indian Film Festival, believes that the involvement of Brillstein can only prove ‘beneficial.’ “All Hollywood stars have agents and managers. But this is something that gets blurred in India,” he says. “Brillstein act as advisors, something that will help the actors.”
So could the taxing shooting schedules of Bollywood actors and the lack agents hurt the prospects of Indian actors in Hollywood? As Shahparast points out, “Currently there are only a few Indian film actors with Hollywood aspirations who are approaching agents and managers and trying to assimilate into the structured form of business here.”
Bollywood veteran, Pooja Batra, who runs her own casting agency in Los Angeles, is among those who have seen the potential this sector offers.
So Batra has also set up shop in Mumbai. And Brillstein’s Khanna also makes pitstops at Mumbai’s filmdom. and he says, “We want to find potential opportunities for Indian actors, producers, even financiers in America and that is what we are strategizing through are initiatives.”