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When Bolly Meets Holly?

April 2004
When Bolly Meets Holly?

It's the lure of the irresistible. Western �lan drawn to the earthy seductiveness of the Indian sub-continent. For every Indian living outside India, there's a tiny Bollywood zone in his psyche that he loves to nurture. And for every Bollywood icon, there's a tiny bit of Hollywood that he longs to conquer. ?And never shall the twain meet' couldn't be more off the mark. Increasingly, Bolly does meet Holly and vice versa?and boy are they reeling from the impact?


Last year, during the second Indian Film Festival in Atlanta, the award-winning Bollywood Bound was screened at the High Museum of Art. With both humor and sympathy, this cinema verite-style documentary captures the struggles of young Indo-Canadians who are trying to become stars in the glitzy, frenetic world of Indian cinema, endearingly and popularly known as Bollywood. This, the largest film industry on the planet, churns out about 800 movies annually. Reportedly, these movies reach a staggering 3.6 billion people around the planet.

It is not just the young desis from the West who are so smitten by Bollywood. References are on the rise of Hollywood also courting it actively. "India is in vogue now," said veteran Ismail Merchant in a phone interview with Khabar. "America is now focusing on us because we have established a certain name. Indian actors can act and can be compared to any Hollywood star. This is now in the consciousness of Hollywood producers." Giving the upcoming opening of Bombay Dreams on Broadway as an example, he added, "All this is really generating greater interest in the art and talent of India for the international market."

Merchant, not surprisingly, has been long considered the most distinguished Indian film producer in the West. As he noted, "I was successful with my very first film, The Creation of Woman, which was nominated for an Oscar in 1961." The renowned Merchant-Ivory team, which also includes the writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, is listed in the Guinness World Records for having the longest film collaboration in history, and it has produced movies that have enjoyed both critical acclaim and box office success ? movies such as A Room With A View, Howards End and The Remains of the Day.

It is interesting to note this Hollywood icon was first infected with the bug of filmdom in the dreamy world of Indian cinema when he was a thirteen-year-old boy who happened to accompany the then famous starlet Nimmi to the premiere of her film Barsaat. As they drove towards the cinema, a shower of marigolds rained on them. It seemed to young Ismail as though the marigolds were showering upon them from the night sky. Everyone was calling out Nimmi's name. "If this is what the film world is like, then I want to be a part of it," resolved the star-struck youngster. And so was the Bollywood birth of a Hollywood legend.

With their larger-than-life canvases, other-worldly glamour, a glorious heritage, and a prolific production that results in hundreds of movies per year, both these film industries were destined to tango. While the neo cinephile may think of this as a later day trend, it's one that has had quite a history if not the breadth of the current times.

A rocky start

Some of the earliest Indian references in Hollywood did not end in the proverbial tinsel-town happy ending. For example, take Sabu, who was the first Indian actor to make it big in Hollywood way back in 1937. His rise to stardom as a child from a humble background is a remarkable story, but many of the films he acted in are now disparaged for having perpetuated stereotypes about India. As a stable boy for the Maharaja of Mysore, Sabu saw his life change dramatically after he was cast in Elephant Boy. Other successful films ? including The Jungle Book in 1942 and Song of India in 1949 ? made him wealthy and famous at a young age. Tragically, there was an abrupt reversal of fortune after he got involved in bad business deals, and he was barely forty when he had a fatal heart attack.

Persis Khambatta, the first Indian actress to gain recognition in Hollywood, also had a rather sad ending. After winning the Miss India title in 1965, she began acting in Hindi films. In a largely pre-television India, her success in Hollywood ? though limited ? attracted much attention because it was seen as a major breakthrough for an Indian actress. In addition to playing the part of Lt. Aliea in Star Trek (1979), she acted in films such as Nighthawks and The Wilby Conspiracy. But when her career did not progress beyond mediocre roles in minor films, Khambatta became disillusioned with Hollywood and returned to India for good, but was seldom offered more than one role a year. In 1998, when she was just forty-nine, Khambatta died suddenly after suffering a massive heart attack. This premature death in the same manner is an odd yet compelling fact that links the first male and female Indian stars of Hollywood.

For a long time, with a few exceptions, Bollywood stars did not try to cross over to Hollywood. Perhaps many of them, being quite happy and comfortable in their own world, saw no reason to make the attempt. One famous example was Dilip Kumar, who apparently turned down a part in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. Subsequently, Omar Shariff was picked to play the role in that epic film.

Only a little later did they make inroads in Western films. "Shashi Kapoor was given the lead part in Universal Pictures' A Matter of Innocence in 1967," Merchant said. "Then he also played a lead role in Siddharta, which was based on Hermann Hesse's novel." Om Puri (see box for interview) is another important actor who belongs to this exclusive club.

A relationship blossoms

In the early 1980s, a turning point in some ways, there was an upsurge of interest in India among Westerners. First came Rushdie's groundbreaking novel, Midnight's Children, which ? after it won the Booker Prize in 1981 and became an international bestseller ? thrust open the door for Indian writing in English. Then, the following year, Richard Attenborough's eagerly awaited Gandhi won an astonishing nine Oscars, including the major awards. Other films featuring India or Indian themes in that decade included (in no particular order) A Passage to India, Octopussy, The Far Pavillions, Heat and Dust, The Deceivers, Kim, and The Jewel in the Crown. Not all were successful and there were critics who deplored the excessive nostalgia for the British Raj in some of the films.

In a rapidly globalizing world, the entertainment industry is also changing in many ways. Indian cinema has certainly become more Western in its approach, and nowadays films are routinely shot in foreign countries. On the other hand, even Bollywood has generated interest in the West. One can point to Moulin Rouge (staring Nicole Kidman) as a recent example of Bollywood's influence ? bold colors, elaborate sets, and song-and-dance routines.

The nomination of Lagaan for an Academy Award in 2002, and the growing popularity of directors such as Mira Nair and Gurinder Chadha show that Indian talent is starting to find a place in mainstream West. It's also not uncommon to see Hindi or Indian-themed Indie movies in video-rental stores here.

Last year, in fact, Britain submitted a Hindi film entitled The Warrior for an Oscar nomination in the foreign film category. This saga by Asif Kapadia is set in feudal India, and although it won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the movie was rejected by the Academy because Hindi is not an official language of Britain.

So, perhaps, it's not surprising to learn that Hollywood and Bollywood are coming together to make Marigold in two versions ? English and Hindi. Featuring Salman Khan and Alison Larter (of the $200 million grossing Final Destination), this film is being made by Willard Carroll for Hyperion Pictures. Tom Wilhite, the president of Hyperion, sees the production as "a turning point in the evolution of a truly global entertainment cinema." Sidharth Jain, an India-based VP at the company, points out that "many top movie people in India are eager to work on this project" since "they see it as an opportunity to finally present a positive view of Bollywood to the West."

What's more, it is the established Bollywood names that are starting to find a place in Western films. Minor roles such as Rahul Khanna's in the recent Emperor's Club (starring Kevin Kline) are many. More exciting, though, are the forays of none other than Ms. Bollywood herself, Aishwarya Rai. Besides playing the lead role of Mumtaz Mahal in an upcoming IMAX epic called Taj Mahal, Rai has also been cast in other films such as Singularity, Chaos and Mr. Surprises. A recent Times of India headline says it all, "Ash to create Chaos in America". Along with Meryl Streep, Rai has a key role as a prostitute in Chaos that is expected to test her talent rather than glamorize her looks. In Mr. Surprises, her co-star could be Keanu Reeves, though it hasn't been confirmed yet.

As is evident in the above roles of Aishwarya Rai, Indian artists are no longer good only for their Indian roots. Sparingly, but surely, they are global players making a mark for their innate capabilities in filmdom rather than for their "Indianness". Such is the case of Shekhar Kapur, a Bollywood veteran and another notable director, who became better known in the West after his 1998 film Elizabeth (starring Cate Blanchett) received seven Oscar nominations.

What's striking about all these films (and here one could add others such as Gurinder Chadha's What's Cooking? and Deepa Mehta's The Republic of Love) is that none of them have Indian themes or characters. Even Vidhu Vinod Chopra, who was firmly planted in Bollywood so far, is making a thriller in English (Move 5) that will feature Western characters in a North American setting.

Yet at the same time, it's interesting to note, these directors also tap into their roots to serve as ambassadors of the culture while also bridging the gap between Western and Indian films. "What is important is to put ourselves and our stories on screen, people who are from the other half of the globe," Mira Nair told Outlook magazine. Merchant noted, "We've never turned away from India whether we had a huge success or a huge failure. Those are my roots. But as a filmmaker I go wherever my passion takes me."

In a rare departure from movies, Nair is planning to bring a staged version of Monsoon Wedding to New York. After Bombay Dreams, this $10-million production will be the second ?Indian' show to appear on Broadway. Moreover, she plans to do a film based on Hari Kunzru's The Impressionist. Britain-based Gurinder Chadha is at present completing the cleverly named Bride and Prejudice, which has been described as an Indian take on Jane Austen's classic novel. With Aishwarya Rai as the star attraction, this eagerly anticipated film from Mirimax is sure to have broad appeal both in India and the West.

Does Character Matter?

Ironically, despite Hollywood's glamour, it's the so-called ?character' actors of Indian cinema who have found the most success in Western movies. These stars, with their wide range and emphasis on serious acting, generally became well known after excelling in art-house films. This is certainly true of Om Puri since, in recent years, perhaps no other Indian actor has achieved greater prominence in the West. His early roles in the films of Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani attracted considerable attention. Then he got his first big break in Hollywood with City of Joy, which also featured Shabana Azmi, who'd already made an impression in the late John Schleisinger's Madame Sousatzka. Although City of Joy generated controversy in India, Puri won rave reviews for his performance in the Western media, and he hasn't looked back since then. His other Hollywood movies include Wolf and The Ghost and the Darkness, and he has also carved out a niche for himself in British cinema, most notably as a South Asian immigrant in East is East and My Son the Fanatic.

Increasingly, this creative cross-fertilization between the East and the West produces compelling hybrid films that can attract more diverse audiences. Bend It Like Beckham, with its seamless interweaving of Indian and British cultures in contemporary England, is a good example.

Sometimes, however, it can also lead to a less-successful film like The Guru. Occasionally, if the actor takes on a stereotypical role, the result can be unfortunate. Naseerudin Shah as Captain Nemo in the unsuccessful League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a case in point. This great actor's gifts are wasted in a film that "has these silly Indian clich�s thrown all over." Thankfully, though, a movie like Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, with its monkey-brain-eating Indians, has become the rare exception.

Given their abundant talent, these actors ? who seem to straddle both worlds with effortless ease ? are most effective when they portray complex, fully rounded characters.

Indian-Americans: The Matchmakers

The proliferation of Indian-Americans in various aspects of filmmaking and acting further facilitates this fascinating transfusion between the Indian and Western entertainment industries.

Cineastes have been aware of Mira Nair since the 1980s; but it was the spectacular success of Monsoon Wedding that really catapulted her to a new level of visibility, turning her into one of the best-known Indian directors in the West. A division of Universal Pictures is getting ready to release Vanity Fair, her newest Hollywood venture. Based on Thackeray's panoramic novel about nineteenth-century England, the movie cost $23 million and it features proven stars like Bob Hoskins and Reese Witherspoon. When filmmakers such as Nair gain such a foothold in the local industry, possibilities for Indian themes and influences in mainstream movies are bound to go up, as was the case with Monsoon Wedding.

Even M. Night Shyamalan, whose top-grossing films such as the box-office blockbuster The Sixth Sense seem so quintessentially American, cannot resist the pull of his Indian heritage. His next project is a film based on Yann Martel's Life of Pi, a best-selling novel that won the Man Booker Prize in 2002. It's an allegorical tale involving a boy named Pi Patel, who, after the ship carrying him and his family gets wrecked, embarks on an extraordinary journey in the company of a fierce Bengal tiger. Pondicherry, the protagonist's hometown, must have been an added attraction because Shyamalan was born there.

What is further cementing the East-West connection in the world of entertainment is prime-time TV ? often regarded as an even larger precursor of popular culture. Sonia Nikore, the VP of casting at NBC, who grew up in Atlanta where her parents still live, shed some light on the increasing South Asian infusion. Just ten years ago, when Nikore was doing a massive search for a South Asian to play the lead in a Disney movie, only about fifty actors showed up for an open call in New York. "Now there is such a surge of young South Asian talent coming up ? both in front of the camera and behind the camera," she remarked. "A good example is the Nevermind Nirvana pilot we're doing now at NBC. At the open call in LA two weeks ago, we had a turnout of over two hundred and fifty people."

Indian-Americans from the second generation are much more assimilated and they're opting for non-traditional careers such as TV and films in increasing numbers. Nikore observes that desi talent is no longer stuck with just stock characters such as "the taxicab drivers and the 7/11 owners." She added, "An obvious example is Parminder Nagra in E.R. There she's playing a smart, articulate three-dimensional character."

One sign of the increasing visibility of Indians in show business is a resource site called Hollywood Masala, which was started by Kiran Rao, an actress and writer who was born in India. As the interactive website notes, "Hollywood Masala's actors membership provides talent with the edge they need to market themselves effectively." For a small monthly fee, aspiring actors and others can have their profiles posted on the site, and they can also get information on auditions around the country.

Another strong indication of this involvement is the rapid growth of what can be called the Indo-American Indie movement. These low-budget movies, which are sometimes made by, and feature amateurs, are usually family dramas and comedies that revolve around Indian-Americans. In many of these Indies, the humor-driven plots arise from the cultural interplay between first and second generation Indian-Americans, or ? to use contemporary lingo ? between young ABCDs and FOBs. Films such as American Desi, American Chai and Where's the Party Yaar? appeal mainly to the Indian diaspora, and they don't have the cachet of mainstream Indies; but that will probably change over time.

Nikore named Kal Penn (also known as Kalpen Modi) as an example of a rising second-generation actor who's doing well in more than one medium. Not only has Penn appeared in TV sitcoms (he has the lead role in NBC's Nevermind Nirvana) and Indo-American Indies, but he's also acting in mainstream comedies. He's the co-star in an upcoming film about twenty-somethings called Harold and Kumar Go To Whitecastle, and he has a role in the sequel to The Mask.

Kal is also acting in Inmates of the Heart, a new Indie being produced by Houston-based Rakesh Vij. What's intriguing about the film, which stars Oscar-winning Louise Fletcher, is that this enterprising first-time producer is investing his own money ($2 million) to realize his dream. His passion and determination show that there are many possible routes to Hollywood if one has the talent and is willing to take a chance. Vij and his son have started their own film company called Luminous Galaxy Productions.

Yet another name worth mentioning is Jay Chandrasekhar, a second-generation actor and filmmaker whose forte is comedy. At Colgate University in the late 1980s, Chandrasekhar and four of his friends started a comedy group named Broken Lizard, which over time evolved into an independent film troupe. Super Troopers, Chandrasekhar's second film as actor and director, features all the members of his group, and it became a surprise hit after being picked up at the Sundance Film Festival. Now based in Hollywood, Jay is coming out with his newest movie called Broken Lizard's Club Dread.

Like the Indian-Canadians in Bollywood Bound, some young people from this continent will continue to go to India, especially if they cannot resist the pull of Indian popular culture. Such trends amidst a population that traverses with ease between both Bollywood and Hollywood are sure to further cement and grow this partnership.

Enjoyed reading Khabar magazine? Subscribe to Khabar and get a full digital copy of this Indian-American community magazine.

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