While there is merit in the nepotism debate, but is there one in hiring the Katrinas, the Jacquelines of Bollywood?
By Anannya Srusti / Mayur Lookhar
– With inputs from Bernard Andrade
The demise of actor Sushant Singh Rajput has stirred a number of debates within and outside the film industry. Ever since the unfortunate incident, words like ‘nepotism’ and ‘favouritism’ have been echoing in the industry. Actress Kangana Ranaut has taken the lead in initiating most such discussions, slamming legacy studios, star kids. The actress has also accused a few Bollywood bigwigs of favouring the less deserving star kids over the befitting outsiders.
Amidst this debate, remains camouflaged the question of the overseas ‘outsider’ and where they stand in the industry when it comes to favouritism. Over the past decade, we’ve seen the Hindi film industry warm up to particularly two such talents – Katrina Kaif and Jacqueline Fernandez. British-born Katrina Kaif is counted among the A-list actresses, while Sri Lankan beauty Fernandez has survived for over a decade. How time has flown quickly.
Despite having spent a considerable amount of time in Bollywood, the duo still cop criticism over their wooden acting. Principal among them is their lack of proficiency in the business language – Hindi. Kaif’s half Indian roots gives her an edge over the Bahrain-born Lankan who is also half Malaysian.
Today the world is truly a global place. Talents from across the globe are welcome to join any industry, especially if they fit the bill for a particular task. Hindi cinema has a history of hiring imported talent.
A host of Baghdadi Jews found their calling in Hindi cinema in the silent era [1913-1930]. There were the Abraham siblings, Esther Victoria and Sophie. They were known by their screen name Pramila and Romila respectively. We had Ruby Myers, better known as Sulochana, her cousin Rose Musleah, Ramola Devi (Rachel Cohen). Later on, we had Nadira (Farhat Ezekiel) and Lilian Ezra.
Once the talkies era commenced, language constraints saw most of them fade away. But the likes of Sulochana and later Nadira upgraded their skills, adapted to the change and went on to have marquee careers in the Hindi film industry.
Hindi cinema had its fair share of Anglo Indians in the nascent years. Patience Cooper, Madhuri [Beryl Claessen], Seeta Devi [Renee Smith], Lalita Devi [Bonnie Bird], Sabita Devi [Iris Gasper], Cuckoo Moray, Manorama [Erin Isaac Daniels] to name a few.
We also had the Russian Effie Hippolite, better known as Indira Devi, who was cast opposite Prithviraj Kapoor in Sher-e-Arab (1930). Unheralded American actress Iris Crawford played the lead in the silent film Husn Ka Daku .
Their presence in the silent era, nascent stage of Hindi cinema was largely due to a closed Indian society that considered cinema as a dirty profession. So, the desi women largely stayed away from it.
In the 30s, Australian Mary Ann Evans, better known by her screen name Fearless Nadia charmed the Indian audiences. Starting off as a theater and circus artiste, Nadia found fame working under producer Homi Wadia. She was much loved for her dare devilry in Wadia’s Hunterwali  and later the sequel Hunterwali Ki Beti .
The Australian stunt woman, actor’s career spanned from 1935 to 1968 comprising of only fifteen films but it did not stop her from becoming a marquee name in Hindi cinema.
Another import who made it big as an actress was Burma-born Anglo Indian Helen Anne Richardson. Helen, as she was popularly called, is the undisputed cabaret queen of Hindi cinema. The Burmese came to Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1943 and started her career in Hindi film industry as a background dancer in 1951. It was her sizzling dance performance in tracks like Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu from the film Howrah Bridge (1958), Piya Tu Ab Toh Aaja from the film Caravan (1971), Mehbooba from the film Sholay (1975) that made her darling of the masses. She went on to marry successful screenwriter Salim Khan and her career only grew on from there.
Both Nadia and Helen may have had their critics, but they were masters of action and cabaret dance respectively. Helen though was fairly proficient in her Hindi as she was raised in Bombay from an early age. Nadia and Helen carved an identity for themselves in specific crafts. Their presence only enriched Hindi cinema.
Can the same be said about Katrina and Jacqueline? Both are excellent dancers but the changing landscape of cinema now limits scope for one to shine as a dancer alone. Both the ladies certainly are not one to be bracketed into ‘item girls’ category. Kaif has shown promise in the odd film – Raajneeti , Jagga Jasoos . However, her biggest successes – Ek Tha Tiger , Tiger Zinda Hai  have very little to do with her performance. It’s convenient and smart to play conventional love interest of a male super star in formulaic films, but has Kaif really grown as an actress?
It’s a similar story for Fernandez who basked in the glory of mass entertainers like Race 2 , Housefull 2 . Kick , But when she doesn’t have a Salman Khan or an Akshay Kumar in the lead cast, it’s been a familiar downhill story. Early this year, Fernandez gave a masterclass in BAD acting in Shirish Kunder’s Mrs. Serial Killer  on Netflix. She was so poor, that you can’t help but wonder even after spending 11 years in Bollywood, she still strikes you as a novice.
Their fans would accuse us of unfairly targeting the ladies, but they’ve been around a long time and so it’s natural that they come first in the line of accountability.
In the millennia, imported [female] talents have largely shone in titillating item numbers. Canadian-Moroccan Nora Fatehi has taken the lead over other firangis with her mesmerizing belly dancing. Forget her nationality, but Fatehi is arguably the finest dancer in Bollywood today. Who wouldn’t pay to watch Fatehi burn the dance floor?
Last year, Fatehi is said to have signed an exclusive contract with T-Series. Fatehi’s role in Nikkhil Advani’s Batla House  wasn’t limited to an item song. The girl made a rather feeble attempt at acting. Even her most ardent admirer won’t be convinced of her acting abilities. She’s making an effort to improve her Hindi and will be seen in the Ajay Devgn-starrer Bhuj . Let’s hope we see a better display of acting here.
Among the recent imported talents, Iranian actress Elnaaz Norouzi impressed in Netflix’s Sacred Games . Blessed with beauty, Norouzi didn’t take the popular ‘item girl’ route. Instead, she worked on her Hindi and consciously looked for meaningful roles.
“I wasn’t speaking a word of Hindi before I came to India. I told myself you should do things which nobody wants you to do. That’s what I did for three years. I worked on my acting, my Hindi,” Norouzi told Cinestaan in an interview in 2018.
Having watched Sacred Games season 1 and season 2, it is fair to say that Norouzi has earned her stripes. The Iranian’s efforts show that there’s no bias towards any nationality. Prove your worth, and the desi audience is bound to accept you as one of their own.
The way this article is shaping so far, some might accuse us of misogyny. So, our videsi men shouldn’t feel left out. Filmmakers Ellis R Dungan, Franz Osten, and cinematographer Josef Wirsching were among the first foreign men to work in Indian cinema.
In comparison to the females, the foreign male actors didn’t come by the dozen in Indian entertainment space. Often the goras (white men) were cast in patriotic films where they largely played the evil British officers. Sohrab Modi’s Jhansi Ki Rani  included names like Michael Shea, Marconi who played Major Eliss and Colonel Sleeman respectively.
Veteran actor David Abraham Cheulkar came from the Bene Israel community, but he was more a local Marathi than Jewish. Writer David Jeffries had collaborated with filmmaker Brij Katyal, and he even acted in his film Pasand Apni Apni .
Director Tapi Chanakya had roped in noted Iranian actor, filmmaker, wrestler Mohammad Ali Fardin opposite Waheeda Rehman in the Indo-Iranian production Subha-O-Sham . The film was based in Tehran and was simultaneously shot in Hindi and Persian. Fardin was never seen in an Indian film again.
Tom Alter had American blood but he was born and brought up in India. He was flawless in his Hindi and Urdu. An alumnus of Film and Television Institute of India, Alter got his first break in the Dev Anand-starrer Saheb Bahadur (1977), directed by Chetan Anand. However, his first release was Ramanand Sagar’s Charas .
Three years later, Alter was joined by Australian Bob Christo, who made a career playing a henchman. Though bad, but Christo was loved by the desi audiences. He would go on to feature in close to 200 films.
Maharashtra-born Gavin Packard was of Irish descent and he joined the henchman brigade in the late 80s, 90s.
The videsi women clearly were more in demand than the men. History shows us that whilst the female actors were successful in bagging the lead roles in many films, the male foreign actors were largely cast as henchmen or evil British officers.
The cliched portrayal dipped in the new millennia. As Indian cinema entered a new era, the sane filmmakers harped more on a horses for courses policy. Gowariker’s period film Lagaan  saw an impressive show by British actor Paul Blackthorne as the evil Captain Andrew Russell. Surprisingly, he wasn’t seen again in Bollywood.
Apurva Asrani’s cross cultural drama Out of Control  had Riteish Deshmukh romancing American model, Baywatch actor Brande Roderick. Brazilian Giselli Monteiro was satisfactory in Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal . Two years later, Ali unearthed American Nargis Fakhri, who is of Pakistani and Czech descent. Though a breath-taking beauty, but Fakhri is yet to convince as a Bollywood actress. Naturally, she’s struggled to grow in Bollywood.
Lately, many foreign beauties have settled to being the glamorous item girl. Polish-German Claudia Ciesla sums up the problem for her ilk in Bollywood.
“I’m a foreigner, so I can’t play an Indian, same way Priyanka Chopra Jonas won’t be able to play a foreigner in Hollywood films. It’s because of the way we look. That’s a normal thing. Katrina Kaif made it so far because she’s half Indian, but I’m not,” Ciesla told Hindustan Times.
While the Fakhris, Cieslas, Monteiros have struggled, you do question- What more Kaif or Fernandez has offered to be getting a longer rope?
The scope for foreign actors is limited. While they add to the glamour quotient, but they can only be called upon for scripts that merit their presence. Unless they speak flawless Hindi, Urdu like a Tom Alter. Language is the key. To be fair to the imported artistes, casting is also questionable down south where many fair North Indian girls lip sync to Tamil, Telugu, Kannada films. Well, that debate is for another day.
Hindi cinema viewers are increasingly demanding for good content. The home-grown stars aren’t spared either. Thus, the continued poor performances of foreign artistes like Kaif and Fernandez will naturally raise the question – Do they still deserve to be in Bollywood?