Years ago, the Hindi movie channel, Set Max made a bunch of Bollywood-themed spoof advertisements with the tagline ‘Sabko deewana bana de’ (make everyone go crazy), referring to the craze for Bollywood movies. As Bollywood churns out more movies and actors each year, the craze is no longer limited to just Indians.
Often found playing the roles of Russian junkies in Goa, or British colonisers, or the English/American businessman looking to make deals with the Indian hero, the number of foreign actors in Indian cinema has grown – even if the variety of roles given to them hasn’t.
The popular belief that caucasian actors are treated like royalty thanks to the Indian obsession with fair skin, was busted when The Open magazine published a story on the gruelling experience of a foreign ‘extra’ in a Bollywood film. The story spoke of the blatant highhandedness and indignity suffered by the ‘extras’ on the sets in comparison to the star-treatment of actors such as Kareena Kapoor.
On the other hand, with Indian cinema becoming more global and competitive on the awards scene, there are foreigners whose curiosity drives them to experience Indian cinema for themselves.
Here’s the interesting story of ‘2 Foreigners in Bollywood’. These ‘2 foreigners’ are Johan and Hampus from Sweden, who have found a place for themselves in the labyrinths of the industry.
Former college mates, now roommates in Mumbai, Johan and Hampus share one common interest – Bollywood. Calling themselves the ‘2 foreigners in Bollywood,’ the two boys moved to Mumbai to pursue careers in Bollywood, out of sheer curiosity.
Johan and Hampus came to India about nine months ago. After completing college in Sweden, the two of them thought they must become actors – although they had no formal training in acting. “We had heard a lot about Bollywood. It’s a big industry and we didn’t know much about what happens in that part of the world. We were curious to find out,” says Johan. So the duo booked a one-way ticket to Mumbai, a city in which they were complete strangers.
They stayed in a hostel with other struggling Bollywood aspirants at first and managed to get their first acting opportunity less than a week later. Shot on Madh Island in the north Mumbai, it wasn’t a big role but enough to trigger a fairly regular schedule for them, every week.
“On an average, we shoot about three days a week or audition for roles. We moved into a paying-guest accommodation (popularly known as PGs) and stayed there for about five or six months. We have been getting more contacts now and more work, of course,” says Johan.
Apart from giving auditions every week, the duo indulge in the typical Mumbai treats such as the occasional vada pav or paani puri. Since their apartment is in Andheri, auditions and food are not a problem anymore. “Everything is close by making things easy,” he says.
Remembering The Open magazine article, I ask them about the unpleasant experiences in the country as foreign actors, but Johan begs to differ. “Obviously, if you spend 8 months in a different country, you might have some negative experience. But, honestly, the people here are so welcoming. We hang out with the chai wallahs, paan wallahs, auto drivers and it has been fine,” he says. A brief pause and he adds, “maybe some issue related to some guy not paying us as per the contract and blah blah blah, but nothing unpleasant per se.”
Having acted in upcoming Bollywood films like Akshay Kumar’s Rustom, Shahid Kapoor’s Rangoon, in addition to Hampus sharing scenes with Riteish Deshmukh in Banjo, the duo has a few other projects coming up. “We’ve been really lucky in getting opportunities early on,” he says.
They are now familiar with most of the Bollywood stars. Johan points out the constant buzz around the stars that piques their curiosity, especially about Salman Khan. “There’s some mystery about him. You want to know what he is like as an actor, as a person, you know,” he says.
Like Johan and Hampus, there are other foreigners, who are interested in Bollywood. Most of them are picked up for roles whilst hanging out at beaches in Goa or other exotic locations in India. “There are others but we only meet them during auditions. We don’t really hang out with them much, we prefer hanging out with Indians here,” he says.
While Bollywood is their ‘home ground’, the duo is open to acting opportunities from other film industries as well. Mumbai is, after all, not the only place they have visited here. “We prefer Mumbai because it is very convenient. Having said that, we have travelled to mostly the northern part in India. We have been to Kashmir, Ladakh, Simla, Pushkar and of course, Goa,” he says. Interestingly, he and Hampus were even offered the roles of Russian junkies in Goa, in a film. “It was typical of course but it was kind of amusing, too,” he says.
Apart from acting, they are keen on having fun in India. With nearly 70,000 likes on their Facebook page and over 6,000 followers on Instagram, the ‘2 foreigners in Bollywood’ believe that they couldn’t have chosen a better place to start. They have no plans of going back to Sweden anytime soon.
Sharing screen space with Rajinikanth is what most would dream of. Lauren J. Irwin from the UK, lived the dream after being cast as one of the foreigners in the film Lingaa, playing the role of the wife of Lingaa’s right-hand man. Although it was a small role, the announcement of her joining the cast of Lingaa had her name trending on Twitter for an entire day.
Having acted since the age of seven, Lauren was a part of a teen pop group in the UK before going on to study in LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts). Trained in acting, Lauren didn’t know a lot about Indian cinema except for a few Bollywood films. To her, joining the cast included witnessing the similarities and differences in the way films are made in India, the UK, and the US.
Lauren is eager to work in other films, and she narrates a pleasant experience on the sets of Lingaa. “I had the most fantastic time there! Everyone was so welcoming, and I had such an amazing group of people that I worked with every day; my makeup artist, my hairdresser, the director, the cast, the costume designer, everyone was just lovely and it was a pleasure to go to the set and work each day,” she says.
Currently part of a TV show for Hallmark called The Eleventh, Lauren’s dreams involve Hollywood while still being open to working in Bollywood.
You may have already heard of Sal Yusuf from the UK – if not seen him – before. Dubbing himself as one of the best British voice actors in the country (“because there are very few of us”), Sal Yusuf can be called a veteran foreign actor and voice artist in the country. Having played the role of the British tea estate owner in the Malayalam film Iyobinte Pusthakam (2014) starring Fahadh Faasil and Lal, and lending his voice to numerous advertisements, including the Malayalam film Ustad Hotel, Sal has dabbled in many fields here for nearly a decade.
Having left his comfortable substitute teaching job in the UK, Sal Yusuf moved to India nine years ago to travel. Establishing a relationship with the country, he has never looked back. “To me, India is like a virus. And I say virus because it won’t go away. I cannot leave this country and it won’t let me leave it,” he says. Now a resident of Bengaluru and a regular at most South Indian breakfast joints in the city (and even in Chennai), Sal enjoys the bustle in this country, the sunsets, the climate of Bengaluru, the food, the people, and the films and its filmmakers.
Calling Mani Ratnam his favourite filmmaker and Kaaka Muttai a must-watch, Sal’s knowledge about South India’s cinema is not limited to just the big-budget films. Having begun his journey down South, he admires the simplicity and cinematography that most South Indian films offer. “It blew my mind when I saw the bridge where that iconic scene in Kaaka Muttai was shot. The one where the reporters ask the two boys to move away from the scene. So symbolic; expressing the way the poor are looked at from that simple scene,” he says.
With respect to his own journey as an actor and voice artist, he does not describe it as ‘all pearls and roses’. “It’s a lot about luck here. Most foreign artists are picked up from beaches for shoots. But to me, reputation is like a tree. I want to nurture and bring up my own reputation, so people know that I’m very professional. I’m taking it all seriously.”
Sal meets every project with commitment and hard work. “Even if I have a scene of me just picking up a phone and pretending to talk, I will practice it constantly until I’m satisfied with it. I will pick it up and put it back, over and over again. Similarly, if a film requires me to sport long hair or a beard, I will not cut or shave for as long as it takes,” he says, pointing to his current salt-and-pepper look owing to a role in an upcoming film.
In spite of the hard work, there are some disappointments too when an occasional project that you are a part of doesn’t see the light of the day. “There are downsides to this. Sometimes, I’m never too sure if I can talk about a film because it never really took off. They rope me in for a role and there are times I’m never told whether it would be made.”
“But when you get a call from the costume department asking for your measurements, you know you’re in. And then, when your travelling arrangements are sent, you are convinced even more. The joy lies in when you’re finally on the set and living every minute of it. These are the things I love about being part of cinema,” he explains, reminiscing over his little role in Dheepan (last year’s Palme d’Or winner) and the shooting experience for that one barbecue scene he had.
With films slated for a release in the near future, including a Goan movie starring Kalki Koechlin, Prakash Raj, and Gulshan Devaiah, called CandyFlip, Sal has a busy schedule and a variety of roles to play. Currently, a part of Bengaluru-based improvisational comedy troupe ‘The Improv,’ Sal performs jokes in his signature British accent, wary of what to make light of and what not. “For an upcoming actor like me, I am all about the reputation. Like a tree, it takes years to grow, but the minute you say or do something out of the line, it only takes a second to cut it down,” he concludes.