It's a balmy Monday night on Hollywood Boulevard and a straggle of tourists trample over the pink stars on the Walk of Fame, distracted by another kind of talent altogether. Fashionable women walk amid the usual mishmash of homeless, hipsters and happening execs. Mid-block, at the eatery Katsuya, a music booker with long blonde locks and a would-be rapper sit side by side, in a typical Hollywood scene. But this night belongs to Bollywood.
A few doors down, the same photographers who hovered here recently snapping the W director Oliver Stone wait patiently for the premiere of the all-singing, all-dancing cross-cultural comedy Bollywood Hero - the boldest Indian-themed entertainment extravaganza to arrive on Hollywood's doorstep since Slumdog Millionaire walked away with eight Oscars at the nearby Kodak Theatre. The new IFC mini-series stars the Saturday Night Live comedian Chris Kattan, who plays a facsimile of himself, a down-on-his-luck Hollywood actor who heads to Mumbai for a promised role in the Bollywood musical Peculiar Dancing Boy.
Kattan is best known for a series of comedy sketches involving a character named Mango on SNL, but to win his colleagues' approval in Mumbai, he must prove that he can sing and dance. "The whole joke is that I think I can do this," said Kattan. "An American thinks he can sing and dance, Indian-style." In the show, he makes such a hash of it that he is fired upon arrival and wanders the streets dancing in the slums of Mumbai before being taken back into the fold by an imposing grandmother who declares he looks more like a monkey than a leading man.
The producers Belisa Balaban and Ted Skillman of the company Snackaholic wanted to make a comedy based on the story of a real-life actor. Kattan was game for the role, although he was somewhat coy at the premiere about how much of his life he brought to bear on Bollywood Hero. "I wanted to incorporate my personal story, but at the same time you have to remember that this is entertainment, so you can't be too personal," he said.
Balaban and Skillman first contacted Kattan upon his return from a month travelling in India. "Chris really took the leap with us and didn't hold back on his own backstory and his own dream," Balaban said. "He really brought stories from his life to Bollywood Hero." Attendees at the premiere included Pooja Kumar, a former Miss India USA, who plays Kattan's producer in Mumbai. "Bollywood Hero is a revolutionary project," she said. "India has been portrayed in a negative way in films like Slumdog, and this series shows it as romantic, colourful and funny. I'm really thankful to the producers for showing that side of India, and I don't know of any other project that combines Bollywood and Hollywood in this way."
The British actor Julian Sands also bounded in and brightened up the room in a sharp linen suit. Sands plays Kattan's blonde father, flushed with the Mumbai sun. "I just loved the craziness and joie de vivre of shooting in Mumbai," he said. "My agent had thought I should hang around and wait for pilot season to begin, but I thought, 'Are you kidding, I have an offer to go to India'. And the character meant a lot to me. He's an older actor on the run from Interpol."
Bollywood Hero first came into media focus following the Slumdog Millionaire Oscar sweep in February, when it was announced that the series would use some of the Slumdog team from the production company Take One, and the choreographer Longinus Fernandes, who created the dance scene to AR Rahman's song Jai Ho. Several Slumdog alumni collaborated on the series, including the producer Tabrez Noorani, the assistant director Raj Acharya and the second assistant directors, Udayan Baijal and Sonia Nemawarkar.
But the series was in the works long before Oscar night. "I would love to think that we were that clever as to capitalise so fast on the timing," said Skillman. "We had sold the project to IFC around three years ago and it has been percolating for quite a while. We hired the Slumdog team long ago. They had told us they were working on a film they were afraid wouldn't get distribution, by Danny Boyle. It was Slumdog Millionaire."
Produced in Mumbai on a tight budget - "Shooting in India allowed us to get 10 times the production value we would have done in Hollywood," said Balaban - Bollywood Hero began filming shortly after the Mumbai attacks last October. It prompted some high-level officials in India to ask Skillman not to shoot in the city. "This made us only want to do it more," he said, adding that he hopes Bollywood Hero will help dispel misconceptions some Americans still hold about India. "We thought this was an important show for the American public to see, an American going to India and opening his eyes to the world. There are a lot of assumptions about India, that it is poor and colourful. When you spend time there, you see it in a different light."
After the 10-week shoot, which took place in a number of studios around Mumbai and involved hundreds of extras for the musical numbers, Balaban remained convinced they had made the right choice with Kattan. "He certainly made the cut as the leading man of our show," she said. "Chris had such an infectious enthusiasm and so much talent. It was such an experience to work with him. You had to be on your best form to keep up," said Kumar. "He worked so hard to master our Bollywood dances and was so dedicated. It was a life-changing experience working with him."
After the show, which airs this month in the US, the Bollywood Hero legacy should live on in several ways. IFC has programmed a weekly Wake Up to Bollywood series on Sunday mornings, showing the best of Hindi cinema, to complement the mini-series. The line-up includes Sagar Ballary's Bollywood farce, Bheja Fry; Ram Gopal Varma's The Godfather homage, Sarkar; and Kidnap, the Bollywood remake of Ransom.
Skillman and Kattan, meanwhile, spent much of the premiere gathering donations for Project Crayons, an eight-year-old charity set up in Los Angeles to support children on the streets of Mumbai. Otherwise known as the Udaan Ghar project, the charity runs a home for around 50 girls in distress in Mumbai. Further, donations can be made at www.thesamburuproject.org. Meanwhile, other, real-life Hollywood actors are following Kattan's example and trying their luck in Bollywood.
Ben Kingsley can be seen in th forthcoming Bollywood film Teen Patti, which is a remake of the Hollywood film 21. "There are persistent rumours about Hollywood actors in Bollywood," said Skillman, adding that Will Smith's name has come up frequently since he sang on Indian Idol and then met with the actor-producer Anil Kapoor and the actress Aishwarya Rai. Snoop Dogg had a cameo role and performed the lead song in last year's Bollywood film Singh Is Kinng. And earlier this month, an all-star Bollywood-Hollywood cast could be seen in Incredible Love, a film about a Bollywood stunt man who travels to Hollywood. The cast includes Sylvester Stallone and Brandon Routh.
"Of course, Mumbai is different to shooting inside the Hollywood bubble," said Kattan. "But it was a great opportunity to leave one's ego behind. I had fun. And I thought the idea was fresh and original."