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Bollywood’s foreign calling

Foreigners in Mumbai's acting schools learn dialogue-baazi and dance,and also get a reality check. But some of them are determined to take their skills back home.

Written by Dipti Nagpaul D'souza | Mumbai |
July 1, 2011 1:37:28 pm

Foreigners in Mumbai’s acting schools learn dialogue-baazi and dance,and also get a reality check. But some of them are determined to take their skills back home.

Two months into his arrival in Mumbai for a course in film production,Robert Inyang was on the verge of giving up,and about to go back to Nigeria. Nowhere in the city did he find the love and goodness that he saw in the Bollywood films he grew up on. “In the movies,you see people sing words of love to a girl in the street,” he says. But the people he met were brusque and indifferent to friendly overtures. “The truth is that strangers don’t even respond if you greet them,” complains the 30-year-old.

It was only when his batchmate in his script writing course,Keba Botlogetswe from Botswana,convinced him that he should not let such disappointments come in way of his dream of contributing to the cinema of his country that he stayed back.

Now,as their respective six-month programmes near end,Botlogetswe is looking forward to return home to turn scriptwriter. Inyang is eyeing the prestigious FTII course in sound recording and design before he goes back to work in the Nigerian film industry — that’s Nollywood,incidentally the largest film industry after Bollywood in terms of output. “Nigerian films are very fast-paced and dry. I’d like to amalgamate that style with the Indian way of using music to create a fresh genre.”

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Inyang’s story is no more an aberration. In the classrooms of several acting and film schools of Mumbai,some of which occupy no more space than an apartment floor,foreign nationals discuss Bollywood scripts,watch Hindi classics or train in Kalaripayattu with their Indian batchmates. According to Meghna Ghai,president of Whistling Woods International,Subhash Ghai’s film school in Mumbai,the last three years have seen a considerable rise in the number of international students,their number averaging at 20 per cent of each batch. And though Mumbai has more acting schools than film schools,courses in editing,cinematography,direction and scriptwriting are also gaining popularity.

An obvious reason for Indian schools drawing foreign students is that they are cheaper than those in countries like the US and the UK. But they also have begun to get an edge as many students,like American Stephanie Ollerton and Venezuelan Victoria Estefania,also hope that a stint here—and eventually in Bollywood–will spice up their CV. Having spent eight years working her way up behind the camera,literally,Ollerton knew that she’d have to set herself apart if she wants to break into the clique of cinematographers. “Indian cinema is visually diametrically different from Hollywood. For example,if close-ups in the West highlight a person’s beauty,Bollywood uses them to focus on emotions that take a story forward,” she says. So,like Inyang,the 34-year-old student at Whistling Woods is hoping to mix up styles,and return with first-hand experience of working in the world’s biggest film industry.

She also wishes she could take back the culture of spot boys with her to Hollywood. “I love the fact that there are so many people available to take care of the smaller jobs. Back home,I have to carry the entire equipment all by myself and it’s quite a strain,” she says.

Estefania,a student of the acting course at the same school,feels that actors in Spanish cinema,where she has previous work experience,do not emote enough. Her first exposure to Bollywood was only five months ago when,during a vacation in Singapore,the 24-year-old model-turned-actor met an Indian film producer. “We spoke with such passion and so highly of Indian cinema that when I returned to my room,I had to look it up online,” she recounts in heavily accented English. What she saw on Y ouTube were clips of several films,mostly Shah Rukh Khan’s,and the glitz,colour and dramatic cinematic expression were inspiring enough for her to enroll in a two-year programme at Whistling Woods,book a ticket to India and postpone her return to Spain indefinitely.

Evelyn Sharma,half-German-half-Indian,came to India searching for her roots. “With my dark hair and looks unlike most Germans,I grew up being mocked at. But in the 1990s,when Bollywood became big in my country,I was suddenly this princess from the land of colours and mystique. Since I knew nothing about India,I came here to find out for myself what the country’s all about,” she says with a grin as she flips through a Hindi translation of a Samuel Beckett play at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting,Mumbai.

Other than discovering herself,Sharma also landed bit roles in Hindi movies. She then decided to enrol for a formal course in acting that could help form a base in the industry. With her Hindi reading and speaking skills improving by the day,she hopes to tap into her network of friends from the industry to build a career in Bollywood. And she has already begun to fit in. In the school’s empty corridors,she sails around dressed in a long skirt with a distinctively Indian print,humming Udi udi,the song from Guzaarish. Though Sharma grew up dancing to Hindi film tunes,the training in Bollywood dance,she claims,has made her skilled enough to be able to do the jhatkas and matkas without feeling awkward.

To succumb to the temptation of staying back isn’t surprising. But equally,the aspirations of these international students are quite realistic. Estefania may be able to reel off the names of successful foreign imports like Katrina Kaif and Giselli Monteiro,but she is aware of the language handicap. “ Besides,I already have experience in the Spanish film industry. Here,I’ll have to start from the scratch and since I have no connections,I may never make it,” she says.

Armenian Narine Khevoyan,a student at Anupam Kher’s Actor Prepares,too,does not wish to tie herself down to dreams of a competitive Bollywood career even as she perfects the dance moves that she once learnt as a child,watching Hindi movies. She may find herself lost when her classmates talk in Hindi,but Khevoyan blends in when the conversation moves towards actors,dialogues and Bollywood. “I know all Raj Kapoor films since he was huge in Russia,” she says. Women,says Ravi Bhatia,course coordinator at Stella Adler,stand a better chance in a film industry always looking for fair and lovely newbies to pair opposite older,established male actors. “How the career pans out for the boys will depend on whether they’re here with dreams to become a hero or an actor,” he says.

But many others believe that with the globalisation of Indian cinema,the lines are blurring. “Ensemble films are on the rise and if a film uses an international backdrop,one or two of the key characters can easily be non-Indians,” says a hopeful Sharma.

The new wave in Indian cinema is already working with foreign technicians like cinematographer Carlos Catalan and music director Wayne Sharp,both of whom bagged prestigious Indian film awards for their work here. This brings hope especially for students like Hari Bhusal and Neev Pradhan,who are natives of a country so close to home – Nepal – and are well-acquainted with both the language and culture of Mumbai.

But the stringent employment rules in India make it very difficult for foreigners — the industry is bound to give preference to members of various film associations in order to safeguard the rights of locals. Besides,non-Indians need to show a steady income of Rs 12 lakh per annum in order to obtain a work permit. Malcolm Pope,currently a part of the MBA programme,with specialisation in entertainment,at WWI,is chalking out plans to launch an entrepreneurial venture with his friends. “India currently enjoys a lot of attention,economically as well as culturally. And with studios like Fox setting up offices here and Indian companies like Reliance and Prime Focus growing in Hollywood,a huge talent exchange is on the brink,” he says.

The students are not uncritical fans of Bollywood. “The dialogues are too heavy and stylised and the films are often hero-centric,” complains Bhusal who prefers documentary-style filmmaking. Pradhan has recently discovered the joys of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s and Satyajit Ray’s cinema and wonders why such films are not made anymore. But Ollerton argues: “To give up the grandness means killing what makes it unique in the first place.”

As of now,they have all made India their home. Their attempts to adapt and blend in are sometimes inspiring and at others,endearing. “I love Mumbai now that I’ve made friends here,many from my own country,” grins Inyang,who visits the only Nigerian restaurant in Colaba every weekend. Pope,over the three years,not only speaks Hindi almost fluently but also knows the city well enough to give directions to his Mumbaikar friends. Narine,who learnt the Hindi alphabet before moving here,is now trying to understand the formation of words and their meaning.

“And then,there is the biggest binding factor that we all share with Indians – our love for Bollywood,” says Sharma.

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