Breaking Hollywood's Glass Ceiling


A year ago, when news of Indian superstar Priyanka Chopra getting a part in an American TV series began doing the rounds, it was greeted with an enthusiastic round of the usual reactions. On social media, the fans cheered, while the trolls jeered. Some serious cinema watchers critiqued with an understandable skepticism, others issued early dictums that the star was pushing her boundaries so hard she was bound to fail. The national obsession with another Bollywood ship steering toward the tricky Hollywood waters ensured that the topic was discussed and debated ad nauseam.

As it turns out, Chopra’s debut TV show Quantico not only proved to be a super successful experiment, but it also managed to pique the interest of Westerners to crane their necks and peep a little deeper into the wondrous world of Bollywood, from where Chopra hails.

Sendil Ramamurthy in Heroes
Indians, who were trying to spot a sliver of their own soil in Priyanka’s power-packed performance — despite being (hugely) distracted by the steamy and a little-too-many sex scenes in the series — were determined to bring the spotlight on the principal point: what does this “holy grail” of an opportunity for an Indian star entails for Bollywood?

After all, despite the fact that India is not only the world’s oldest, but also the largest film making industry in the world, Indians are riveted by overseas roles offered to their homebred heroes. According to DI International Business Development (DIBD) a consulting unit of Confederation of Danish Industry, Bollywood generated revenue is expected to touch $4.5 billion by 2016.

The growth story is even more impressive across all entertainment sections. The FICCI-KPMG Indian Media and Entertainment Industry Report 2015 estimates that the Indian market (comprising TV, films, print radio, animation, gaming, digital advertising) is poised to grow 13.9 per cent annually (twice the global rate) from $16 billion in 2014 to $30 billion by 2019.

Bollywood releases 1000 films annually, nearly double the Hollywood number, although Indian films can’t match the Hollywood box office revenues (mostly due to lower ticket prices in India as compared to the US). But the DIBD report discloses that a male top star in India commands nearly $16 million for a film, which is close to the amount commanded by the biggest Hollywood stars. Little wonder that in the wealthiest actors worldwide list of 2014, Shah Rukh Khan with a net worth of $600 million was tightly sandwiched between Jerry Seinfield ($820 million) and Tom Cruise ($480 million).

A bevvy of Indian faces have burst recently on to international screens. Irrfan Khan is perhaps the best-known Bollywood export to Hollywood, playing parts in A Mighty Heart, Jurassic Park, Life of Pie and The Amazing Spiderman. Earlier Aishwarya Rai played a role in The Pink Panther 2 and Mistress of Spices. Indian origin actor Kunal Nayyar (Raj Koothrappali of The Big Bang Theory fame) is listed amongst the highest salary grossers on television. Nimrat Kaur and Suraj Sharma have garnered praise for their roles in Homeland. Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame performed in Newsroom, Annet Mahendru in The Americans, Kal Penn in Battle Creek, Sendhil Ramamurthy in Heroes, Archie Panjabi in The Good Wife, Mindy Kaling in the Mindy Project. And Anil Kapoor not only starred in the TV series 24, but also developed an Indian adaptation of the thriller series.

According to industry experts, the entertainment industry had been laying the platform for this cross-continental exchange for some time now. Indian artists hunger for international recognition. Says Bollywood director Raj Kaushal, “We are ready to bend more than backwards every time a hint of Hollywood role comes calling.”

One can understand a Mallika Sherawat doing inconsequential roles in Hollywood (Hiss) and making more news for her eyeball grabbing designer dresses on red carpets than for her performance. But when a legend such as Amitabh Bachchan plays a forgettable role in The Great Gatsby, fans are left wondering.

Does this represent a zeal to win a wider audience or a sign of lack of confidence in their own industry? Bollywood PR strategist, Dale Bhagwagar, one of the leading publicists in Indian entertainment industry, says: “There is no denying that as an industry we look up to Hollywood. They are ahead of us in terms of technology and idea generation. We have a fascination to get into Hollywood, as we think that’s where we get glory from.”

Priyanka Chopra in Quantico
A Hollywood stamp, trade insiders agree, is something even bigger stars hunger for. Raj Kaushal who analyses the industry closely, says: “While Bachchan is the star of the millennium, with 1.2 billion Indians saluting him and has an illustrious career spanning 40 years, the world doesn’t know him. He is a not a global legend like Sean Connery or Harrison Ford. So when Baz Luhrmann announces The Great Gatsby, may be Bachchan thought that despite the short yet precise role this is his chance to break into a new market.”

He adds: “If we notice Bachchan makes no great noise about it, he quietly flies down, shoots and when the film is ready for release the world suddenly discovers he has a role in it. And Bachchan known for reinventing himself (he was the first Indian super star to do TV with Kaun Banega Crorepati) gets his Wikipedia entry into the West.”

Trade pundits say that not all radical career moves guarantee to be immediately rewarding. Who knows, Bachchan may yet bag a full-fledged Hollywood film based on an Indian subject?

But the big daddies of cinema aside, many new actors are ready to break ground in the West. Kanu Behl, who has directed critically acclaimed film Titli and written gripping plots such as Love, Sex or Dhoka gives the trend a contemporary perspective. He says, “Today filmmakers and actors are much more exposed. Young actors are comparing themselves to actors not only in Hollywood, but also across the globe and are imbibing the diversity. So obviously when you see a George Clooney playing distinct roles in like say, a Good Night and Good Luck and in Ocean 11, you are inspired to expand your limits too.”

Earlier actors, such as Amrish Puri, played interesting secondary parts in films, such as Indiana Jones and Temple of Doom, and Om Puri played memorable roles in international films, such as East is East and The Parole Officer in the 1980s. But such associations have been few and far between. The new actors seem to want to break that mold.

Kal Penn in Battle Creek
Industry watchers say that the lack of transition from East to West may have resulted from the fact that established stars were not looking at television or roles in which they were not the lead. Priyanka Chopra’s part in Quantico is path breaking because it’s the first time a top actor from Bollywood has made the transition to international TV.

Dale Bhagwagar, who has handled publicity for Chopra when she was starting out in Bollywood says, “ Priyanka’s is a lead role, not a cameo in a film directed by an NRI, so sure it’s a real transition.”

But taking a role abroad can be challenging for Indian stars. Bhagwagar says: “Even when roles come calling, its not easy for a successful star to give a chunk of dates to a show that may or may not do well.”

He recalls, “Back in 2007, when Shilpa Shetty participated and won the British reality TV series Celebrity Big Brother, even she didn’t comprehend what she was getting into.”

Bhagwagar who was Shetty’s publicist at that time says, “Both Shilpa and I googled and read about the show, as we knew precious little about it and even when she was about to board her flight to be a part of the show, she called me to discuss if that would be a good decision. She was shooting for the movie Life in a Metro around the same time and though she had informed the casting agents about her commitments, she didn’t cancel the shoot thinking she will be back soon.”

Bhagwagar says that Shetty’s part was offered to Kareena Kapoor and Mallika Sherawat as well, but things didn’t work out at the time.

Aishwarya Rai was long expected to blaze the path for Indian performers in the West, but she fizzled out. But unquestionably, female stars are more roaring to go. Ad filmmaker Prahlad Kakkar says: “Successful male Bollywood stars who may have been offered a role do not necessarily take it up because they are relatively insecure and they would not make as much money. However since a female actor anyway gets paid a lot less, it makes sense for her to try a new project.”

Dev Patel in The Newsroom

Raj Kaushal says, “In Bollywood an actor does 4-5 films simultaneously while in Hollywood you have to often dedicate two years to a single project. I am not sure if a Bollywood star would junk that amount of money, discipline himself, sit in Beverly Hills, read scripts and say he’s feeling good about it.”

The issue of less pay has often cropped up, with even Irrfan Khan admitting in interviews that the Hollywood projects he does are not over the money, which is often lower than what he gets in India.

Bollywood actor turned director Deepak Tijori, who was part of an international TV show, Bombay Blue, blames a paucity of good roles behind the gap. He says: “Every actor would give an arm and a leg for global recognition, notwithstanding the money. But of course the role has to be justifiable for a star to take it up. The day we start getting offers that are lead or even a second lead, it will be a different story.”

The lack of meaty roles hints toward a stereotype, into Indians and Asians are general cast. Actor Amit Sial, who made his debut with an Indo-American film Hope and a Little Sugar, says: “There is a strong notion in the West that Indian actors come cheap. As a newbie I am not even talking about star prices, but prices that are at least feasible for an actor to consider. Also I am yet to see an Indian not playing an Indian or half-Indian.”

Nina Lath Gupta, Managing Director of India’s National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), says: “The biggest stereotype is that our films or actors do not display a diversity of content. But today we have films such as Miss Lovely or a Lunchbox that are being positioned well internationally and are challenging that mindset.”

Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project
Also many believe that most of the actors playing Indian roles on international TV are Indian origin actors who have lived their lives abroad, and thus cannot be equated as the ones who are making the real leap. Kakkar says, “Actors such as Kal Penn or Mindy Kaling are not a part of Bollywood, people back home may not know them at all.” He adds, “Its only when you see a home bred star, breaking his boundaries and making it big in the West that you feel that the stereotypes are being shunned.”

However, the ball to break that barrier has been set in motion. Priyanka’s Quantico took on the stereotypes headlong, when she famously announced that the brown girl gets framed. Being called the Jihadi Jane while she’s on the run and her final redemption effectively attempts to break the biases.

Kakkar views this as a receptive environment for every aspiring actor in India to try his or her luck internationally. He says: “We have to first look at breaking our own biases. The casting agents abroad are looking for talent; sadly we are still looking for relatives. If there is a useless nephew looking for work, its fairly common that he would be made into an actor in Bollywood.”

Beyond giving actors a chance to play their craft on the global platform, the introduction of new cultures and ethnicities is of course driven by the bottom line. India is a huge market and it’s impossible to ignore the business it can generate. Kaushal says: “Its also the need of an hour. If you are in New York City it is impossible not to spot an Indian, so eventually the films and TV have to reflect the reality as it is. Today we have Indians playing Indian Americans but very soon we may have Indians playing as someone not born and bred in America, but coming straight from say Delhi, and when that happens that will be the real transition.”

Tijori however is not so sure of that happening any time soon: “Indian actors, until they get the figures to match their Hollywood counterparts can’t command roles.” He offers an example: “There was a lot of buzz in India about Deepika Padukone being considered for Fast and Furious 7, and though I think she would have been an excellent choice, it may not have worked out, because it’s the salability in the world market that eventually matters.”




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