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London's British Asians look to Bollywood

By Shabnam Mahmood
BBC Asian Network

image captionArmaan Kirmani gave up a career in law

As Bollywood celebrates its centenary, London's Asians are looking to India's film industry to make their dreams a reality.

One hundred years ago Bollywood's first feature film, Raja Harishchandra, was released in Mumbai.

The industry has been transformed since that first silent film. Hindi cinema is now recognised across the world and has attracted thousands of foreign actors as well as singers.

Perhaps the biggest success story is that of Katrina Kaif.

Brought up in London, Kaif moved to Mumbai after being cast in a Bollywood film.

The star, who's often been voted the sexiest woman in Bollywood, has had huge commercial success with films like Singh is Kinng and Jab Tak Hai Jaan.

Kaif, whose mother is English, says she likes to spend time with her sisters when she has the chance to visit them in Whetstone, north London.

The actress has also starred opposite British-born actor, Upen Patel, in the film Namastey London.

Before being plucked to stardom, Patel led the life of a typical teenager in Brent.

The Wembley High School pupil admits getting into Hindi cinema has not been "without a struggle".

Patel, who has had success with films such as 36 Chinatown, said it can take months to get a big break.

"It's all about talent and perseverance," he said.

More and more Bollywood films are now being shot outside India.

London, with its landmarks such as Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden and the London Eye, has inspired many Indian film-makers to tell their stories.

One such Bollywood blockbuster filmed in London is Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, starring Shahrukh Khan.

'Changing industry'

Movie plots also centre around the dilemmas of the diaspora and so the need for British talent grows. Cambridge graduate Armaan Kirmani gave up a career in law to star in the Bollywood movie, Patiala House.

"British-Asian actors provide a bit more authenticity for Indian movies set in England," says Kirmani who starred alongside Akshay Kumar and Rishi Kapoor in Patiala House, which is set in Southall in west London.

"The industry is changing and they're a bit more accepting of actors who are not necessarily from India."

image captionKatrina Kaif, who grew up in London, has had huge commercial success

More and more British Asians are hoping to make a break in Bollywood rather than aim for success at home in the UK.

The first Bollywood acting school, the Actor Prepares academy in Ealing, west London, which was founded by Bollywood actor Anupam Kher of Bend It Like Beckham fame, opened its doors back in 2008.

Since then many hopefuls have graduated hoping for a career in Hindi cinema.

Irna Qureshi, a writer specialising in British-Asian arts and culture, explains why British-born Asians are taking a gamble on Bollywood.

"They feel they are not getting a good variety of roles here, or the Bollywood offer just seems better.

"It could also be because they think they are better placed to play non-resident Indians in films that are shot here."

'Hungry for stardom'

It's not just British actors who are in demand, as more British-born singers are making their name in Bollywood movies as playback artists.

Southall-born Ash King is the voice behind Salman Khan for the film Bodyguard.

"Everyone in India is hungry to be a star and there's a lot of talent out there, but I got to work with the best including AR Rahman."

He admits he was unknown in the UK before his big break in India.

"The whole experience in India has given me confidence and I come back to London feeling I have a stamp of approval," he said.

For Indian producers, the appeal of casting someone from Britain also lies in the economics.

The cost of a film ticket in Britain can be up to four times that of one in India and the UK makes up one of the largest Bollywood audiences outside of India.

That's also given opportunities to people like Amy Jackson in Ekk Deewana Tha; Hazel Croney who appeared in Mera Pehla Pehla Pyar, and even Alice Patten, the daughter of BBC chairman and Conservative peer Lord Patten.

Alice Patten appeared with Aamir Khan in the award-winning film Rang De Basanti, playing a young woman who goes to India to make a documentary film about the British rule in the Indian subcontinent.

More can be heard on this story on BBC Asian Networkon Friday 2 May

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  • 100 years of Indian cinema