Phoren Heroines In Bollywood

How easy is it to get a bit part in a Bollywood flick if you are white? A Salon article, I Was A Bollywood Stuntwoman, provides details:

What unfolds daily, especially now, at the height of the shooting season, is an odd scene where Westerners resemble certain Mexican laborers –- picked up from street corners, without the proper work papers, by shady middlemen who keep a generous dose of a long day's pay for themselves. And yet, being a Bollywood extra is a growing tourist attraction. For most travelers it's a one-time playground, a future freak story to tell over beer. For others, it's the entry to a possible job.

Already, young foreigners -- from film-school graduates to short-skirted women waiting in the lobbies of high-class hotels -- are nibbling at Mumbai's entertainment industry.

Given how desis worship all things fair, I suppose it was inevitable Bollywood would take matters to its logical outcome and try non-desis as heroines proper. From the same article:

The pinnacle of my short but glorious career came a few weeks ago, when the Indian epic "Kisna" opened at theaters around the world, including in the U.S. It was Bollywood's biggest release so far this year, by India's showiest director, Subhash Ghai, and marked a significant step in international relations: The lead actress isn't local, but British and blond. I was her stunt double. On holiday in India, and with no acting experience, I found that the fastest road to filmdom may begin in Mumbai.

Yes, aspiring starlets. Get there now, before the small but savvy number of booby Russian and Bolivian girls, already clutching portfolios, takes over. The average Indian film is a challenge of taste -- "Our biggest problem today is that 90 percent of the films are flopping," Ghai has said -- but it's a mistake to ignore the colorful job market behind them. The Mumbai film industry makes more movies a year than anyone in the world, and the need for non-Indians is growing, especially now: As Bollywood producers see larger chunks of their box office from overseas, they're making more films with foreign faces.

Other than Kisna, Rog was the other film to get on the bandwagon. Here, the filmmakers went one better - they actually tried to pass off the South African model turned actress, Ilene Hamman, as Indian!

So did the audiences buy it? No. Both films did poorly. Now, there can be any number of reasons as to why. However, regarding the foreign heroine angle, here are some thoughts:

  • The trend seems to target heroines, not heroes. In other words, sexist as it is, the gamble is on what Indian men prefer to see on screen. My brother in law had an interesting take on this - he felt Indian men prefer the girl-next-door type of looks the most. Hence, he predicted these films wouldn't succeed. He had a point.
  • Making Bollywood films for mass foreign (read Western) consumption is still a laughable concept. Rather, a big chunk of Indian films receipts come from the overseas NRI audience. One of the reasons the NRI audience is attracted to Bollywood is that it shows brown folks i.e. them on the big screen, doing cool things. It fills a need that doesn't come from the local TV station or multiplex. Having non-desi heroines breaks that arrangement.

There's the curiosity factor of course - but I don't think it's likely to be a regular occurrence. Sure, we'll continue to see phoren extras writhing in the background for the musical numbers, but the foreground is sacrosanct for the short term. How about the long term? As India becomes more cosmopolitan, as more foreigners start living in India, perhaps this will become more acceptable. Then, the "brown is beautiful" movement will no longer be confined to second generation desis, but instead will spread to disenfranchised desi Bollywood actors and actresses!

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- May 7, 2005 8:42 PM // Bollywood