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Published: November 2013, Cover Story, Verve Magazine

Indian cinema has become a multi-ethnic turf with the foray of Eurasian or non-Indian fair-skinned brunettes. The film industry continues to open its arms to a posse of beautiful foreigners, which may be a sign of globalisation or reverse exoticism….

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“I have never believed that I’m better at my work, more famous or more beautiful than my Indian colleagues, even if I look different.” Yana Synkova Gupta, Czech model and item number girl, formerly married to an Indian, once said to Verve. The Indian film industry continues to be a leveller, an industry of opportunities – allowing for the foray of international faces into its desi waters. Far before the country opened up its economic arms to globalisation, women from abroad found themselves trying to woo the Indian audience, with varying results.

Possibly the first grand entry into India cinema of a foreigner was that of ‘Fearless Nadia’, born Mary Ann Evans in Australia, but brought up in India. With her theatre and circus background she carved a unique spot for herself after being introduced to Hindi films by Jamshed Wadia of Wadia Movietone in 1935. The tall blue-eyed blonde ‘Hunterwali’, held her own in Indian cinema for over three decades. Raj Kapoor brought a Russian circus down in Mera Naam Joker (1972) and Kseniya Ryabinkina, the fair maiden therein who won his heart on screen, was one of the early entrants to Indian cinema, albeit in a blink-and-miss role. While women from the subcontinent have found presence for a long time, hardly any actress made a major impact, until two Nepalese girls who studied in India (though separated by decades) came to the fore: Mala Sinha and Manisha Koirala. It may have helped that they could easily be mistaken for local artistes (much like the Sri Lankan Jacqueline Fernandez today). And who can forget how Burmese actress and dancer, Helen Richardson, set the screen on fire with her sensational moves? With over 500 films to her name, she is the one who created a unique space for special dance or ‘item’ numbers in popular Indian cinema.

Today, the roster of international faces hails from all over the world including remote Eastern European countries to the big Western ones. In Thomas Friedman’s ‘flat’ world, you find markets becoming interchangeable: Hollywood is realising that India is a huge audience for their films while Indian cinema is growing all over the world because of the number of Indians living abroad. Globalisation and the exposure of Indians at home to foreign cinema and television over the last couple of decades have provided access to visual material featuring people of different races – making it more acceptable to be admiring of or drawn to them.

India’s thriving film industries are a big market for aspiring actresses. International, non-Indian models already here, like Yana Gupta or Giselli Monteiro, are looking for opportunities to break into the small or big screen – in the way Saif Ali Khan’s former-love interest, the Italian Rosa Catalano, once attempted. Those who are ‘discovered’ from abroad, like Rockstar’s Nargis Fakhri and Madras Town’s Amy Jackson are willing to take a chance to become popular in a foreign country. Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa runner-up, the American Lauren Gottlieb, who is a natural brunette, says most people wonder whether she has any Indian roots. Add dark hair and good looks to the Indian desire for fair skin, and you’ve got a Katrina-Kaifesque winning combination. It is harder to stand out in one’s own country than it is to gain exotic recognition abroad.

Hindi cinema director, Imtiaz Ali, who has cast foreign faces in two of his movies, believes that signing an actress from abroad can be more economical than hiring an established actress from India. “What you would pay a foreigner would be the same as a new person in India, with the added advantage of a fresh face. The only difference being, if you have specially invited the person here for an acting role, you would be responsible for providing them their life here – the travel, the lifestyle.”

So you have Eurasians, women with Indian roots or origin, eager to give it a shot, even if they, like the Indo-German Evelyn Sharma, have been discovering their roots for the first time (and for the longest time believed that biryani was a German dish).

Unlike Kalki Koechlin (born and brought up in India to French parents), most actresses of foreign origin struggle with the language issue. Hindi – or any Indian language – isn’t easy to learn. It isn’t remotely like any other foreign language and tends to form a natural barrier to success in Indian cinema. Brazilian model, Giselli Monteiro, played the role of an Indian in Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal (2009) because she had no major speaking role. Ali points out: “Speech makes a huge difference; while feelings are much the same way in any part of the world. Punjabis felt that Monteiro really looked like a local girl.” The success of this casting probably led Ali to offer Pakistani-Czech model Nargis Fakhri a chance to play the lead role in his next venture, Rockstar (2011). A complete unfamiliarity with the language and culture led to Fakhri floundering in the lead role and facing a lot of flak. In the recent Madras Café though, she moves forward to play an English-speaking Indian girl from London, therefore with an admissible accent. Lisa Ray, born in Canada to an Indian father and Polish mother, had her stint in Hindi and South film industries, but her inability to speak Hindi possibly deterred her from moving further, leading her to English-speaking cinema, including working with director, Deepa Mehta (Water).

Except for South Indian cinema where dubbing is more acceptable – British model, Amy Jackson, regularly has her lines dubbed – it is likely that language will continue to play a major hindrance until Indian films are made in English. As Koechlin points out, “It is fine in the beginning, a beautiful face and then somebody else’s voice; but it becomes tough to relate to the celebrity who doesn’t speak your language and that’s when they lose contact with the audience.” Born in small-town Germany to a German mother and Indian father, Evelyn Sharma, who didn’t know a word of Hindi when she came to India, underwent exhaustive Hindi training to know it well enough by the time she started her first movie, From Sydney With Love (2012).

And what about body language? In an inherently visual medium like acting, the body language plays an important role in conveying the character’s emotions. Imtiaz Ali admits that the criticism he received on casting Fakhri – while he still stands by his casting decision – is that her body language was innately Western. “She wasn’t Hindustani. The way her mouth shaped and moved when speaking the local language was innately alien and disconcerting. When she was talking in English it was fine, but the rest of the time, the cultural heritage was missing. So in general, a foreigner can’t be as believable when speaking in a foreign language. Janta can’t accept ki yeh hamari ladki hai.”

A British model who spoke not a single word of Hindi and couldn’t dance at all now reigns supreme in the Indian film industry. Born Katrina Turquotte, the arresting girl began her modelling career in Hawaii at the age of 14 and made her debut in Kaizad Gustad’s box-office dud, Boom in 2003. (Incidentally, a year after, Kaizad Gustad faced jail time for the accidental death of British-Pakistani crew member Nadia Khan, on the sets of his film Bombay Central).

Working in South Indian films and in Hindi cinema, Kaif clawed her way up the movie reels through sheer grit, determination and – if such a thing exists – luck. And yet, while she has turned detractors into admirers, is considered a bankable star, has made it to Power lists (including Verve’s 2013 power cover) and has heavy endorsements; industry insiders (like director, Imtiaz Ali) doubt that she can hold her own against an Indian Kareena Kapoor Khan when it comes to the quality of roles offered, because Khan is a local girl who gets all the local nuances.

There has been speculation of Kaif’s origins – despite being a gorgeous brunette, there are talks that the Kashmiri link doesn’t actually exist, it’s just a clever marketing ploy to not alienate the Indian audience and create a foundation of acceptance. Which may be why there is a surge of Eurasians attempting to try their luck in Indian cinema. Even Ali admits that Fakhri’s Pakistani lineage played a significant part in casting her as the lead in his movie, Rockstar (2011).

With support from her then boyfriend and industry stalwart, Salman Khan, and a fierce desire to succeed by observing her co-stars, Khan and Akshay Kumar, Kaif has the learnt the ropes and knows how not to drop the ball. She has a fierce regime – exercises brutally, never stops her dance practice, has managed to master Hindi far better than Sonia Gandhi in a far shorter time and is her own best PR manager. So is Kaif an anomaly or an inspiration? She is both. There possibly will be many years before another Katrina Turquotte may become the Indian superstar Katrina Kaif, but she will serve as inspiration to many aspirants until that happens.

Foreigners undoubtedly add the great masala element and exotic appeal to reality television and hope to have it kick-start their celluloid career – in much the manner that Shilpa Shetty managed to work the British Celebrity Big Brother 5 television show in her favour. While Indo-Canadian adult film star, Sunny Leone’s racy presence in the Bigg Boss house led to her being cast in Hindi films, Yana Gupta became a household name after Fear Factor – Khatron Ke Khiladi (2008) and Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa – 4 (2010) despite being introduced way back in 2003 with the Babuji song in Dum.

But the greatest success story in recent times is possibly that of professional dancer and choreographer, Lauren Gottlieb, a finalist in Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa 6. The hit American reality show, So You Think You Can Dance (2005) star and Hollywood actress got a break in Bollywood with UTV Motion Pictures emailing her to play the lead in Remo D’Souza’s 3-D dance film, Any Body Can Dance (2013). She hasn’t had a moment to look back since.

Jerry Pinto’s Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb examined the unequivocal charisma that the Burmese dancing sensation brought to the fore. ‘Helen was the desire that you need not be embarrassed about feeling…because there was something about her that transcended the tawdry clothes, the bizarre make-up, the invasive camera angles, the inane lyrics and the repetitive choreography and suggestive movements.’

Today, the foreign girls that are a part of Indian cinema often get relegated to risqué roles, or the best friend, or the vamp with one sensational item number. In the recent Prakash Jha film, Satyagraha, Eastern European model, Natasa Stankovic, is introduced in a dull number and an equally dull performance. A choli, a bare midriff and gyrations do not a successful item girl make. Actresses like the Arab-Brazilian Bruna Abdullah have been relegated to smaller roles – the hero’s fling in I Hate Luv Storys (2010) and item numbers like the popular Subah Hone Na De from Desi Boyz (2011); while the Mumbai-born, foreign-raised Indo-Australian Lisa Haydon got recognition as a model and is now finding small roles in movies like Aisha (2010), where she plays a New-York return to explain away the accent.

Through popular demand, Sunny Leone gyrated to Laila, an item number in this year’s Shootout at Wadala. Even the Sri Lankan beauty queen, Jacqueline Fernandez, does a choli-and-ghaghra number with Jadoo Ki Jhappi in Ramaiya Vastavaiya, in an attempt to woo over the local audiences. Is an item number a foolproof method of instant recognition, or does it relegate them to sleazy status? It’s a fine line between maryada and besharmi that very few manage to get the better of.

Are these women being relegated to item girls because they have a particular kind of body and are more likely to wear skimpier clothes? Does it appear that they would more easily be cast as the lead actress’ best friend or the girl the hero has a casual fling with, because our version of Western morality being such, Indians are likely to be more convinced that the foreigner is of easy virtue? Indian actresses aspiring to become leads may also be less willing to ruffle the feathers of the audience’s ethics – they would like to be thought of as pavitra; leaving a greater opening for foreigners to capitalise on to become the audience’s fantasy.

Evelyn Sharma initially wondered whether people would accept her in Indian cinema – “Even though I had signed five different movies I was worried people might slot me into the ‘foreign girl’ role.” Even Koechlin admits that she had to refuse a lot of film offers that had come her way because they were the background dancer or the vampy extra white girl. It was only after proving her acting prowess in edgy and risqué roles in movies like Dev D (2009) and That Girl In Yellow Boots (2010) that Koechlin began to play strong character roles in mainstream Indian cinema like those in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) and Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani (2013). In a move that suggests that she is the only actress to successfully shuttle between playing Indian, semi-Indian and foreign roles, she is soon to essay the role of Victoria Ocampo, Rabindranath Tagore’s Argentine writer muse, on stage in Manav Kaul’s Colour Blind, speaking in five languages.

Whether you face judgements from the audience or you have to work doubly hard to prove your mettle, it isn’t as simple as talent reaching great heights. Lauren Gottlieb, who probably has had to counter more challenges than others, says, “I don’t think anyone can make it anywhere. You have to view everyone individually. You have to have the guts, determination. It’s one thing to be a good-looking face and try to make it but when you have dedicated your life or career to something and studied for it, that’s when you rise. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world; I was rising in Hollywood – I didn’t know I would rise over here! You have to be fearless. I’ve been challenged with rapidly adapting culturally, language-wise, dance-style-wise…. It’s scary sometimes, but if you tackle it, you can succeed.”

Geographical barriers are one thing. Culture and language is another. The former is pretty much redundant; the latter can be circumvented. In a country that is exorbitantly heterogeneous with an inherent love for things foreign, there can only be more opportunities for the ones that strive to make it here. Maybe all that’s required is what Raj Kapoor popularised in Shree 420:

‘Mera Joota Hai Japani,
Yeh Patloon Englistani,
Sar Pe Laal Topi Rusi,
Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani’.

A brief moment in Indian cinema

1. While Uruguayan-Mexican model and actress, Barbara Mori set the screen on fire in Kites (2010), there was no room to have her back because she was introduced as a foreigner.

2. British roses Rachel Shelley (Lagaan) and Antonia Bernath (Kisna) only served to play a specific foreign part in their respective films.

3. British models Aruna Shields (Prince) and Sofia Hayat (Diary of a Butterfly), South African model and Playboy cover girl Candice Boucher (Aazaan) debuted in Bollywood but have yet to make their presence felt.

4. The Norwegian-born, Iranian actress Nigar Khan known for the Chadti Jawaani video and the Australian actress Tania Zaetta (Bunty aur Babli and Salaam Namaste) haven’t had any takers so far.

5. The British model with an Indo-Mauritian mother, Hazel Keech, who acted in Bodyguard (2011) and Tamil film Billa (2007), popped into Bigg Boss 7 last month; but beat an early retreat.

Verve cover girl, British model, Amy Jackson on becoming a desi heroine

“It is unbelievable that I was asked to play top lead roles in films where my lines have to be dubbed!”

She’s petite for a British girl, has stunning eyes and a persistent sniffle at the cover shoot in Kashmir. When she turned 21, she felt she was growing old – and yet, she’s just embarking on a journey in Indian cinema.

The fresh-faced Amy Jackson got noticed in Hindi cinema for her role in Ekk Deewana Tha (2012), where she played a Christian girl opposite Prateik. While the movie didn’t make waves, it served to bring Jackson, a British model, to the attention of the local audience. The 22-year-old equestrian was discovered by model scouts at the age of 15, soon after which she became a Miss Teen World (2008) and Miss Liverpool (2010), seeing her modelling career track across UK and Europe.

South-Indian-cinema director, Vijay (who thought she resembled Kate Winslet in Titanic), spotted one of her pageant images on the Internet and traced her to London. She was auditioned for the Tamil film, Madras Town/ Madrasapattinam (2010), in which she played a British girl. The movie was a super hit. It led to another film, Thaandavam and Jackson is now doing Telugu films, Yevadu (due to release soon) and Shankar’s Ai. “Ever since I got the taste of acting as the leading lady, I’ve never looked back,” she says.

Jackson travels all over for her shoots but has set up home in Bandra, Mumbai. She has made friends from the fashion industry and regards the South directors as her mentors. “When I first arrived I’d just turned 17…I missed my family and friends. I’m very lucky to have a supportive family: my mum travels everywhere with me, my dad has flown over to watch me shoot. For my first ever movie, my friends organised a premiere in my hometown, Liverpool, and that was the first time they ever watched an Indian movie…they loved it!”

She finds scripts from the South to be more exciting as they offer lead and meatier roles. “While they are beautiful actresses and great dancers, I wouldn’t like to be known as merely an item girl. Maybe after I have established myself as an actor I would consider it.” The young girl who turned vegetarian overnight enjoys a dash of Indian food – minus the spice. “On a Sunday I like to chill out and watch movies all afternoon. My Indian favourites include Jab We Met, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Ghajini.” While she offers that she is currently single, she laughs, “Male attention is the same world over.”

India has been “life-changing” for Jackson. “India excites me. There’s no place like it in the world, and my favourite part about it, is the people. The energy; the fact that Mumbai is constantly alive and buzzing. Even if it’s 3 a.m., I know that when I look out of the window I’ll never feel alone. It’s exhilarating! It’s such a welcoming place; I love calling it my home. When I am away, I also miss the sun…after all, we don’t get much of it in England!”

“I don’t see how an actress’ race or origin determines getting ‘propositioned’. I believe that things like that happen based on your character and how you portray yourself.”
– Amy Jackson, model and actress