Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Outside Element

Blame it on the great Indian white skin fixation. Or, if you prefer, on a new body code that has corroded the flimsy wall between modeling and acting. Most of all, blame it on Katrina Kaif.

Years after she rode into Bollywood on the back of an oddity called ‘Boom’, she has blown away most of the criticism about her inability to speak Hindi, her disconcertingly foreign accent, her questionable talent. Half-white, slender and a ‘hit’ with millions of Indian men, particularly the ticket-buying middle class, what Katrina Kaif has given Indian cinema is debatable. But there is no doubt that she has given hundreds of non-Indian young ladies a generous dollop of hope. If she can do it, why not them?

Indeed, there is no reason why not. As long as a girl is pretty and can pass off as vaguely Indian, she’s got a fair shot at stardom in Mumbai. Giselle Monterio’s career took off with a couple of lines of (dubbed) dialogue in Love Aaj Kal, and now that she’s playing one of the female leads in Always Kabhi Kabhi, the Brazilian model is a lodestar for dozens of her compatriots, girls like Camila Granato, 22, and Taciane Matos, 18.

Both are from Brazil; both signed up with the Indian modeling agency, Toabh Talents; both share an apartment in Mumbai and both will be seen in the song from the forthcoming Mere Brother ki Dulhan.
Camila has been in a film before, where she was floating about in a party scene shot in Turkey, and Taciane has been part of Thank You. Neither watched Hindi movies before they came to India, although they did watch a soap opera called ‘Way to India’, which is quite popular in Brasil. Although they didn’t watch the show regularly, they realized that, culturally and socially, they have much in common with Indians.

That is part of the reason why several Brazilian models stay on, despite the fact that India is a bit of an “everything shock”, as Camila puts – cultural, civic, climatic and aural shocks await the models when they first arrive. Most of them are signed up with one of a handful of agencies that bring down international models to work in commercials and fashion shoots in Mumbai.

There is plenty of work available. Varun Katoch, business head at Toabh, says that he’s managing 31 models of which about 20 are foreigners. “But I could hire 200 models and still have work for all. There are tens of thousands of Indian brands and they all want professional models. The foreign girls often start modeling as young as 14 and by the time they come here, they are quite good at their job.”

Varun admits that a major factor for the foreign models’ presence here is their looks, but he says it is their height and clear skin that works to their advantage. He says, “We actually try and pick models who look a little bit Indian. Brown hair, tanned skin. They’re not all white white.”

However, once the models arrive, other windows of opportunity open up. It isn’t hard to find work in music videos and films. But Varun is measured in his enthusiasm when I ask about the models’ Bollywood prospects. “We do get queries from production houses. And there’s Katrina Kaif, of course. The girls hear about her and they want to try their luck. Sometimes, during ad shoots, directors will encourage them to try films. But then speaking Hindi is a must.”

What he does not quite say is that Hindi is the hurdle at which foreigners stumble. While shooting advertisements, the girls don’t really have to speak. It is enough that they look beautiful. Film requires a basic control over language, especially since very few Hindi film scripts have foreigners written into key roles.
However, another actress of mixed parentage (she speaks Hindi quite fluently) believes language doesn’t matter. “In Hindi films, a female actor just needs to look pretty. The only other thing that matters is who she’s hooking up with. They just get pedantic about the accent when it suits them.”

But the hopefuls are, well, hopeful. And they’re not leaving anything to chance. Evelyn Sharma, a half-Indian half-German 23-year-old, has enrolled in an acting course, is learning Hindi and taking Bollywood dance lessons. “I grew up in Germany and came to India as a traveling model. But I love acting. I have done some theatre and one American action film. But Inega, my agency, will not let me do bit roles in Bollywood. The first film is so important,” she says.

However, Evelyn admits that you’d have to be half-Indian or be able to pass off as Indian – “like Giselle” – to get a real break. “Bollywood is changing. More foreigners get lead roles. I know a Swedish girl who is playing the lead in a small production,” she says. After a pause, she adds, “I can’t wait for it to change.”

Whilst she holds out for a film break, Evelyn will be seen in a video with Daler Mehndi as he sings ‘Sheela ho ya Munni’. However, most agents are anxious that I get the right picture. More than one agency told me that their models may take on non-lead parts in ‘major productions’, but they’re not ‘dancers’ and they’re very emphatically ‘NOT extras’.

This little crisis of identity can be traced to the explosion of white skin in background Bollywood. All you have to do is hang around at Colaba Causeway and sure enough, a ‘talent’ scout comes along looking for foreigners. If you get cast, you might have to put up with a 12-hour shift, famously bad food, tacky costumes, and plenty of boredom. In return, you get paid between Rs 500 and Rs 1000. In fact, travel websites now ask tourists to hang around at Colaba as part of their ‘Experience Bollywood’ plan.

Clearly, this is not what they want to be – these cheerful, beautiful girls who have descended upon Mumbai from Germany, Brazil, Russia, or the UK. Yes, they’d like to be in Bollywood but not as props on a set, not as shadowy figures wiggling in the backdrop of a ‘classy’ video. They’re here for a sprinkle of stardust.

Or are they?

Taciane confesses there are days when she weeps. I ask why, and she has to remind me that she’s still a teenager. “Camila plays mama to me sometimes. She lets me put my head on her lap if I cry,” she says with a laugh. “Me and my sister used to sleep with our heads in mama’s lap, her fingers running through our hair.”

Camila explains that in Brasil, several girls start modeling not for the glamour but because they need to. Some of them support their families. Taciane, who grew up speaking only Portuguese, points out that unless you attend expensive schools, you will find it hard even to learn English. Camila was luckier and managed to attend drama and ballet lessons (though it is unlikely that her training will help her film career. Many Russian ballet dancers can find work only as background dancers in Mumbai). But both are excited about films. “It’s something different,” says Camila. “It’s more fun.”

I ask the girls why they don’t try to find work in movies back home. They say there is no film ‘industry’ there, and production values are worse than television.

Why not TV then? Taciane says she’d love to try her luck in TV – there’s money and fame, and she could be near her beloved mama. “But I’d have to go to Rio for auditions, and living in Rio is too expensive.”

Evelyn, who has already worked in an American production, says Bollywood is a bit easier to break into. “In LA (Hollywood), everyone is there to become an actor. It isn’t like that in Mumbai,” she says. A moment later, she shrugs and laughs. “I don’t know. Perhaps it is like that here too. But not everyone gets a chance.”

Mumbai, then, is a place where they do stand a decent chance. They’re already working in advertising and fashion. They already have half a foot in the door. Film work, of course, brings very little money. One agent reveals that Bollywood pays foreign models only as much – and sometimes even lesser – than Indian supermodels. “On an average, payments range between Rs 15,000 to Rs 50,000, for songs and minor roles. Sometimes, it might be Rs 1 lakh.” But no international model, he says, can afford to stick around in Mumbai unless they’re making at least a lakh a month.

Money clearly isn’t the main reason why the models are trying to work in Bollywood. Stardom, if it happens, is probably welcome but Evelyn says that a lot of her foreign friends are aware they may not become ‘superfamous’. They still want the film experience.

Why? I persist.

She comes up with a deeply insightful answer. “In commercials, you are always playing someone else. But it is only movies that let you be yourself even while you are acting. At least once in your life, you want that.”

Blame it on the medium then. Look at the way the camera lingers on the faces of actors, while it merely glances at dancers. The background girls make a living and are probably better trained, even more talented than the girl standing up ahead, pouting at the camera. But the dancers are reduced to flashing legs and silhouettes. It is the girl in the centre who is truly acknowledged. Because the camera loves her, so do we.

Ah well! Just go ahead and blame it on love.

A slightly edited version of this piece appeared here.

1 comment:

Marvin said...

Somewhat on a similar note:

The Indian fixation with fair skin.

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