Following in the footsteps of Sophie Dahl, Toby Stephens and even Emma Bunton, 26-year-old Alice Patten is the latest Brit to make a debut in a big-budget Bollywood feature film. The youngest daughter of former Conservative politician and Governor of Hong Kong, Lord Chris Patten, she's starred in TV shows such as Charles II: The Pride And Passion, Jonathan Creek and Midsummer Murders. But now she's bagged a rather unusual big-screen role in Rang De Basanti (Paint It Saffron), acting and singing in Hindi alongside Oscar-nominated actor/producer Aamir Khan, India's answer to Tom Cruise.
How does a Cambridge graduate turned thespian end up bagging a romantic lead role opposite one of Bollywood's biggest superstars?
A script came through for me to look at and I liked the plot. It's a well-written contemporary story and my character has depth. So I auditioned in the normal way after which they flew me out to Mumbai for a screen test with Aamir and the whole crew, plus costume fittings. When I came back I was told I got the part and had to leave within three days to begin a five-month shoot. It was a complete whirlwind!
How familiar were you with Bollywood before working on Rang De Basanti?
I'd watched a few films but I really didn't have an idea of how big Bollywood is in India until I saw it first hand. I think it's impossible to understand just what films mean out there. It's a huge part of Indian culture. But awareness of the industry is growing around the world, especially here in Britain where the interest in huge.
What did you father, Lord Patten, think?
Oh he was also happy for me. Like the parent of any actor he's pleased as along as I'm working.
Is director Rakeysh Mehra trying to convey any political message?
There are parallels all the way through the film of the pre-independence and contemporary situation in India. In the film I recruit a group of university students to play the roles of real-life revolutionaries, even though they don't identify with the characters or have a full understanding of their own history. They know little about their forefathers who fought for the rights they take for granted now. Basanti means saffron, a colour in the Indian national flag that signifies sacrifice.
Did you have to change your style of acting to suit Bollywood's more melodramatic feel?
No I didn't actually. Occasionally there were moments where I could feel I was being more quirky and subtle, or I played down things. I just wanted to be realistic and truthful and most of the story is like that so it seemed right.
When did you realise the level of stardom associated with your leading man Aamir Khan?
I knew he was famous before I went out there and had seen him in Lagaan, but I didn't have any idea of what it was going to be like. It's only when you notice how people talk about a person that you realise how important or famous they are. Everyone looked up to Aamir including the younger actors. He's a lovely man, incredibly generous and funny. Considering what his life is like he's so down to earth and real and works incredibly hard.
Is it true you had to learn Hindi for your role?
Yes. I probably speak Hindi in 75% of the film. I studied modern languages at university so luckily it wasn't too difficult. But I made a huge effort to sound as good as it could be, as the more I felt confident with it, the better I thought I could act. Hopefully Indian audiences will be able to understand me!
As female lead were you assigned the traditional "spot boy"?
I was offered one but found all of that a little strange. They do everything for you, from holding your mirror when you're doing your makeup to shading you with an umbrella. As a lead actor you notice your status more. The way the people look up to you is astonishing. Everyone was so polite and respectful. But I'm sure they all thought I was mad saying please and thank you 19 times a day!
Bollywood has a reputation for its haphazard style of filmmaking. How did you cope?
It was surprisingly organised actually. We had a bound script and lots of rehearsals before hand. But you do have to be more patient. There's a lot of hanging about on set, and crowds of people appear from out of nowhere and try and get in the shot, especially when you have a big actor like Aamir around. But it eventually all comes together and works well, just like the whole of India really.
Would you recommend Bollywood to other aspiring British actors looking to get a break in the movies?
Definitely. It's good to test yourself as an actor, push a few boundaries and do exciting new things that scare you. Bollywood is certainly an adventure.
Rang De Basanti is released in UK cinemas on Wednesday 25th January 2006.