| British deputy head of mission Paul Walsh as the “silent librarian” in Chokher Bali
Aishwarya Rai… Paul Walsh (deputy head of mission, British Deputy High Commission), Timothy Bryan (beverage manager, Dublin, ITC Sonar Bangla), Charlotte Hayward (London-based school-teacher back in her hometown for some research)…
That’s how the credits for Chokher Bali will roll later this year. Sharing big-screen space with the reigning goddess of Bollywood, leading Tollywood man Prasenjit and rising star Raima Sen for the Rabindranath Tagore classic, will be diplomat, bartender and teacher. All first-time actors, all precious to the plot and, above all else, all foreigners.
“I really hadn’t thought casting foreigners would be such a problem here,” admits director Rituparno Ghosh. “But having lost so much time and energy trying to track down foreigners who can face the camera and fit into a period piece, I know exactly why Sir Richard Attenborough was in Shatranj ke Khiladi and why Aamir (Khan) chose to bring in actors from Europe for Lagaan.”
Not just people; the problem of the foreign element extended to almost every prop. So, Aamir had to bail Ghosh out with a bag full of ‘foreign’ Lagaan costumes; the walking stick, pipe and cigar-case came in from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas; the opera glass, the doctor’s bag, chocolates, beakers and decanters had to be flown in from London stores.
But it was the hunt for the foreign face — and tongue — that proved the toughest. So, the likes of British diplomat Paul Walsh will make their screen debut. “I have never done anything like this before. I didn’t get my lines wrong, as I didn’t have to utter a word. And, guess what, I didn’t even get to see the star (Ash),” rues Paul, who plays “an unnamed, silent librarian”.
For another debutante, Charlotte, the bit role of a missionary came out of nowhere. A family friend of Moon Moon Sen, she had “just dropped by” to see Raima on the sets, when she was roped in for a ‘retch’. “All I say is ‘7 Darzi Para Street’ and all I do is throw up… But it was great fun,” says the Calcutta-born researcher, who was inspired by her half-day at “studiopara” to catch a stage version of Chokher Bali at Rabindra Sadan. Timothy Bryan, too, was a chance discovery as a medical professor and while sweating it out at the Technicians Studio on a March morning, the popular ‘barman’ at the ITC Sonar Bangla Hotel, termed the experience “strange but interesting”.
“The situation is bad enough for a film-maker to either avoid casting a foreigner or get actors from outside,” says Ghosh.
With foreigners few and far between, chance rules over choice. Ask Martin Hribek. The ethnology student from Charles University, Prague, was walking down Sudder Street chatting on his cellphone, when he felt that he was being followed. “Can’t you see I am busy'” he barked out.
But the ‘shadow’ proved persistent — enough to lead the 25-year-old Czech researching Durga Puja to the Tollygunge studio for a lead role opposite Raima Sen in his telefilm Ruze. “I had been looking around for about a month. Finding Martin, who even reads and writes some Bengali, is a big relief,” says director Sanjay Guha.
Adds director Pronob Choudhury, who had a Russian playing a German student in Shwet Mayur, a Narendra Nath Mitra story in his telefilm last year. “There are two kinds of foreigners — the tourists on Sudder Street and the expatriates. The first lot is too risky to cast, while some in the second category often ask for a prohibitive amount,” says Choudhury.
With the days of George Baker or even Soumitra Chattopadhyay slipping into foreign robes over, stage actors like Zarin Chaudhury and Deena Ardeshir remain fallback favourites for rare Tollywood plots involving fairer skin. Ardeshir, earlier seen in 36 Chowringhee Lane, also puts in a brief appearance in Chokher Bali as a doctor’s wife, while Chaudhury is a missionary. But missionary zeal is just not enough to find a foreigner in Tollygunge’s tinsel town.