In an interview with journalist Rajeev Masand in late 2016, Bollywood star Ranbir Kapoor admitted to being approached to audition for a lead role in JJ Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This is as powerful a statement as any to indicate that talent arising from the Hindi film industry is slowly but surely demanding the world’s attention, especially in terms of actors originating from Bollywood making their mark overseas.
The year ahead, in particular, appears to be one with the largest number of such international collaborations to date, with a whole host of examples of talent from the Hindi film fraternity taking the west by storm. 2017 could well be the year that blows the proverbial lid off uncovering the potential of Indian talent in western cinema, with a noticeable increase in the number of Bollywood actors to be seen in overseas projects, many in leading roles.
Historically, this has been a charge led by actors such as the late Om Puri who – in a defining moment - was even honoured at The Academy Awards In Memoriam tribute earlier this year. Moreover, actors such as Anupam Kher (Silver Linings Playbook), Tabu (Life Of Pi), Shabana Azmi (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and Naseeruddin Shah (The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen) have also had their fair share of roles abroad. Even Amitabh Bachchan’s famed cameo in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is not one that’ll be soon forgotten. However, despite these reputable performers paving the way for future generations, they have been largely limited to supporting roles or smaller films for the most part.
However, the last few years has certainly seen a shift toward Bollywood actors being viewed more substantively, with the potential to be leading stars in larger mainstream films in the West. Looking at the present day, Irrfan Khan is considered nothing short of a major international star, with many inspiring notches to his belt such as Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi, Jurassic World and most recently across Tom Hanks in Inferno, with some of the most prominent Hollywood filmmakers writing roles specifically with Khan in mind. Khan certainly isn’t showing any signs of slowing down and is next to be seen in Bangladeshi drama Doob: No Bed Of Roses which he is also producing, as well as Salim Khassa’s The Wicked Path.
Priyanka Chopra has taken this to new heights entirely by becoming a household name and talk-show regular in the US, through her hit ABC show Quantico. She is also due to be make her debut in a major Hollywood blockbuster in the upcoming Baywatch – the cinematic adaptation of the popular 90s TV show – starring across the likes of Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron. Chopra’s pioneering trajectory and achievements in the last two years have been set new standards altogether of what a Bollywood actor can achieve globally.
What is especially encouraging about the global achievements of both of these actors is that for the most part they have avoided being confined to the typecast of playing ‘Indian roles’ but are instead playing characters who’s cultural background has little or no bearing on their role in the narrative - Chopra’s Alex Parrish in Quantico being the best example of this.
Perhaps as a result of the success and reception enjoyed by actors like Khan and Chopra, the year ahead appears to indicate that Hollywood is embracing actors and talent originating from Bollywood like never before. Subsequently, the question of the hour for Hindi-film actors and entertainment journalists alike seems to be: who will be next to turn their gaze westward and jump on the Hollywood bandwagon?
Women Leading The Charge
Chopra’s success seems to have got the ball rolling and started a movement of sorts, of actors looking to foray abroad, which is no doubt now seen as a far more attainable feat than it was some years ago. This recent movement is in every way one that has been championed by the female actors of the Hindi film fraternity who are setting an example for the entire industry. Earlier, actors such as Aishwarya Rai proved that a Bollywood actor could hold their own in Hollywood films, having featured in titles such as Provoked, Bride And Prejudice and The Pink Panther 2.
Deepika Padukone, who earlier turned down a role in Fast And Furious 7, already had her Hollywood debut earlier this year across Vin Diesel in XXX: Return Of Xander Cage and although the film was painfully forgettable, few would disagree that Padukone was one of the best things about it. Next in the Hollywood launch line looks to be Sonam Kapoor, who has been doing the press rounds of late talking about being signed by the Los Angeles based-United Talent Agency, the same agency which represents stars like Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp.
Moreover, Huma Qureshi was recently seen in Gurinder Chaddha’s much discussed colonial drama Viceroy’s House about India’s last Viceroy during British-rule. Also still to come from the year is Richa Chaddha’s international debut in David Womark’s Love Sonia - an Indo-American production which sheds light on the harsh realities of human trafficking. The cast also boasts of the likes of Demi Moore, Frieda Pinto and Anupam Kher as well as Lion’s young breakout star Sunny Parwar.
What’s certainly heartening is that the majority of these roles are sizeable and significant, indicative of the fact that these actors are being recognised for their talent and global appeal, rather than being confined to ‘eye-candy-focused’ roles as has been seen time and again in the past.
Hindi cinema’s male actors are equally looking to dip their feet in international waters with a number of examples from the year ahead. The critically adored Rajkummar Rao will be seen in Namrata Singh Gujral’s Indo-American project 5 Weddings, about an American journalist who travels across India to write a story on Bollywood weddings. The film also features Bo Derek and Nargis Fakhri - who herself has been trying to make the leap over to the West for some time now, so far only managing to bag a brief role in the 2015 Melissa McCarthy-led action comedy Spy.
Fukrey’s Ali Fazal similarly marked his Hollywood debut with a brief appearance in Fast and Furious 7 and is now taking a step further by starring across none other than Dame Judi Dench in Stephen Frears’ historical drama Victoria and Abdul. The film explores the unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria and her Indian attendant Abdul Karim. In addition, Sonu Sood was also recently seen across Jackie Chan in the Indo-Chinese production Kung Fu Yoga, an action comedy which also featured MS Dhoni: The Untold Story’s Disha Patani.
Although not strictly a Bollywood actor, Southern superstar Dhanush also has an international debut on the cards, playing the lead in The Extraordinary Journey Of A Fakir, based on the French best-seller, across Uma Thurman and Alexandra Daddario (True Detective).
What is perhaps most intriguing about these actors and their global aspirations is that almost all of them are also simultaneous keeping their footing and careers in Bollywood alive and going, rather than focusing on Hollywood alone, much to the enjoyment of their local fan following.
Is TV The Way Forward?
What’s clear is that the barriers between global entertainment industries are gradually reducing as show business as a whole becomes increasingly more globalised. Perhaps the biggest example and contributor of this being the advent of Netflix whose very approach to creating and recommending content is through a global lens, rather than the traditional focus on the western hub of Hollywood.
Moreover, platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have played a significant role in the recent TV explosion occurring in the US, meaning the current focus is undoubtedly on the small screen, which is also an area Hindi-film actors have managed to make their mark and continue to do so.
Following the global success of Slumdog Millionaire, this, although a British production, did a great deal to expose Indian acting talent to the world thereby launching the Hollywood careers of actors such as Anil Kapoor. Kapoor went onto have a recurring role in the US show 24 as well as a brief role in the blockbuster Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. His latest international outing is playing the antagonist on the Amazon Sci-Fi series Oasis, which also stars Game Of Thrones’ Richard Madden. Amazon recently released the Pilot of the show and it is as yet unclear as to whether it has been picked up for a full season.
Other actors to have had breaks on shows abroad include Purab Kohli of Rock On fame who featured in the Netflix series Sense8. The Lunchbox’s Nimrat Kaur followed up her role in Homeland by serving as a series regular on M Night Shymalan’s Wayward Pines. Additionally, Rahul Khanna (Love Aaj Kal) plays a Pakistani ISI agent on the highly acclaimed Spy drama The Americans. Not to mention Irrfan Khan yet again, who is also no stranger to TV having previously featured on the HBO series In Treatment and more recently in a prominent role in the recent acclaimed Netflix mini-series Tokyo Trials. Still to come from the year is Nawaazuddin Siddiqui’s TV debut. Following his brief role in Garth Davis’ Oscar-nominated Lion, Siddiqui will also be seen in the upcoming BBC Crime Drama McMafia, an 8-episode drama series set in the international world of organised crime.
Behind The Camera
Members of the Hindi film fraternity have equally been waking waves on foreign shores behind the camera, the most prominent testament to this being Mira Nair. Nair’s diverse body of work now has her pegged as much a Hollywood director as any, most recently making last year’s Queen Of Katwe. Other examples include producer/director Vidhu Vinod Chopra who went on to remake his much loved Parinda in Hollywood in 2015 , titled Broken Horses, starring Vincent D’Onofrio and the late Anton Yelchin .
The year ahead however, seems to undoubtedly belong to director Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox), who famously made it onto Variety’s list of ‘Top 10 directors in the world to watch out for’. This year Batra lends his name as director to two much talked about international films, starting with the soon to be released The Sense Of An Ending, the cast of which includes revered actors such as Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling. Mere days after completing that film Batra got a call from one Robert Redford to direct the Netflix project Our Souls At Night which also stars Jane Fonda, releasing later this year.
Conversely, renowned Iranian director Majid Majidiis is currently filming his first Indian film entitled Beyond The Clouds with an all Indian cast, including the debut of Shahid Kapoor’s younger brother Ishaan Khattar.
The question remains then, of when will we get to a stage where Bollywood filmmakers will cast foreign stars and incorporate prominent overseas talent in our own films, in a tasteful way of course. In the past most ‘crossovers’ of this kind have been laughable at best - see Akshay Kumar-starrer Kambakkht Ishq, which included cameos by Sylvester Stallone, Brandon Routh and Denise Richards.
One intriguing development in this space is the announcement of Queen director Vikas Bahl’s next, entitled The Interpreter, which is an Indo-French production which will see the launch of French star Kev Adams in a Bollywood film. Beyond this, I for one believe that the day is not far where we could well we see an actor originating from Bollywood serve as the leading man/woman in a major Hollywood franchise.
The world is gradually seeing the Hindi-film industry as more than a producer of ‘escapist, colourful, song and dance’ films, but also making thought-provoking and meaningful cinema and boasting of real talent. As a result, this year proves that Hollywood is increasingly tapping into the Bollywood talent pool, but as to whether this is a sustained change remains to be seen.