x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Bollywood's foreign stars

An increasing number of female Bollywood stars are from outside India.

The Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone was born in Denmark. AFP
The Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone was born in Denmark. AFP

Kaleem Aftab looks at why there are so many non-Indian Bollywood actresses

The director Imtiaz Ali seems to have a habit of choosing leading ladies born outside of India. His latest film, Rockstar, stars Nargis Fakhri, a New York model with a Pakistani father and Czech mother. In his movie Love Aaj Kal, released in 2009, he gave the Brazilian actress Giselli Monteiro a leading role.

Whereas Fakhri had to learn Hindi once she was given the part in Rockstar, Monteiro in Love Aaj Kal had to have her lines dubbed, which seemed to suggest employing foreign stars was some kind of novelty. But in Bollywood, at least where actresses are concerned, nothing sets you up better for being a star than having been born on foreign shores.

Arguably the most popular actress in Bollywood right now is Katrina Kaif. The 27-year-old star of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Singh is Kinng is the most-searched for Bollywood star on Google. Born in Hong Kong, the actress has an English mother and Indian father. She was first discovered as a 14-year-old while living in Hawaii, where she began her modelling career. She continued working as a model in London as well. Branching out as an actress was difficult at first, due to her weak command of Hindi.

Modelling is the occupation that connects Monteiro, Fakhri and Kaif. One of the reasons directors like putting foreign actresses in major roles is that they are less fearful of showing skin and doing intimate scenes on film. The cultural constraints that inhibit actresses born in India do not apply to these foreign imports. Historically, foreign stars were given only minor roles, but now they have moved centre stage. Also, the Hindu caste system always saw the entertainment industry as a job that is the preserve of the lower caste and this has always been given as an explanation for the large number of Muslim stars in Bollywood cinema. Yet to just put it down to a willingness to exhibit oneself in front of a camera misses other, more salient reasons as to why directors like to employ foreign actors. Bollywood, like Hollywood, is essentially a business and the producers in both industries have realised that it pays handsomely to create a product for a global audience. For one thing, this brings in audiences from other countries, but mostly, it helps bring in finance.

Rockstar was partly shot in the Czech Republic and the Czech government weighed in with some huge incentives to get the filmmakers to choose the capital Prague for several pivotal scenes. The fact that Fakhri has a Czech mother in real life could only have helped with getting this casting list. Another option might have been Yana Gupta, better known as Yaana. The actress does look more eastern European than Fakhri and made her way into Bollywood films after marrying the Indian artist Satyakam Gupta, whom she divorced in 2008.

The same is true of Hollywood. The Canadian director David Cronenberg, whose film A Dangerous Method was about the psychoanalysts Freud and Jung and screened at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, admitted that like most movies, the casting was done based on nationality.

Yet it remains remarkable just how many of Bollywood's latest leading ladies are from foreign shores. The 26-year-old actress Jacqueline Fernandez, the star of Aladdin and Murder 2, was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in Bahrain. She studied in Australia at the University of Sydney before returning to Sri Lanka where she became Miss Sri Lanka in 2006.

Similarly, the 26-year-old Om Shanti Om star Preeti Desai from Middlesbrough and the 24-year-old Essex-born Bodyguard star Hazel Keech both grew up in the UK, where Bollywood films enjoy big box office returns. Keech was born Rose Dawn to an English father and Indian mother. She went to Mumbai on holiday at age 18 and never returned home. Also raised in the UK but born in New York is the Housefull star Jiah Khan. The 23-year-old was born Nafisa Khan and changed her name to Jiah after watching the Angelina Jolie film Gia. A dancer formally trained in classical opera, she still lives in Chelsea, London. Her mother Rabiya Amin was also an actress in the 1980s.

Deepika Padukone, 25, was born in Copenhagen, Denmark. The daughter of the badminton player Prakash Padukone made her Hindi film debut in the smash hit Om Shanti Om. She also works as a model.

Born closer to India were the 27-year-old Iranian Negar Khan and the 30-year-old Afghani Celina Jaitley. In 2005, The Times of India reported that Khan, who was raised in Norway, was deported back to Europe for overstaying her visitor's visa, showing that not every foreign import has a happy tale to tell. Jaitley, by contrast, has had a hugely successful career in India since her 2003 debut Janasheen and will next be seen in Run Bhola Run.

Western stars have also been jumping on the Bollywood bandwagon. Looking to increase their own appeal in a market of one billion people, Kylie Minogue, Denise Richards and the British model and actress Hazel Crowney are among the growing numbers of stars who have made appearances in Bollywood films.