(Published in The Sunday Guardian, dated 11 March 2012, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/from-russia-and-mexico-uk-czech-with-love)
Once upon a time, Raj Kapoor made history with Kseniya Ryabinkina – Marina of Mera Naam Joker became the first (a) white girl (b) trapeze artist (c) non-pregnant woman to be recruited as bahu by a dying Maa. Of course, she was orphaned and sari-clad and didn’t freak out when a joker gave her a toy clown, but never mind.
Then, foreigners disappeared from Indian movies, and we were gamely fooled by Anglo-Indians and contact lenses for decades. Of course, there was the occasional backpacking hippie who could be bribed with food, but those usually went on to establish orphanages and produce child pornography (Remember William Heum? He was in the Rajnikanth movie Annamalai.)
In came period films, where British ladies would commit treason for the love of patriotic Indian vagabonds. Followed by non-period films where the likes of Alice Patten a.k.a. Sue from Rang de Basanti belatedly took up the cause of Indian independence.
Next, came the hybrids – Katrina Kaif who crawled on a table to seduce Shakti Kapoor, Lisa Ray who – believe it or not – debuted in a Tamil film called Nethaji with a song called Mastana, Nargis Fakhri whose abysmal performance in Rockstar provoked unflattering wordplay on her surname, and Lisa Haydon whose bare back made more news than the film it starred in.
And even as Aishwarya Rai, Mallika Sherawat and Freida Pinto took their schizophrenic accents to Hollywood, a bunch of hopefuls began to wash up on Mumbai’s shores. It made sense as long as they were playing hot phirangi girlfriends à la part-Brazilian, part-Arab Bruna Abdullah, or part-Japanese, part-Uruguayan, part-Mexican Bárbara Mori. And of course, everyone loved watching the Czech Yana Gupta gyrate to item numbers.
But then, how about Brazilian Giselli Monteiro playing Sardarni Harleen Kaur in Love Aaj Kal? Or schoolgirl Aishwarya in Always Kabhi Kabhi? With Ekk Deewana Tha, Briton Amy Jackson hops on the bandwagon of foreigners playing Indians. Monteiro and director Imtiaz Ali explained that she’d auditioned for the role of Saif Ali Khan’s Caucasian girlfriend, and the director’s missus thought she’d make a good Harleen. However, Gautham Menon has been evasive about his reasons for casting Jackson in his Ekk Deewana Tha, only saying that her lip sync is perfect and she looks the part.
When there are plenty of Indian girls stumbling over each other to jam their feet into Bollywood’s doors, is it worth the tons of makeup, hours of training, bottles of hair colour, and hordes of voiceover artists that go into casting the likes of Jackson and Monteiro as Indian women?
“It sort of balances out,” says a modelling agent, on condition of anonymity, “Yes, it seems like a lot of work. But then, it generates plenty of publicity. Wouldn’t you be curious about whether a British model can play a Malayali techie? And also, some of these girls who’re waiting for a break are so eager to land a role that they’ll settle for very little remuneration.” Case in point: Always Kabhi Kabhi was made on a Rs 4.5 crore budget.
A woman assistant director suspects it’s not just about publicity, or production costs. “You hear stories in the industry about foreign models being used in B-grade films or sleazy soft porn flicks. They’re told it’s an art film of some kind, and end up exposing, or doing some scene that’ll come back to haunt them later. I mean, look at Katrina Kaif in Boom. And then there are those who don’t even make it big. That’s pretty sad. There’s also the whole ‘oh, if there’s a foreigner, there’ll be kissing scenes and skimpy clothes’ draw. Though our girls aren’t far behind anymore.”
I decide to ask my kid brother and his libido-driven friends whether Fake-Indian curves are more attractive than Indian ones. As they go about their virtual killing sprees on gaming consoles, they come up with surprisingly intelligent opinions.
“Dunno, some of them look very believably Indian,” one of them says, “Giselli looks more Indian than Katrina Kaif. Or Celina Jaitly.”
What, you 20-year-olds remember Celina Jaitly?! Some follow her on Twitter, but can be persuaded to unfollow her by being called lame.
“Actually, the ones who show skin are Indian. Like Sunny Leone. Or Jacqueline Fernandes.”
“Dude, Jacqueline’s Sri Lankan. The only thing exotic about her is her name.”
“Most of them are forgotten after one film anyway.” Like Tania Zaetta from Salaam Namaste. Or Linda Arsenio from Kabul Express, who’s now a pan-industry supporting actor. And German Claudia Ciesla of Bigg Boss fame is yet to get a break.
Whether it’s a series of coincidences or a trend, going by the reviews and box office returns the films in question got, it’s pretty obvious that the exotic cast isn’t making a difference. Maybe directors should stick to the hippies. Or scour ashrams for volunteers.