| Ilene Hamann
Mumbai, Sept. 5: Hindi film heroines are changing colour, fast.
Peroxide and coloured lenses are passe, older than Kareena Kapoor. The latest Bollywood beauties are original blondes. Or brunettes. Or whatever colour.
But they have certain things in common: all are white-skinned, very young and, though yet to make a mark in the film industry in their home countries, have bagged leading roles in some of the biggest current Bollywood productions.
British actress Antonia Bernath, discovered after a hectic auditioning session in London, plays a bejewelled lead in Subhas Ghai’s “magnum opus” Kisna opposite Vivek Oberoi. British actress Annabelle Wallace is the romantic lead in the Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Dil Jo Bhi Kahey. A South African top model, Ilene Hamann, exudes fatal attraction in Pooja Bhatt’s forthcoming “erotic thriller” Rog.
Only Sophie Dahl is an exception in this line-up of unknowns. The model played opposite Om Puri in King of Bollywood.
A shortlist of five Hollywood actresses has been drawn up for Bachchan’s home production Viruddh that also features Bachchan — the selection will be made shortly to play the lead opposite John Abraham.
The young-white-woman-falls-for-dark-man fantasy has always turned Indian audiences on. And more. Because though the filmmakers deny this, with the recent discovery of the West, Bollywood is on a frantic hunt for plots with something to get a toehold in the international market.
So bring on the white girls. And slap on colonial or “multicultural” backdrops.
“My story needed Antonia,” says showman Ghai, pointing at the leading lady who was taken through the steps of an elaborate Bollywood dance sequence by Shiamak Davar.
The story is set in the colonial times. Antonia, 23, who did a three-year-stint at acting school in London, plays Katherine, the daughter of a British official stationed in picturesque locations in northern India. She falls in love with Kisna, played by Oberoi, a simple mountain boy.
There is another leading lady, Isha Sarvani, dancer Daksha Seth’s daughter and a dancer herself who makes her film debut with Kisna. She is Kisna’s Indian love interest, but somehow she seems less leading than Antonia, who appears more prominently in all the film’s publicity material.
As Ghai insists that the colonial context — an element, too, of Lagaan, the film that boosted this race for the international market — was necessary for his story, others join in to justify the backdrops that bring in a white woman as a love interest.
“The story of Dil Jo Bhi Kahey, produced and directed by Romesh Sharma, is set in Mauritius. It is a story of interaction between Indians and the British, so we cast Annabelle Wallace,” says the film’s publicist.
For Viruddh, the publicist has the same line. “The action happens abroad. John Abraham’s girlfriend’s character had to be played by a foreigner because he was working in the US.”
Film writer and trade analyst Indu Mirani calls it a trend as the industry is looking for such stories. “But money is the basis of all trends. They are trying to cash in on the Indian-foreigner romance, and use a white woman to get overseas audiences,” she adds.
“But I am not sure how much this will work.”
Pooja Bhatt’s Rog, which also features Irrfan Khan, takes the greatest leap in faith. The South African model Ilene, whose mother tongue is Afrikaans, plays an Indian, a Mumbaikar, and a Hindi-speaking one at that. Her voice will be dubbed in the film.
“Bhatt selected Ilene when she saw her on the cover of a glossy,” says her publicist.
“She looks very Indian. She has dark hair and green-blue eyes, like Kajol’s,” he adds. Ilene is stunning, but Indian is not the first thing that comes to mind when looking at her. She looks “international”, if not South African, and an industry person says that would be a positive asset for the film which obviously intends to go global and could premiere in South Africa.
| Antonia Bernath
Not for nothing was Rog supposed to have a second title — When Love is a Disease, though that may not be final. But Viruddh will have an English version called Versus.
Although she is expected to work the international market, traditionally the white woman in Indian films appears only to be abandoned. “It is the white woman more than the white man because the white woman is still a fantasy for the Indian man. It is also easier to be condescending to a woman,” says Mirani.
“Usually the white woman is spurned, as finally it is still not acceptable for the Indian man to marry the firang,” she says. “Though contemporary reality is no longer like that. Bollywood is 20 years behind.”
A proof could be Out of Control, a film that featured Baywatch bombshell Brande Roderick. Roderick’s character was treated so unfairly in the film it later led to one of the cast saying that could be one of the reasons for the film flopping.
But while Ilene is trying to pass off as Indian, good old Aishwarya Rai is changing beyond recognition. In a recent diamond campaign, Rai has dropped all her good Indian girl manners and her demure neckline to flash not only a chunky diamond but also an expansive cleavage. She looks a gorgeous predator and tantalisingly transnational.
Thinking global, acting local' Or is it the other way round' These days it’s hard to tell which is which.