Remember those Charagh Din ads with vapid young foreigners in strangely printed shirts — always white — awkwardly pretending to be Indians? In the last couple of years, Bollywood has gone all Charagh Din with a vengeance, deciding that the best way to sell a celluloid dream to audiences is to bring in the goris.
Gone are the days of when girl-next-door Juhi Chawla with her frizzy locks, ice princess Ash or even Kajol's uni-brow could be relied on to make the pitch. Today we need to recruit foreigners to play an Indian heroine. White foreigners, not black, because well, then, what would be the point?
Even as our actresses try to look more like Cameron Diaz, with their blonde streaks and skin whitening treatments, we have an influx of lily-white foreigners who are being bronzed and tanned – and not very well – to be made to look more desi. This, of course, defeats the purpose of casting a foreigner in the first place.
We now have the Brazilian-Arabian Bruna Abdullah who’s acted in I Hate Luv Storys and Desi Boyz; the Brazilian Giselli Monteiro who played the very Punjabi Harleen Kaur in Love Aaj Kal and a forgettable Indian teenage schoolgirl in the even more forgettable Always Kabhi Kabhi; and the latest Bollywood recruit, British model Amy Jackson in Ekk Deewana Tha.
The foreign invasion would be entirely understandable if these actresses — along with being easy on the eye (as they are) — were such superlative performers that their acting prowess made you forget their nationality or race. But such is not the case. They display zero acting chops and are as successful in essaying their role as say Katrina Kaif would be playing Winnie Mandela. Picking Amy Jackson to play a demure Malyali girl makes about as much sense as selecting Salma Hayek to play a blonde all-American cheerleader. Can we really see a Hollywood director making that call?
Not only do these girls not look the part – despite the bizarre and uneven body paint job as with Amy in Ekk Deewana... — their grasp of Hindi is so negligible that none of them can dub their own lines. And when they are allowed to do so, you really wish they hadn't. Of course, our brave directors have many ways of getting around this minor obstacle. In Giselli Monteiro’s case, they simply didn’t give her any lines to speak in Love Aaj Kal, making her character seem like a precursor to the silent movie star in The Artist.
So why are these ladies playing Indian characters – more so, when we have a bevy of more than capable Indian actresses who can do the job. The South Indian actress Trisha won huge critical acclaim for the playing the same role as Amy in the original Tamil version. Why not stick with her – especially since you wouldn’t even need to darken her skin to make her look Indian.
Then again, now that our own set of lily-white actresses from Dia Mirza to Ash to Katrina are becoming fairer by the minute they may soon become too "white" to play Indians anymore. With Shah Rukh, John Abraham and Shahid Kapoor all extolling the virtues of being fair and creamy, our male actors may too meet the same fate. Maybe this is a covert international cultural relations programme where our untalented actresses will act in Brazilian and British films wearing white foundation, and their novice actresses will invest in more and more bronze to play Munni and Banno.
On the one hand, a Lakshmi Menon has to shift to America to be featured in a 12-page spread in US Vogue because she was considered too dark to make it in the Indian modelling industry. On the other, Bollywood and our Indian ads are throwing open their films and campaigns to the palest of them all much to the confusion of audiences. It's equal opportunity employment for all. We all win, black, brown or white!