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Foreign actors in India do well by playing the bad

Despite India's increasingly global outlook, Bollywood has plenty of roles for 'the evil foreigner.'

May 25, 2012|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • Brandon Hill as a British lieutenant governor in the Indian TV series “Mohe Rang De” (“Color Me”). He often apologizes to the other actors on the set for the lines he'll deliver.
Brandon Hill as a British lieutenant governor in the Indian TV series “Mohe…

MUMBAI, India — To prepare for one of his many Bollywood roles playing a nasty foreigner, Gary Richardson doesn't do a lot of research, embrace method acting or even give the character much thought.

"This is stereotype acting," the American said. "Let's just say you're not talking Shakespeare here."

Richardson is among a growing number of foreigners working in India's massive film industry, among the world's largest. It produced 1,089 pictures in 2011, significantly more than the U.S. output.

Sure, playing a string of one-dimensional, not-very-sympathetic roles can get a bit frustrating, the foreigners say. Among typical male roles are power-hungry CIA agents, Russian mafia thugs, racist Australian policemen and, most enduring, brutal British colonialists. Actors say they sometimes cringe at the insensitive lines they deliver playing characters that often meet bad endings.

"I'd get the script and apologize to Indians on the set for lines like 'Indians are all dogs,'" said Brandon Hill, a film and TV actor whose roles include a British lieutenant governor in the TV series "Mohe Rang De" ("Color Me"). "Basically, if you see me in a red coat, I'm like the aliens in 'Star Trek.' I'm going to be dead soon."

The actors say that despite India's increasingly global outlook, any move toward a more nuanced cinematic view of outsiders could take time, given long-standing tradition and the formulaic nature of the genre.

Although there are notable exceptions, Indian cinema's tendency to stereotype characters, whether heroes or villains, reflects a different tradition than that of Hollywood, supporters say. Whereas Western films tend to be at least minimally believable, Indian films are more often about spectacle, pageantry and caricatures, filled with elaborate song-and-dance numbers aimed at transporting viewers from their often bleak lives.

"It's the magic of Indian cinema," said Anupam Kher, an Indian actor featured in nearly 450 films and former head of India's censor board. "The average Indian on the street wants three hours of escape."

Of course, India hardly has a monopoly on stereotyped depictions of foreigners or cross-racial sensitivities, with most Indian actors in Hollywood cast as millionaires, mystics or terrorists. In fact, Bollywood is sometimes more open than Hollywood, says Hill, who in his first role appeared opposite superstar Amitabh Bachchan in the 2005 film "Bunty Aur Babli" playing a billionaire conned into buying the Taj Mahal.

"What non-famous Indian actor could go to L.A., hop off the airplane and get a role with Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise?" he said.

A big impetus for the growing presence of foreign actors — who for now at least are decidedly not A-listers — is Bollywood's increasingly global market. After the 1990s, studios started setting more films overseas.

This led to more demand for foreign extras and actors in minor roles, even if a film was shot on a Mumbai lot. There's also been a trend to use more foreign dancers — especially Russian — who are seen as exotic in a country where light skin is heavily favored and drives a $500-million skin-whitening industry.

Actors say they expect more well-rounded depictions in coming years as India's economy and outlook expand, Indian filmmakers seek more recognition in Hollywood, and U.S. and Indian studios collaborate more. Veteran British actor Barry John says his role as dean of a foreign university in the film "Teen Patti" would have been unthinkable a few years ago. "It's a sign of the times," he said.

Foreign actresses tend to have more opportunities than their male counterparts. They're in demand for racy roles in a relatively conservative culture that still looks askance on anything too suggestive from Indian women and girls. "It's OK if foreigners are pole dancing," said film critic Mayank Shekhar. "But it's considered vulgar for an Indian."

They're also frequently cast as the Indian star's girlfriend or third wheel of a love triangle, often relatively sympathetic, three-dimensional characters if only to highlight the hero's dilemma before he eventually settles down with the Indian girl Mom prefers.

Though Indian heroes seducing female foreign characters is increasingly acceptable, say actors and directors, foreign men running off with Indian women is not.

"The Indian male has no problem bragging that 'white-skinned voluptuous women are part of my domain,'" said director and producer Mahesh Bhatt. "But to be conquered by a white man, or have them take your women, that's a problem."

A growing number of foreign actresses, generally of Indian descent, have broken out of minor roles to earn top billing, epitomized by Hong Kong-born, London-raised superstar Katrina Kaif. But they tend to look, act and — thanks in some cases to dubbing — sound Indian.

"She's essentially an Indian girl," Kher said. "You're not exactly talking about Keira Knightly."

India's growing art, alternative and documentary film genres often have more three-dimensional characters and nuanced plots, although their influence is limited.

"We still tend to view the foreign as 'other,'" Bhatt said. "In mainstream cinema, we're still shackled to the mind-set that anything from the West is evil, although we've stopped demonizing them, made them a shade less dark."

In the meantime, foreign actors and actresses say, there's a lot to be said for the work. They're getting paid in a global downturn, having fun and shooting in some of India's most beautiful locales.

"It's what we're hired for," Richardson said. "And one thing: Being a villain, a general, you have fantastic, hand-tailored outfits. You may be playing an Indian-hating bastard, but you'll be dressed very well."

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Tanvi Sharma of The Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.

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