Gone are the days when the greatest achievement for South Asians in mainstream films was the caricatured bit roles and endless talk of bridging the gap between Hollywood and Bollywood. Talk is cheap, and no one knows this better than Britain’s prized director Gurinder Chadha, who steps up with a quantum leap in filmmaking in her latest project Bride & Prejudice. Backed by one of the world’s largest distribution channels, MIRAMAX, this musi-comedy makes history as one of the world’s biggest east-meets-west mergers.
True to Jane Austen’s ideology, lent from her novel Pride & Prejudice, the plot of this feature resides somewhere between reality and fantasy, where man and woman meet amidst a frenzy of obstacles and biases, albeit ones they are destined to overcome through the power of understanding and acceptance. Then, and only then, is love allowed to flourish. I guess you could say that Austen was ahead of her time, pioneering the Bollywood formula.
Why did you both choose to do this particular movie?
A: Gurinder met me soon after Bend It Like Beckham launched, while I was promoting Devdas in the U.K. She described three different ideas to me and we were mutually happy to work together. About three months later, she came to India with Bride & Prejudice, and I immediately wanted to work on the film because it was a very clever, light and entertaining script. It was wonderful how she had juxtaposed the classic, Pride & Prejudice, and made it contemporary and cosmopolitan. Lalita, the character I play, is kind of fashioned on Lizzie, and that’s a wonderful character for any actor to essay, so I was very happy to be a part of it.
M: I wanted to do this film mainly because it was such a fresh and new idea. Now that it’s done, I’m proud to be a part of it.
What did you do to prepare yourself for the role?
A: The workshop we had a week prior to the filming was a perfect opportunity for the entire team to connect because we had actors from India, Britain and the U.S., which, evidently, would bring three different approaches to acting. The workshop was able to help the actors come together on the same wavelength, and eventually have a sense of belonging to the film. It was ingenious and set the tone for the movie even before we started filming. Gurinder and I decided together that Lalita would be a normal girl and not a glamorous, pretty girl. I put on weight (laughs) to look like a Punjabi kudi (girl). Lalita is someone who takes her siblings and family under her wing without necessarily making a statement about it. Namrata (plays Jaya Bakshi) is the picture-perfect elder daughter, who is everything a mother would want her daughter to be, and I’m almost like the son of the house, working with her father in the farm. So, it made sense to have some weight on Lalita and make her look like a normal, Indian girl.
[Ash] How does anyone make Aishwarya Rai look normal?
Ask Gurinder (laughs). But seriously, it’s easy to do, as I am just as normal as you, or anyone else, for that matter.
[Ash] So, what did you do to gain the weight?
It was easy. It naturally happened, because earlier that year, not long before the movie started filming, I had met with an accident, and the combination of inactivity and medication triggered the weight gain. I automatically started to gain pounds. And I thought, “Hey, this has made my job so much easier.”
Martin, how about you, how did you go about preparing for the role?
M: I studied Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and the BBC version because I wanted to honour the source of this material. I had to get used to wearing suits as well, since I’m usually in jeans and a T-shirt.
What does it mean to you now that the movie is complete?
A: It was wonderful being part of a movie where the relationships and the emotional journeys of the characters came to life in such a pure and innocent translation of the Austen classic.
Martin, I heard that sparks flew in both directions when filming the movie. Were they good or bad sparks?
All sparks are good for the creative process if you use them well.
Bride & Prejudice is said to be a movie depicting the struggle between overcoming prejudices and humbling pride, and in so doing, true love is deemed to be the prize. How does this fundamental struggle play in the relationships you both hold dear in your lives?
A: Oh WOW! That’s profound! You can’t pull that together in a nutshell. Your question talks about the journey of life itself, and it’s very difficult to put all of that into a single sentence.
M: I think we all are guilty of these things from time to time. It’s human nature. It’s all about our egos, and if we can reduce that, I think all relationships improve.
Do you think Austen was ahead of her time, bearing in mind that in her era, marriage was the coming together predominantly of social likeness, as opposed to today’s emphasis, which is that marriage should be the coming together of the intellectual and the emotional in oneself before you can be any good with another?
A: I think that people, even in that day and age, viewed Austen as being ahead of her time. When I was doing this film, I realized that a lot of what she wrote way back then allows us to draw parallels even today.
M: Sure she was. I think she saw things very clearly. I’m just glad I belong to this era and not hers.
[Ash] Was it deliberate to launch you in Hollywood with a movie that is familiar to the style of acting you are used to in Bollywood, as opposed to a typical Hollywood style movie?
When I choose my work, I do not perceive it as a stepping-stone or a launching pad to any world. For me, it’s about working with a director whose vision I can see and believe in. It’s incidental that the film I happened to be interested in was an English film. I just loved Bend It Like Beckham, which also made me familiar with Gurinder’s style of directing. By no means did I make a conscious decision to make this my stepping-stone to Hollywood.
[Ash] Before starting the shooting of B&P, were you at all nervous at the thought of working with a western trained director and actors, in light of the fact that your repertoire had been exclusively anchored in Bollywood up to this point, where, the emphasis, for the most part, is geared towards performance acting as opposed to real-life acting?
No, I wasn’t remotely nervous. In fact, I was actually excited, aware and looking forward to a new experience. After the huge success of Devdas, I was looking for a new experience, and the timing was right when I was approached with the Bengali film, Chokher Bali, and then again, with B&P. These movies allowed me to exercise my acting versatility and do films in languages other than Hindi. In both cases, I came away feeling a level of growth as a person and as an actor, and that has been very fulfilling for me. I am very content with having made these career detours. Although, in hindsight, I wasn’t consciously making these decisions thinking that I would grow in these ways.
[Martin] Since Ash is an aficionado on the song and dance aspect of movies, (due to her classical dance and Bollywood training), did you feel somewhat intimidated or uncomfortable opposite her?
Luckily for me (and the audience), my character doesn’t get too involved in the dancing scenes. I had one song to do, which was very strange, but Ash was very supportive. She laughed her head off at me though.
There seems to be a bit of confusion as to whether this is a Hollywood or a Bollywood movie. What’s your opinion?
A: It’s simply a movie that has been made within the Gurinder genre of cinema, which is for it to be a new kind of movie, a global movie, irrespective of culture and geography, since the message is universal.
M: I think it is a British film honouring the Bollywood tradition. It’s not really one or the other. I think Gurinder achieved a wonderful balance of western and eastern film language.
What impact do you think this kind of crossover movie will have on filmmaking in Hollywood?
M: Who knows! The box office will decide that. I think people love a good musical, and perhaps we will see more of them. I’m curious to see how the American public responds to the Bollywood style. I’m not sure we’ll be seeing Tom Cruise singing in Hindi anytime soon, but I hope people enjoy the spirit of Bollywood in this film.
How do you think the movie will fare at the box office?
M: I think it will be huge in the U.K., and hopefully, that will spill over to the rest of the world. It really is a delightful film, and I think audiences will appreciate its lightness of spirit and genuine feelgood tone.
[Ash] Do you think that the fate of this movie will have any bearing on what decisions you make in Hollywood in the future?
No, because I don’t leverage my entire career on one kind of movie in one language in one country. I’m an actor, and my purpose is to experience and grow. I have tried my best to see to it that I don’t get compartmentalized. I’ve tried to break out of these typical clichés of being defined as a type actor.
Martin, you stated in a recent interview, that B&P is a ‘cross-cultural movie’. What do you mean by this?
I think it has great elements of both western and eastern culture and should prove to be exciting for both parts of the world.
Some people are saying that B&P is a great crossover movie and applaud MIRAMAX for raising the bar on diversity. What’s your opinion on this?
A: I agree whole-heartedly. Making movies to make a statement is one thing, but having the support to share that statement is quite another. So, I applaud both Gurinder and MIRAMAX for pioneering the potential for such a crossover movie by sharing it with the world. They have made it possible for actors like myself to avail of such groundbreaking opportunities as B&P, and I am thankful for that.
[Ash] As an Indian female actor who is one of the first to become a crossover star, do you feel that this heavy responsibility is a burden or a blessing, and why?
What responsibility? It is all perceived. It’s only the media who feel this way, so I have not allowed myself to own their perception.
[Ash] Another notable crossover star, Kabir Bedi, who has successfully juggled a career on both sides of the ocean for decades now, told me that the key to achieving balance is understanding the distinct differences between the two genres of acting, and to decipher this, is to understand your audience. Now that you have entered the juggling game, how do you expect to make it work both mentally and geographically between such differing worlds of moviemaking and audience expectations?
Ask me this question a year from now, and I’ll have an answer for you. It’s too soon to tell.
[Ash] I understand that the whole kissing-on-screen thing has created a bit of a dilemma for you, because in Bollywood, you’re damned if you do, but in Hollywood, you’re damned if you don’t. How do you expect to appease both sides, bearing in mind that meeting the criteria of both is essential to maintaining your career in Bollywood and creating one in Hollywood?
I do not perceive this to be a big deal because the decision, either way, is really relative and subjective to a role and my comfort level. Having said that, if I deem it absolutely imperative to a role, and I’m absolutely convinced about it, I’ll gauge my comfort level and, accordingly, accept or walk away. Kissing is to Hollywood movies what songs are to Bollywood movies. I would never resort to kissing, nudity or explicit scenes out of compulsion to prove a point that I have to make a Hollywood film happen in my career – that’s for sure! I have never done anything out of compulsion to prove a point to the world.
Well then, let’s ask Martin what he thinks: If you had a choice, would you have liked to have kissed Ash (for the movie, of course)?
Is the Pope Catholic?!
[Martin] You’ve had some lip action on screen. I’m sure guys want to know what it was like kissing Britney in her “Toxic” video?
That was a good day at the office!
I believe that a bit of pride and spunk in a relationship keep the flames of interest ignited at both ends. There’s nothing worse than complacency in a relationship, especially in such a potentially long-term and multi-layered union that one would expect from marriage. How much/little of Darcy and Lalita do you look for in a partner and why?
A: I can’t answer that, but I can answer how much of Lalita or Darcy there is in me. I do relate quite a bit to Lalita, in the way she relates to her environment and the people in her life. There’s a fine line between pride and vanity, and this stems from where you come from – who you are. Are you true to and honest with yourself? Life and circumstances are what make you find incredible sources of strength within yourself, without consciously searching for them, and that is the case with Darcy, Lalita, and with all of us. Life is a paradox in which we all possess strength and fragility, immense substance and flippancy. That’s life, and I relate to that…I hope I’m not revealing too much about myself (laughs).
M: I personally like harmony in my life, so I try to avoid the overly volatile relationships. However, I like a woman who will challenge me, which, I think, is vital for growth.
Ash, the rumour mill has churned out a story that you turned down a movie with Brad Pitt because the director wanted you to agree to some levels of nudity. Is there any truth to this?
(Pause) Let’s put it down to rumour.
[Martin] Since we’re on the topic of Brad Pitt, some people are comparing you to him in terms of your talent and good looks. What do you think?
That’s flattering, but I don’t get that. I think we’re very different.
[Ash] Julia Roberts has apparentlybeen quoted as saying that you are “the world’s most beautiful woman”. How does this make you feel, especially coming from such a notably respected and beautiful actor in her own right?
If this is true, thank you verymuch Julia!
[Ash] With forthcoming high profile movies like (Roland Joffe’s) Singularity and Chaos opposite Meryl Streep, how have you gone about preparing for your roles?
My approach is very basic, and I am always a student of the director. So, my preparations would be as per the director’s requirements and my understanding of them. This allows me to translate the messages through the particular character that I am playing.
And your choice of movies, Martin, has been very diverse, from a horror flick (The Ring, 2002), to a love story (A Piece of My Heart, 2004), to an action thriller (Torque, 2004). What criteria do you use to choose your movies?
I like all sorts of films and want to try many different genres. If I enjoy reading a script, then I trust the film will turn out good, and I will have a good time making it.
[Martin] Do you feel that you fit the very large shoes that Hollywood has put you in?
What size are they? Honestly, I only care about my own expectations…which are probably higher than anyone else’s.
[Martin] It’s common knowledge that Ash got her big break when she won the Miss World title a number of years ago, but it is less known why you decided to become an actor. Care to enlighten us?
In some ways, it chose me. I loved acting since I was a kid, and things just turned out that way.
If you had your pick of roles, who would you like to play?
A: I have never zeroed in on this because if there is a particular role that you aspire to play, and if you get to play it, then your dream would be accomplished and it would be over.
Given the opportunity, who would be your ideal actor to play opposite?
A: I don’t mind who I act opposite, so long as the role and director are strong.
M: I don’t think it gets much better than Cate Blanchette.
[Martin] Then you must be ecstatic at being cast opposite her in the upcoming flick Little Fish (2005)?
You said it!
[Ash] You’ve achieved a couple of notable firsts: First South Asian actor to bag a TIME magazine cover, and the first to be appointed to the jury at the Cannes Film Festival. What firsts do you still aspire to achieve?
I really don’t know because I am living moment by moment, giving off my best whenever I take a decision to do something. To be very honest, I had never considered that any of these things would be a part of my life. So, now that they are, I really don’t know what’s next.
[Martin] When did you realize that you were famous?
When my neighbour said that she and her daughters were checking out some photos on the Internet of me in a pair of Speedos!
[Martin] How has the journey been so far for you?
It has been incredible when I look back at it. I’ve been doing this for nearly 17 years but still feel like I’m just starting. It has given me so much to be grateful for.
[Martin] What’s the best thing about being an actor?
I’m getting to do the things that I dreamed of when I was young, and that feels wonderful.
How do you decipher the lines of separation between the actor and the person?
A: The only way to protect yourself from all the external pressures is to remain true to yourself and your own mandate – not other people’s. That’s how I keep in touch with reality and with life. Also, my fans help. Through their generous support throughout my career. It’s an honour to be placed on these polls, like the one that TIME did, putting me on the 100 Most Influential People Of All Time list. This is really a reflection of the kind of support that I have from my well-wishers the world over, and I would really like to thank them truly!
M: I am aware of how much more I can learn and hopefully experience. I feel very blessed to be where I am today.
And finally, Ash, thousands of secondgeneration South Asians, especially young girls, look up to you as a role model—the one that trail blazed a path to being all that she can be. How do you feel about this responsibility?
Thank you, really. But I am just being the way that I want to be in my life. I conduct myself the way I see fit, and that would be the case, whether I was an actor or not. The fact that I am an actor puts me in the public eye, so what I do is seen to be either good or bad. The fact that people are viewing me as a role model is humbling. My message to all, is to have a conviction and not to compromise, even in the face of temptations that may seem advantageous, but in fact, be very misleading. Tradition is wraught with undercurrents of conditioning that tell us that we should limit ourselves by rules that are created for societal control. Up to a point, this is true, but what is this point and who gets to decide on it for everyone? My message to everyone is to focus on your chosen craft and not on the incidentals and peripherals. That should be your point because you should never forget who you are and where you came from. It’s important to be your own best friend and to remain connected with yourself, and at the end of the day, you’re answerable only to yourself!
First Published in Summer 2004 Issue. www.AnokhiMagazine.com.
Film stills courtesy of Jason Bell/MIRAMAX Films