Pale Horse, Pale Actor

Bollywood is fast becoming a new kind of outsourcing destination for the western world: pale flesh. Casting agents are scouring the region to find foreigners for movies requiring international locales, themes and sets.

As these movies require sizeable casts of Caucasoid characters for their imaginary discotheques, British soldiers in period films and Hare Krishna converts, production crews are zeroing in on anyone remotely filling the bill.

That is increasingly including a flock of beauties of indeterminate nationality and ethnic background. Katrina Kaif, a fast-rising starlet who has achieved considerable success in the three years since her debut, has a Kashmiri Muslim father and an English mother. Barbara Mori, of Uruguayan-Japanese and Mexican descent, is starring opposite to Hrithik Roshan in “Kites.” Tania Zaetta is an Australian who earlier appeared in “Baywatch” and “Who Dares Wins” and is now starring in Hindi movies. Yana Gupta is a Czech.

Other sourcing countries for these part-time actors are Pakistan, Bangladesh, Czech Republic, Norway, South Africa, Serbia, US, Britain and Thailand. Many Indians raised abroad too are looking to Bollywood as a passport to fame.

Recent Hindi potboilers entirely set abroad include latest release the Dostana and earlier Salaam Namaste, Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, Kal Ho Na Ho, among others, catering to the growing financial muscle and numbers of ready to pay Indians crazy for Hindi movies abroad and a clutch of foreigners.

“With globalization and the Indian diaspora scattered globally, along with the increase in travel and business, the plots of Indian films have been internationalized and thus require western characters,” Joel Lee, an aspiring Bollywood actor who is in India on a scholarship, told local media.

Many like Lee, on a study visa to India, work part time in Bollywood, having found they can make extra money as either extras or in minor roles, including speaking bits. Given the rising numbers that dot the screen, tax authorities have begun to rope in such foreigners. Earlier, working on tourist visas, they avoided paying the government.

“Bollywood in the last three to four years has seen a surge of foreigners joining the industry because of a change in perception that it is not down-market at all and western actors have started taking it seriously, film analyst Taran Adarsh said.

The names of other foreign one-film wonders include actors Rachel Shelly and Tobey Stephens, who starred in Oscar-nominated Hindi blockbuster “Lagaan”, Lena Christensen in “Bombay to Bangkok”, Alice Patten from “Rang De Basanti”, Annabelle Wallace in ``Dil Jo Bhi Kahe”, Brande Roderick’s in “Out of Control”, Ali Larter from “Marigold”, and Eleanor Glynn in “India Rocks”.

It is the exposure and an opportunity to diversify their acting portfolios at the beginning of their careers (akin to what some young management executives do to get a taste of emerging India in their business portfolios) that attracts some young foreign actors, even when the roles in Hindi films are small and limiting.

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Certainly, the Indian film movie is nothing if not hyperactive, providing considerable opportunity for those seeking a niche in the movie business. According to the website Wikipedia, in 2003, the last year cited, Bollywood produced a staggering 877 feature films, most of them racy and lavish musicals, and another 1,177 shorts. India is said to account for 73 percent of all the movie admissions in the entire Asia-Pacific region, drawing as many as a billion moviegoers every three months. Given the abundance of opportunity, scale, varied audiences, budgets, the attraction to Bollywood is likely to continue unabated for some time.

“Bollywood is the most happening industry at this moment in the world and I am more than glad to come and settle here in Mumbai,” said the Australian Tania Zanetta. “Something which I can do is dance to these songs that are hugely popular among the masses.”

Of those who attain superstardom, only Katrina Kaif among the foreigners has been repeatedly cast and considered among the top three, in a rapid and fragile numbers game that can change overnight. Despite language barriers – and many say acting ability barriers as well – her mega-hits include “Humko Deewana Kar Gaye”, “Singh Is King”, “Race” and “Welcome”, “Namaste London”.

“With good looks, great body language and constant improvement, hard work and a careful choice of films and roles, Katrina’s film career has been on a steady incline,” says filmmaker Vipul Amrutlal Shah. Her boyfriend, acting star Salman Khan, has also helped.

However, some have a different take about fair-skinned thespians in Bollywood. Reports suggest that Indian filmmakers face a continuous dilemma with the censor board’s cutting and banning of skin-shows. Indian actors often refuse to shoot potentially career destroying scenes, meaning the answer is sought in the casting of whites.

There is an impression that more liberal Westerners with not much at stake with the local community in terms of family, image and reputation are willing to shed more clothing than most Indians. Thus directors of many B-Grade Hindi movies have been using foreign actors at lower prices and with fewer inhibitions to appear in steamy roles.

Industry mavens like S. Vijayan, the general secretary of the All India Film Employees Confederation, the Indian equivalent of Screen Actors Guild, however, say that work exists for anyone who is willing to work hard, whether fair or dark skinned.

So the Bollywood juggernaut continues to roll, sometimes albeit with a fairer tinge.

(Priyanka Bhardwaj is a journalist based in New Delhi. She can be reached at priyanka2508@yahoo.co.in)