| Stephens: Rising in the east
London, Aug. 2: One of Britain’s sought after young actors, Toby Stephens, has been signed up for a Bollywood blockbuster. He is to star opposite Aamir Khan, Aishwarya Rai and Rani Mukherjee in The Rising, a tale of derring-do set against the backdrop of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny.
This has raised expectations that in future, British actors, who have traditionally looked to Hollywood for work, will also see Bollywood as offering opportunities.
Stephens, 34, the second son of Dame Maggie Smith and the late Sir Robert Stephens, is a Royal Shakespeare Company-trained actor who recently played Kim Philby in the BBC TV series, The Cambridge Spies.
The music is to be composed by A.R. Rahman. He did the music for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Bombay Dreams, and also for Lagaan. The set designer is Nitin Desai, who was responsible for the design of the month-long Bollywood festival at Selfridges last year. Ketan Mehta will direct.
According to producer Bobby Bedi, The Rising is “an epic tale of friendship, love, loss and betrayal set against the backdrop of the Indian Mutiny of 1857”. “During a fierce battle in the Afghan wars of the mid century, Mangal Pande (played by Aamir), a heroic sepoy, rescues his British commanding officer, William Gordon (Stephens),” says Bedi.
The two become close friends. The friendship is undermined, however, by the introduction of new gun cartridges for the Enfield rifle. “The new cartridge requires soldiers to bite through their greased casing, made from animal fat,” adds Bedi.
Both Hindu and Muslim soldiers object, but Gordon gives an assurance, which later proves false, that the bullets are free from pollution. When the truth is discovered, a mutiny breaks out with Mangal Pande leading the rebels pitched against his old friend.
Stephens, who will be on location in India from October to March — a long time for an actor much in demand — is currently reading William Dalrymple’s White Moghuls and Saul David’s Indian Mutiny to try to understand the complex relationship between the British and the Indians.
Stephens was expected to pursue a career in Hollywood after playing the villain Gustav Graves in the last Bond movie Die Another Day. But he required no persuading from Bollywood as he did not want to “cash in on this Bond thing” and be typecast as a Hollywood villain.
There were few good roles in Britain. “The state of the British film industry is dire,” he points out.
His wife of two years, actress Anna Louise-Plowman, wants to spend as much time as possible with him in India — locations will include Delhi, Pune and possibly some former Soviet republics. There may even be a part for her — “who knows they may put her in a period dress”, he jokes.
It was Aamir who met Stephens and gave him a copy of Lagaan. “I was blown away by it,” admits Stephens, who will now take a few lessons in Hindi, which will be required for his role. “And I saw Bandit Queen which is fantastic.”
“The script is one of the best I have seen,” says Stephens.
The scriptwriter Farrukh Dhondy, who was for 12 years commissioning editor for multi-cultural programmes at Channel 4 (it was under his watch that Bobby Bedi was commissioned to produce Bandit Queen, with Shekhar Kapur as director), says: “This film may well open the doors for the likes of Dame Judy Dench and Kate Winslet to come to Bollywood.”