Foreign actors battle for stardom in Bollywood

Mumbai is attracting a growing band of foreign actors hoping to make their fortune in the planet's most exuberant and musical film industry

The latest drama to hit India's television screens, Firangi Bahu ("Foreign Daughter-in-Law"), is a tale of culture clash and changing social norms.

Start Quote

You have to get so many people to guide you and help you, especially in this industry where a lot of casting couch happens and a lot of bad things happen”

End Quote Sippora Anna Zoutewelle Bollywood actor

The story is of a traditional Gujarati family who get a new family member: tall, blonde and European.

And the show's producers expect the topic to keep them busy for at least a year.

For the woman with the role - Dutch actress Sippora Anna Zoutewelle - it is a remarkable break, because foreign actors rarely land major parts on Indian screens.

"I think you need to be lucky," she says. "To get the big roles is not easy because over here it's not only about talent but also about who you know. If you're in a rich family or you know a lot of people it's easy, they'll just launch you. They'll make a movie for you.

"Being an outsider it's easy to get a role, but it's difficult to be here for the long term - to do more than just one movie."

Bollywood dance class Foreign dancers are in demand by Bollywood film directors
'Exotic and sexy'

The small-town girl who studied aerospace engineering first came to Mumbai for dance lessons. She loved the city, tried modelling and auditioned for TV adverts. A year later, one of the producers called her back to see if she was interested in the TV role.

It is the kind of career break that many dream of, but few achieve.

Navigating the highly competitive world of Mumbai's booming television and film industries can be precarious.

Audiences prefer local stars and most of the roles are in Hindi.

Yet an increasing number of actors are turning up from around the globe to try their luck in the home of Bollywood.

Nobody is counting exactly, but casting director Mukesh Chhabra says he gets ten to 15 emails a month from foreigners interested in auditioning.

Mukesh Chhabra's casting studio Mukesh Chhabra's casting studio

Directors traditionally sought out foreigners as dancers or as set dressing, to save the cost of shooting a scene overseas. The best one could hope for was a bit part in a historical drama.

Zoutewelle says that was the norm: "Being a foreigner, normally, when they approach you over here, they look at you more as an 'item girl', so they choose you more for songs in their movies… very exotic, sexy."

Not the biggest roles

But as directors experiment with new storylines for the growing multiplex cinema audience, the roles are getting more varied.

"We need more foreigners because we can't repeat them in every film," says Mr Chhabra.

"There are very few foreigners who are good actors who want to stay in Bollywood. Most of the good actors go to Hollywood. But if they stayed here, they'd definitely get more work."

The drawback? Outsiders still don't get the biggest roles. If you are only on set for a couple of weeks of a two-month shoot, Mr Chhabra calculates you would will need to be in six or seven films a year to afford Mumbai's soaring rents.

'Tiring and teary'
Lisa Lazarus Lisa Lazarus had never been to India before she shot her first Bollywood film

It is no surprise then that many actors do not last long.

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Nothing about it was easy. It took a lot of time and pressure. I'd go home crying a few times after 24 hours of filming”

End Quote Lisa Lazarus Bollywood actor

"If you do come out here you've got to be prepared to work and dedicate yourself to it," says Lisa Lazarus, a former Miss Llanelli, who has come a long way from her home town in Wales.

She had never been to India until the producers of the historical drama Veer needed a British actress and tracked down the beauty pageant queen. "I don't quite know how it happened," she says. "All I know is I got lucky." She was on set within a month.

"Nothing about it was easy," she says of her first experience of a Bollywood shoot. "It took a lot of time and pressure, I'd go home crying a few times after 24 hours of filming… long hours, long days. One of my dresses weighed 15 kilos. Try wearing that for three weeks."

But does she regret it? Not at all. "It was something I was so passionate about. It didn't seem like hard work to me."

'Know what you want'
Ms Zoutewelle discussing her role Zoutewelle says you need to work hard in Bollywood to make things happen

Lazarus went back to Wales and finished her studies. But with two films now behind her and plenty of modelling work on offer, her new career is taking off.

So for the lucky few, it seems Bollywood really can offer a dream ending. Just do not leave it all to chance.

"You have to work hard," says Zoutewelle. "You have to get so many people to guide you and help you, especially in this industry where a lot of casting couch happens and a lot of bad things happen.

"You should have your head on your shoulders and you should know what you want.

"People will offer you so many things, and it all looks so shiny and bright and glamorous. But it's not. It's work."

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