London: Fists clenched, face contorted, the woman berates her best friend with accusations: How could she steal her boyfriend and then lie about it? A waistcoat thrown over her green kameez, she paces the floor in rage. Dressed in jeans and high heels, the younger woman weakly protests her innocence.
The scene, performed by two aspiring actors, unfolds not in India’s film hub of Bollywood but in Ealing, west London, as part of the first batch of auditions at the UK arm of Actor Prepares, a school run by actor Anupam Kher.
The actors are in their 20s: Pirah Palijo, 28, is a lawyer from Karachi, Pakistan, and now lives in London, while her counterpart Seetal Linbachia, 23, was born and raised in London, and works as a hairdresser in her father’s salon.
Role model? Actor Katrina Kaif is one of the young British Asians who have made it in the Mumbai film industry. (Photo: Manav Manglam/ Reuters)
The duo represent a growing number of British Asians who are looking outward and hitching their acting careers to opportunities in the rapidly expanding Indian film industry.
Emboldened by the success of Katrina Kaif and Upen Patel, both British, young British Asians are no longer content with the stereotyped and fringe roles in films and plays in Europe and America. In the Bollywood of their dreams, they can be stars. “Our students have very realistic expectations,” says Adam Fahey, divisional manager of the Ealing Institute of Media, the college housing the London branch of Actor Prepares.
“If I was a young British Asian, I would know before starting that my opportunities for acting would be limited. They are always within a cultural framework. If these students go to India and make it, they have the chance of being the hero,” adds Fahey.
Of course, some British-Indian actors such as Nina Wadia, Meera Syal and Sanjiv Bhaskar have enjoyed success and received critical acclaim in the UK, most notably with shows such as Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No 42, which caricatures Indians living in Britain.
However, very rarely has an Indian actor in the UK succeeded in transcending barriers of ethnicity and played the lead character in a mainstream film or television show.
Raised on a diet of nostalgia and Bollywood films, first- and second-generation British Asians grew up idolizing Indian cinema. The films provided escapism and a dose of glamour, represented a link to the motherland and, crucially, helped reinforce a sense of their cultural self.
And the newer generation of British Asians has financial gain as firmly in their crosshairs as stardom. Upen Patel, the actor and model from Brent in north London, was a computer science student at the University of Hertfordshire, when he was spotted by a model scout.
He travelled to India, where his work as a model acted as a springboard for Bollywood. Today, he owns his own model agency and a restaurant—not to mention the Porsche, BMW M3 and Suzuki Cruiser.
For producers in Bollywood, casting British Asians also helps ensure an important source of revenue. With cinema tickets in the UK selling at up to four times the price of tickets in India and half of Bollywood films shot abroad, film companies are keen to capitalize on foreign markets and strengthen links with the Indian diaspora.
Namastey London, one of last year’s hit films which starred both Upen Patel and Katrina Kaif, dealt with second-generation British Indians and their dilemmas of love versus expectations imposed by traditional parents.
Pranab Kapadia, spokesman for Eros International Plc., the London-listed production house, estimates that ticket sales outside of India contribute a quarter of total theatre revenues, or about $60 million (Rs253.8 crore) per year. He adds that strong cultural ties and tax breaks make the UK an attractive location for both casting and filming.
Since the release in 1995 of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, or DDLJ, a film starring Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol that set the tone for movies targeting the non-resident Indian (NRI) market, the Indian film industry has woken up to the earnings potential offered by the diaspora. The film also subverts sterotypes of Indians overseas as morally depraved and instead presents them as “more Hindustani than Hindustan itself”, according to Anupama Chopra, the film journalist and author of a book on the film, titled Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge: The Making Of A Blockbuster.
“So, NRIs were no longer the villains of the piece and the people who had sold out to Western seduction,” explains Chopra. “In fact, they were better people than in the villages. I think in that, it was absolutely revolutionary.”
Positioning for success
By establishing a school in London, Actor Prepares has positioned itself to take advantage of British Asians—in fields from software to financial services and films—seeking success in India.
Investment to date in the school has topped £100,000 (Rs8.55 crore), with the first lot of students yet to be enrolled. Plans are already afoot to open more schools in the north of England and Europe, contingent on the success of the institute in the first year here.
Kher, a fatherly fixture in Bollywood movies and a successful crossover actor in his own right, with British films such as Bend It Like Beckham, says the rationale behind setting up the UK arm was to provide training to all aspiring actors, including British Asians: “Cinema is a connection with India for Indians abroad. There is singing and dancing and people want to be a part of that.”
To prepare students equally for a career in the West or in India, Kher and Ealing Institute of Media have drawn up a course that incorporates elements and types of Bollywood dance styles, acting for camera, as well as Hindi language tuition. The academic focus is on “psychological realism”—where actors try to immerse themselves in the emotions, mannerisms and lifestyle of the characters—instead of the “home-grown” style of acting usually associated with mainstream Hindi cinema.
“We will travel a path between international and Bollywood acting styles,” says Fahey. “We are trying to create a balance. And the way actors are trained here to meet a particular style will make them more internationally marketable. We will steer clear of a homogenous way of doing things.”
The school is also keen to attract students who don’t necessarily have South Asian origins, and applications have come in from as far away as California in the US and Germany, said Ash Verma, chief executive of the Heathrow City Partnership, a development group which has partnered with Kher to help open Actor Prepares.
The three-month course costs £6,000 (around Rs5 lakh) and incorporates yoga and meditation, stage combat classes, dance, acting techniques, as well as a class in business and enterprise.
The final stage of the audition process quizzed candidates on their career goals. Linbachia, the hairdresser who counts Madhuri Dixit among her role models, sits under the bright studio lights before the panel and oozes sincerity and passion.
This course, she says, would be perfect for her because she loves “everything about India and wants to make it in Bollywood”. In fact, she says, “I dream about Bollywood every single day.”