Queen of Bollywood

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The burly British film crew gazes in wonder at the image of the stunning young Indian woman on the playback monitor. As her jeweled sari radiates ruby and amber across their faces, the woman smiles out at her audience, stifles a giggle and draws butterfly-wing lashes down over olive-green eyes. A pause, she looks up, throws her head back and laughs, then withdraws into another coy smile. The shot, five bewitching seconds that may not even make the final edit of Bride and Prejudice, ends. The crew doesn't move. Without a word, the tape is rewound and another viewing begins. It is perhaps the seventh or eighth in a row. "Marvelous," sighs an assistant director. His fellow crew members nod in vigorous agreement. Behind them producer Deepak Nayar beams at director Gurinder Chadha. "After this," chuckles Chadha, "she'll be able to do anything she wants."

Aishwarya ("Ash") Rai has been a superstar in India since she was crowned Miss World in 1994, so seducing a film crew, even her first British one, doesn't faze her. "It's not just about how I look," she says in the elegantly articulated English of the Indian èlite. Indeed, after a handful of forgettable movies in the 1990s, Rai earned gushing reviews for her performances in last year's Devdas, for which she won seven Indian critic awards, and this fall's Chokher Bali. In Devdas in particular, critics swooned over her transformation from innocent lover to jilted avenger and agreed that she more than held her own against Bollywood's biggest male star, Shahrukh Khan, and Bombay's other queen, Madhuri Dixit. But Rai's looks—"the most beautiful woman in the world," according to Julia Roberts—haven't hurt her, either. Rai turned Western heads this spring as a Cannes festival jury member and the new face of cosmetics house L'Oreal. The attention led to her invitation to the airy hills north of London, where she is now playing the lead in Bride and Prejudice, Chadha's hotly anticipated follow-up to her hit movie Bend it Like Beckham. Bride is a modern, Bollywood version of Jane Austen's classic, in which the Bennetts of Pemberley become the all-singing, all-dancing Bakshis of Amritsar. But Rai's soaring star doesn't rely on one film alone. Scarcely does she wrap Bride before rehearsals start for The Rising, an epic based on the failed 1857 Indian rebellion against British rule. Then, in March 2004, her agents confide with considerable glee, the 29-year-old ex-model is slated to start shooting opposite Meryl Streep in Chaos, French director Coline Serreau's remake of her acclaimed drama about a housewife who adopts a battered prostitute, a role that will mark a daring departure for Rai. If that weren't enough to guarantee her arrival, Rai is also talking to director Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding) about a part in Homebody/Kabul, based on Tony Kushner's play about the Taliban. And she's signed up to star in India's first IMAX production, Taj Mahal. All five movies should release worldwide over the next 18 months, by which time, Nair predicts, Rai "will be the next Penelope Cruz."

But Cruz never brought along an entourage like this. For although 2004 may be Rai's year, it is shaping up as Bollywood's breakthrough, too. Following Rai westward will be India's brightest male star, Aamir Khan, whose Lagaan (Land Tax) was nominated for an Oscar in 2001 and who returns opposite Rai in The Rising. Western audiences will also be introduced to Indian art-house icon Rahul Bose, who will appear with Glenn Close in Merchant Ivory's Heights, a contemporary tale of five affluent New Yorkers. And behind the camera this trickle of A-list Indian talent becomes a monsoon flood. In addition to its British-Indian director, Bride and Prejudice combines the skills of legendary Bollywood choreographer Saroj Khan and sought-after Bombay cinematographer Santosh Sivan. Meanwhile, director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth, Bandit Queen) has announced a return to India with a $25 million production called Paani (Water), set in 2060 Bombay but slated for a worldwide release. Fellow auteur Vidhu Vinod Chopra is currently casting the thriller Move 5 in Los Angeles. And Ugandan-Indian Nair will be unmissable in 2004. She releases Vanity Fair, starring Reese Witherspoon; takes Monsoon Wedding to Broadway; starts work with Rai on Homebody/Kabul; directs a star-studded adaptation of British writer Hari Kunzru's The Impressionist, and executive produces three Indian films under a deal with Universal Studios worth up to $15 million.

Nor is the traffic one way. Following 20th Century Fox's decision to pick up The Rising, the first Indian-made movie that a Hollywood studio will release worldwide, Warner Bros. and Columbia TriStar Films are both planning to distribute Bollywood films abroad. Going a step further, a handful of Western independents are inaugurating a rash of East-West coproductions using Bombay's cheap, skilled workforce. Shooting recently started on The King of Bollywood, with British supermodel Sophie Dahl; and winter should see production begin on Marigold, a story of an American B-movie actress stranded in India.

It will all give a distinctly Indian flavor to some of next year's biggest movies. And to their makers, stirring in a little spice makes perfect sense. Chadha says her theft of Austen will work because Bollywood shares themes with Western art of a more innocent age. "When you see how perfectly the plot of Pride and Prejudice fits Bollywood, you see how Austen and Bollywood use the same language of joy, love, family and sadness that's so uplifting and involving, and so rare and different from Hollywood today," she says. "I think the audience will eat it up." For Nair, the explanation is even simpler. "The West is suddenly waking up, noticing what the rest of the world has been watching all these years and working out where it came from." She predicts more international exposure for Bollywood as Hollywood realizes the commercial sense of combining the world's two biggest film audiences. Already, on the set of Vanity Fair, Bollywood's leap onto the global stage has afforded her some deliciously surreal moments: playing up Calcutta-born William Thackeray's Eastern influences with a dance sequence, she says, "I had all these white folks, these big stars, lined up, doing my thing, dancing to my Indian tunes." Nair guffaws: "It was wonderful!"

The film world has heard rumors of an Indian invasion for years. In London in particular, the success of cross-cultural writers like Vikram Seth, Hari Kunzru and Monica Ali, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Bombay Dreams, department store Selfridges' decision to adopt a Bollywood theme, and a host of wildly successful Indian TV comedies has long convinced the British public that it was set for a Bollywood bonanza. Often, the sheer size of the Indian film industry—releasing an average 1,000 films a year, compared with Hollywood's 740; and attracting an annual world audience, from Kuala Lumpur to Cape Town, of 3.6 billion, compared with Hollywood's 2.6 billion—made it seem as though the West was the last to catch on. But even though Chinese film boomed with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, somehow the Indian wave never broke. And although Indian films showed in theaters from Singapore to San Francisco, the truth was that few Asians, Europeans or Americans outside the vast South Asian immigrant community actually saw them.

The reason was not hard to fathom. However deep the artistic void that gave the world Death Wish V or Police Academy 7, Bollywood has long outdone Hollywood for formula and clichè. After a two-decade-long golden age that produced films such as Mother India (1957) and Sholay (1975), the industry slipped into a succession of hackneyed action flicks and copycat song-and-dance romances made under a factory ethic in which actors worked on five, 10, even 15 films at a time. Remakes and plagiaries of Hollywood were routine, scripts were almost unheard of, and cast and crew often took the same characters, shots and dance steps from one production to another. The love stories were particularly indistinct: thousands of boys met thousands of girls (songs of joy!), broke up (songs of sorrow!), reunited (joy!) and led a cast of hundreds to a meadow outside Zurich for a leaping, ululating and face-achingly joyous finale. Actors sleepwalked through careers. "You can't imagine what it was like," says Anupam Kher, star of 290 films in 18 years, who reprises his role as the father from Bend it Like Beckham in Bride and Prejudice. "After the whole fame thing wears off, you begin to wonder, 'Really, what the hell am I doing?'" Even domestic audiences complained, including India's leader. "Why do our films stick to stereotype?" lamented Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee after seeing Devdas, which for all its well-deserved critical praise, was still the 12th version of the same love story since the original 1928 silent movie. By mid-2002, Bollywood was largely a commercial concern—to this day, critics rate films and actors almost entirely by box-office pull—of little interest to anyone outside South Asia, except homesick migrants and the odd film buff.

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