When Aamir Khan’s pet project Lagaan made it as the third-ever Bollywood movie nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2001, I watched as much red carpet footage as I possibly could to catch a glimpse of Aamir Khan rubbing shoulders with Hollywood’s biggest names. Over a decade later, while it’s still not the norm to see Bollywood actors and actresses regularly participating in Hollywood projects, it’s significantly more common to hear about some of India’s biggest celebrities making a mark on the Western film world.
Sometimes that mark is in the form of a well-received portrayal of a complex character and sometimes it’s an over-hyped cameo in a movie filled with some of Hollywood’s biggest names, or in the form of a major American box-office flop. Here’s a look at some recent examples of Bollywood’s reach into Hollywood’s world.
Long before she was Mrs. Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai entered the Indian film industry in the late 1990s after having gained fame as 1994’s Miss World. Her Bollywood filmography has numerous hits and misses, but she gained international recognition with Gurinder Chadha’s 2004 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, cleverly titled Bride and Prejudice. Not personally one of my favorite films, Bride and Prejudice was a commercial success in the U.S., grossing over $24 million compared to its $7 million budget. The movie received mixed reviews, especially when compared to Chadha’s blockbuster hit Bend it Like Beckham, and most critics weren’t exactly blown away by Aishwarya’s performance and her lackluster chemistry with co-star Martin Henderson.
Aishwarya’s Hollywood follow-up to Bride and Prejudice was Chadha’s 2005 film The Mistress of Spices, based on the book of the same name by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. This movie showcases Aishwarya as a clairvoyant spice guru, Tilo, who uses her knowledge of spices to help her customers fulfill their wishes and desires. Customers to her San Francisco Spice Bazaar store included characters portrayed by celebrities Anupam Kher, Padma Lakshmi, and finally, Dylan McDermott as the object of Tilo’s affections. Unfortunately, even this all-star cast couldn’t save this dud of a movie, with only 13 percent of critics giving the film a positive review on Rotten Tomatoes.
I would’ve thought that this film was enough of a box office failure to keep Aishwarya from trying her hand at other Western films, but she had two other major box office duds after The Mistress of Spices — The Last Legion in 2007 and Pink Panther 2 in 2009. For her sake, I hope she doesn’t venture much more beyond Bollywood in the future just to spare her one less review that essentially cites beauty without any acting talent.
2. Anupam Kher
Anupam Kher has been making a mark on Bollywood with his unforgettable supporting roles since the 1980s. Upon hearing his name, I almost immediately picture him as the dad-turned-buddy to SRK’s Raj in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge or as the silly Principal Malhotra turned devoted father to Rani Mukherjee’s Tina in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, or even as the hopelessly in love Punjabi cafe owner in Mohabbatein. But Western audiences most likely recognize him more for his roles as the father to Parminder Nagra’s characters in both Bend it Like Beckham and the popular American TV series ER, and most recently as the witty psychiatrist in the Academy Award winning 2012 David O. Russell film, Silver Linings Playbook — a role that he snagged courtesy of an iPhone camera and a Bangladeshi hotel attendant who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Shortly prior to the release of Silver Linings Playbook, Anupam Kher had already been honored by The Hollywood Reporter as one of the best actors in India:
HAPPY to Share. Hollywood Reporter in its latest issue has listed me among the Five Best Actors in Asia. I am the ONLy Indian. Jai Ho.:)
— Anupam Kher (@AnupamPKher) November 3, 2012
A self-reported workaholic who has even started a Mumbai acting academy that was recently visited by his Silver Linings Playbook co-star Robert De Niro, Anupam Kher doesn’t look like he’ll be slowing down any time soon — in either Bollywood or Hollywood.
3. Irrfan Khan
Irrfan Khan’s foray into the Indian acting scene started in the late 1980s in the television industry. Through the 1990s he continued to work diligently on various different TV series, until his big break came in the form of British-Indian director Asif Kapadia’s 2001 film The Warrior. This film was widely critically acclaimed and made the rounds in many international film festival circuits, thereby gaining Irrfan Khan international recognition. His career in Bollywood has been notable for a multitude of powerful performances ranging from the lead in Maqbool, the 2003 Bollywood re-creation of Shakspeare’s MacBeth; to the 2007 multi-starrer and box-office hit, Life in a Metro; and most recently the 2013 biographical film about the life of Indian athlete Paan Singh Tomar.
But his Bollywood roles alone are not why some news sources boldly declare that Irrfan Khan is “India’s best known international actor” — for Irrfan Khan is one of the few Indian celebrities to have an equally successful career in Western cinema, starting with his 2007 role as a Pakistani inspector in A Mighty Heart. His next role, as Ashoke Ganguli in Mira Nair’s film adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake, showcased Irrfan Khan as a first generation Indian immigrant who struggles with adapting to life in the West. Interestingly enough, this role was rumored to be Mira Nair’s attempt to make up for cutting out Irrfan Khan’s role in Salaam Bombay so many years ago.
After The Namesake, Hollywood filmmaker Wes Anderson cast Irrfan Khan in his 2007 film Darjeeling Limited, which was followed up with Danny Boyle’s 2008 Academy Award winning film Slumdog Millionaire. This film’s many accolades speak for itself, and Irrfan Khan’s powerful role as the stern police inspector didn’t go unnoticed. In 2012, Irrfan Khan had even more success with his portrayal of the adult Pi in Ang Lee’s The Life of Pi and in his role as Dr. Ratha in The Amazing Spiderman. Hollywood has clearly taken note of Irrfan Khan’s “commanding presence,” so I’m excited to see what future projects we’ll get to see him in.
After discussing Irrfan Khan’s role in The Namesake, I can’t move forward without speaking of Tabu’s powerful role as Ashima Ganguli, wife to Irrfan Khan’s character and mother to Kal Penn’s character in the movie. Tabu has been acting in the Indian film industry since 1985, and she has been known for her powerful performances and selectivity when choosing Indian film roles. Having won the role in The Namesake after both Rani Mukherjee and Konkona Sen Sharma were considered for it, Tabu more than did justice to Ashima Ganguli’s complexity in the film.
Reportedly having impressed Ang Lee in a film where she “played the role of a cop” (which, from what I can tell, could be either the Hindi films Kohram or Khuda Kasam or the Tamil film Snegithiye), Tabu bagged the small, yet impactful role as the mother of Pi in the Life of Pi. With director’s like Ang Lee calling her “sublime,” I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of Tabu on this side of the world soon.
With a career total of almost 200 movies to his credit in the Indian film industry, Bollywood’s “angry young man” rose to fame in the 1970s and needs no introduction for most Indian audiences. After a brief period of retirement in the mid-1990s, Amitabh Bachchan gave his career a face-lift when he returned to the silver screen in Aditya Chopra’s 2000 film Mohabbatein as the stern and unrelenting headmaster of the movie’s Gurukul Academy. Since then he has had a steady stream of Bollywood releases every year, all of which led to his great Hollywood debut in Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film The Great Gatsby — but was it really so great? His short two minute cameo in the film left much to be desired, but maybe this just means that Amitabh Bachchan’s best Hollywood roles are still to come? Maybe. Maybe not.
Crowned Miss World in 2000, Priyanka Chopra entered the world of Bollywood with the 2003 thriller The Hero. Later that year, she won the Filmfare Award for Best Debut for her role in the film Andaaz, and it’s all been Bollywood silver screen history from there. Over the years she’s had many successful films in India, and despite the fact that she hasn’t been in any Hollywood movies to date, I think Priyanka is writing her own elaborate crossover story that may turn into something much bigger than any role in a single movie.
Whether you love or hate her for her singing career, Priyanka’s 2012 “In My City” single featuring Will.I.Am went triple platinum in India in its first week and landed Priyanka on American television sets every Thursday night as the intro for the 2013 season of NFL’s Thursday Night Football:
Most recently, she was featured in the New York Times after she was signed on as a model for popular American fashion label Guess, in October 2013. According to this NYT Fashion and Style feature, Priyanka prides herself as being a “trailblazing” celebrity. Keeping that in mind, it’ll be particularly interesting to see where this Miss World turned Bollywood actress turned pop singer turned American model will head next on her East-West fusion career path.
7. Anil Kapoor
With a Bollywood career spanning over three decades, Anil Kapoor is one of Bollywood’s most established actors. His body of work includes a wide variety of film genres ranging from a Hindi superhero film turned cult classic such as the 1987 movie Mr. India to classic Bollywood romantic dramas such as 1991’s Lamhe to over the top comedies such as the 2007 film Welcome to elaborate crime thrillers such as Race in 2008. But the movie that brought Anil Kapoor to audiences all over the world was none other than Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire in 2009. Allegedly winning the role of Prem Kumar as the movie’s host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire after it was turned down by Shahrukh Khan, Anil Kapoor’s crossover to the West took off with a bang with this role.
Shortly after the release of Slumdog Millionaire, in 2010, Anil Kapoor was seen in 15 episodes in season 8 of the popular American TV series 24 as Omar Hassan, the President of the Islamic Republic of Kamistan. His role in the series earned him rave reviews in the American press, and as a side bonus to his already booming career in India, Anil Kapoor followed up this role in America with his own Indian version of 24 where he plays the lead.
Anil Kapoor found yet another Hollywood role in 2011 as the wealthy Indian entrepreneur Brij Nath in MI4: Ghost Protocol. Unfortunately, his short role in this movie didn’t even come close to living up to expectations, and in fact, left many of his Indian fans sorely disappointed that he even chose to portray such a meaningless role just because Tom Cruise was heading the project. With all the potential he’s shown in his other crossover ventures, here’s hoping that Anil Kapoor makes wiser choices in the future.
Over the years, I’ve learned to be significantly less surprised by Bollywood stars making international strides, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not looking forward to future Bollywood-Hollywood crossovers. Here’s hoping that future ventures are significantly less hype and far more substance.
Farah Naz Khan is an internal medicine resident at Emory University. After graduating from college in Boston, she returned to her Alabama hometown to attend medical school, and was reunited with the mix of Southern hospitality and South Asian flair that had shaped her childhood. Follow her on Twitter @farah287 or read some of her thoughts at farah287.blogspot.com.