From Devika Rani (Achhut Kanya/1936) and Nargis (Mother India/1957) to Meena Kumari (Pakeezah/1972) and Rekha (Umrao Jaan/1981), actresses have played a vital role in shaping the history of Indian cinema. Proving their versatility in portraying many an iconic character that has stood the test of time over the decades, some of them have even commanded a price on par with their male counterparts–a fact seen by the otherwise male-dominated industry as the ultimate yardstick to judge a heroine’s worth.
There has been, also, another benchmark to evaluate the merit and the métier of a Hindi film actress—success in Hollywood. For years, the American film industry has been considered to be the final frontier for a Bollywood diva. Only few have ever ventured out to try their luck in the Mecca of global cinema down the years
Persis Khambatta (1948-2013), for one, was the only actress to have made a valiant foray into Hollywood in her heyday, grabbing eyeballs as the bald Lieutenant Ilia in the 1979-hit Star Trek: The Motion Picture. A former model, who won the Miss India crown way back in 1965, Persis did a few other films in Hollywood, the most notable being Sylvester Stallone-starrer, Night Hawks (1983), but she failed to create any major ripples. Experts believe her fortune could have been different had she bagged the role of the main antagonist in Octopussy (1983)—a Bond movie starring Roger Moore in the lead which was shot extensively in India and starred high-profile Indians such as Kabir Bedi and tennis star Vijay Amritraj. That role, however, went to Swedish actress Maud Adams.
Khambatta had landed in the US in the seventies after her career in Hindi movies failed to take off despite her much talked-about debut in Khawaja Ahmad Abbas’s suspense thriller, Bombay Raat ki Baahon Mein (1968). In the States, she made a mark as a model for many years, but failed to last long in Hollywood despite the success of her Star Trek venture. In the Eighties, she returned to Mumbai to do Shingora, a video film produced by Nari Hira, but it failed to re-launch her. Her short stint at Hollywood only amplified the widely-held belief that Indian actors had a limited scope in English cinema because of their looks and they were occasionally needed only for small and stereotypical roles.
Things began to look up in the post-reforms era though. With diaspora from the subcontinent getting bigger in size in the US every year, there was a sharp increase in the demand for Bollywood artistes. But it was not until the turn of the millennium that the Hindi film actress finally started getting offers to play substantial roles in both Hollywood and British movies. Aishwarya Rai made her debut with Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice (2004) and followed it up with movies like The Mistress of Spices (2005) and Provoked (2006) . But these movies were primarily British productions helmed by film makers of Indian origin such as Gurinder Chadha and Jagmohan Mundra. It was a Hollywood production, The Pink Panther 2 (2009), that was supposed to propel her into the big league. But her career did not make any further headway as her focus later shifted to her family and Indian film projects.
There were others such as Tabu and Mallika Sherawat who also had a shot or two at international projects. Tabu had a tryst with global cinema with Mira Nair’s The Namesake (2006) based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel of the same name and more recently with Life of Pi (2012). After the success of Murder (2004) at the domestic box-office, Sherawat too made her presence felt at the international level. But her career remained a non-starter despite getting a break in Jackie Chan-starrer The Myth (2005) and the eminently forgettable Hisss (2010) and Politics of Love (2011).
Priyanka films for Quantico in Harlem, New York
The real turnaround in the fortunes of Indian actress in Hollywood came with the advent of Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone, the reigning queens of Indian cinema of the past decade. At the height of her career, Priyanka took the lead and made her presence felt quickly in the US with a popular television series, Quantico (2015), a crime thriller which is currently being shot for its third season. She subsequently did Baywatch this year and got two more in her kitty—A Kid Like Jake and Isn’t It Romantic?—in quick succession. The actress, who is now among the top ten highest paid television actresses in the US, has lately been spending more time abroad than in Mumbai to further her career there. She has also considerably reduced her assignments back home, her last outing being, Prakash Jha’s Jai Gangaajal that was released early last year.
Close on the heels of Priyanks, Deepika—who is currently in the eye of a storm over her titular role in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s controversial biopic of a medieval Rajput queen Padmavati—also made a foray into Hollywood with xXx: Return of Xander Cage opposite Van Diesel, which earned her good reviews. She is now set to be part of the next film of the series which vouches for her global appeal and acting prowess.
Interestingly, Deepika had to let go of another big project in Hollywood –a rom-com opposite a popular star—because she had no dates to spare. The Om Shanti Om (2007) star had to choose between the international project and Padmavati and she ended up picking up Bhansali’s movie apparently because the director had made two of the best movies of her career—Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (2013) and Bajirao Mastani (2015).
Trade observers believe that Hollywood has been showing interest in Indian actresses like Priyanka and Deepika not only because of their popularity among the Indian diaspora but also because of India’s emergence as a huge market for Hollywood ventures, many of which are doing better business than home-grown movies here these days. Nowadays, these films are released in India on the same day they hit the screen in the US, which was not the case earlier on.
The success of Deepika and Priyanka has apparently spurred younger actresses to explore global cinema. While Nargis Fakri was seen in Paul Feig’s action thriller, Spy (2015) featuring Jude Law and Mirinda Hart in key roles, Neha Sharma, Disha Patani and Amyra Dastur were part of the Jackie Chan’s Xuanzang, an Indo-China historical adventure which was released in India as Kung Fu Yoga this year.
But then, their success in Hollywood and other international cinema is merely an extension of the growing women empowerment that Indian cinema is experiencing in the age of millennials. With the digital age audiences backing women-centric movies in Bollywood to the hilt now, actresses such as Vidya Balan, Kangana Ranaut, Taapsee Pannu, among others, have proved their box office draw, often playing central characters, even titular roles—a far cry from the pre-millennial era when heroines were considered mere showpieces in the male-dominated industry.