Monday, April 18, 2011

Sarah Thompson Kane: Outsider in Bollywood Part 2

This is the first in a series of interviews with non-Indian actors who have appeared in Bollywood films. Next week will be actor Harry Key. For part one of this series with actor Jonnie Louis Brown who went from Baltimore (The Wire) to Bollywood, please click here.

If you saw
Raajneeti, one of the biggest hits of 2010, you will understand why one of the first names that came to my mind when I embarked upon this Outsider In Bollywood series was Sarah Thompson Kane. Raajneeti, a serious political drama directed by Prakash Jha, was a surprise hit in a year dominated by middling box office returns and flops. (You can read my review here.) The story of how Sarah, best remembered in the West for her role as the corporate temptress Eve on the show Angel, ended up starring in a major Bollywood release was one that I was deeply curious about.

“I had a pretty vague concept,” begins Sarah when I ask her to think back on her impressions of Bollywood. “My parents had traveled a lot throughout India when I was younger, so I heard their stories but I didn’t actually know much about the film industry. I thought
Slumdog Millionaire and Bride and Prejudice were Bollywood films - which I now know are British films, not really Bollywood. I kind of had this idea that the big singing and dancing numbers represented all Bollywood films. I learned a ton, as you can imagine, having spent so much time there.”

Sarah met director Prakash Jha when he was in Hollywood looking for actresses for
Raajneeti. They hit it off immediately. “[Prakash’s] priority is just doing good work,” explains Sarah, who very charmingly pronounces his name, and all the other Indian names she mentions, correctly. “ I don’t think he cares about fame or awards or anything like that. He just is so passionate about what he does and that’s all he cares about. He’s not in it for the glory, he’s in it just to make great art and that’s pretty cool.”

Little did Sarah know that this passion project would turn out to be a blockbuster. The prestige of the project she had joined began to sink in when she began studying Bollywood and Bollywood films. This wasn’t just any project, it was a Ranbir Kapoor project. And Ranbir Kapoor isn’t just any actor, he’s a Bollywood
star. “I became a fan,” Sarah says with enthusiasm. “The first time I met Ranbir, I was a little bit nervous. Wake Up Sid had come out and I’d seen that and I was like, ‘[gasps] He’s that guy!’ But he’s so nice and down to Earth that I forgot about it instantly.” It’s always nice to hear confirmation of the cross-cultural appeal of the legendary Kapoor charm. Sarah continues, “He’s such a movie star – you see him in one movie and you’re like, ‘Of course he’s a movie star.’ He has that it factor. He’s such a nice down-to-Earth guy in real life, which was thankfully was the case, because he made me feel comfortable after I got over the initial shock of meeting him.”

One of the big hurdles that any newcomer to Bollywood has to face is language. Viewers have the benefit of subtitles but since life, unfortunately is not, Sarah took the time to study the language. “It was difficult but I felt so proud when I could actually read [Hindi] and tried to use it as much as I could in India but they speak pretty quickly so it’s challenging.” And like many Bollywood film sets, English was used during the shooting. “Prakash spoke English most of the time and most of the actors. They flip in Hindi sometimes but for the most part they’re speaking English. Katrina speaks Hindi now but her first language is English, so she naturally will speak in English all the time so that was no problem. Occasionally as things would get frantic or we were running out of time; when people are rushing, they’ll flip into Hindi but it didn’t really pose any problem for me and I think they all knew I did not know what they were saying so they were trying to be conscientious to speak in English.”

Well, most people were trying to be conscientious. “People love when you’re learning a new language or when you don’t know the language to teach you bad words. Prakash was very big on teaching me bad words and then telling me…” Sarah trails off into fond memories. I can almost hear her grin as she remembers a particular incident. “There was one day when he and Arjun - and Arjun is such a jokester - they were like, ‘Go up to the DP [the director of photography] and tell him this.’ And they told me what to say and I did and it was like some totally horrible bad language. A lot of stuff like that – like it was totally funny to hear me say bad words in Hindi… especially Arjun.”

Surprisingly to me, it seems that for Sarah the day-to-day work of being an actor on set wasn’t too different from Hollywood to Bollywood. The part that she was really caught off guard by was the fuss that comes with working with such big stars - the interviews, the premieres, the news coverage. “I remember one day I woke up and I was on the front page of the
Mumbai Times and I’m staying in a hotel and I went down to the lobby and everyone in my hotel had seen it and they were like, ‘Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!’ That was so bizarre – I was sitting at breakfast and they bring in the newspaper and there’s my face. And Indians love cinema, are crazy for cinema more than anyone else I’ve met so it was a big deal that I was staying at the hotel.”

And if Sarah didn’t have many problems with language on set, she did have challenges with language when dealing with the Indian media. “I made the mistake of… I was doing an interview - an on camera interview - and I was telling them [Sarah says it breezily], ‘Oh, I’m learning Hindi’ before the interview started. And [the reporter] conducted the whole interview in Hindi! She was speaking really quickly and we’re on camera and it’s live! It took everything I had to try to pull together some phrases. And I got nervous and my mind was just going blank and I was like, ‘Oh God! Oh God!’” Filmi Girl hopes some of those phrases were courtesy of Arjun Rampal. Sarah, ever the sweetheart, is more diplomatic about the language switch. “I made it through. I’m sure everyone was laughing at me but I tried.”

Even the print media was fraught with challenges. “The thing I noticed a lot, which was kind of funny, was a lot of the things I said were put in words that weren’t necessarily mine. That happens here but I think it happens even more [in India] because you have people that are bilingual so they’re hearing it in English and maybe translating it back into Hindi and back into English. I would read articles and was like, ‘I
totally didn’t say it like that and I didn’t even really say that.’ They take a lot of liberties, I think, with some of those articles.” I think Sarah’s friend Ranbir, and most of the cast of Raajneeti would agree with that. Words twisted to fit the journalist’s agenda - whether it’s promoting the latest link-up rumors and fanning the fuel of a media-sponsored feud. “That happens here, too.” Sara is quick to make clear, although Filmi Girl would never (ever) use selective quotes to fan link-up rumors. “[Journalists misquoting] is not just in India but I think because of the language situation they would use Indian ways of speaking to say what I was saying. I speak like an American and I sounded like I was Indian in some of these articles – the turns of phrases. But it was just funny.”

And as for the premiere? “I’ve been to Hollywood premieres but this was like on a whole other level. Mostly I’ve done television and I’ve done some film but either smaller films or big films but smaller roles, so this was amazing because it was a
huge film and I was in a big role. And, I mean, the Indian papparazzi when I walked down the red carpet were like...” Sarah pauses as she thinks of how to describe the feeling. “I’ve never seen so many of them anywhere. It was so overwhelming and they also invite fans – so inside the theater you’re going up the escalator into the theater and there’s like fans everywhere, there’s like the most giant poster of my face on the side it was just totally overwhelming but amazing. I mean, it seems like a dream even now. It doesn’t even seem real.”

“Living in the US, Hollywood seems to be the center of everything when it comes to films. It’s so fascinating going somewhere else where Hollywood isn’t everything. There are other film industries that are just as viable and just as prestigious. What was so fun for me was being in a different industry that’s just as big as Hollywood, they make films that are just as good just different and to explore that was just so exciting.” All Western Bollywood fans will recognize that feeling, that realignment of perspective - when we realize that Hollywood isn’t the center of the entertainment universe. Sarah continues, “A lot of people here were like, ‘What are you doing? Why are you going to India? And what’s Bollywood?’ I didn’t even care because I was like, ‘No, guys, you don’t understand. This is an experience of a lifetime!’ It’s nice when I do meet people who know Bollywood here. I get so excited!”

“Actually my friends in India make fun of me because I see so many Bollywood movies now, they’re like, ‘You see more movies than we see!’ I love them – I remember I saw
Chance Pe Dance and I was totally jacked like, [Sarah does an accurate impression of squee] ‘I saw Chance Pe Dance!’ and [her Indian friends] were like [Sarah puts on a dubious voice] ‘You saw Chance Pe Dance?’ and I was like, ‘It was AWESOME!’” [And Filmi Girl agrees that Chance Pe Dance is awesome.]

When I ask if Sarah would ever like to work in Bollywood again, she is enthusiastic. “Absolutely! I would love to go work there again. Obviously, it would just have to be the right sort of project and the right situation. With
Raajneeti having been my first film there – how do you beat that experience? That was such a perfect experience and I don’t know if I could ever recapture that kind of thing again but for sure. I really admire a lot of the different directors there and a lot of actors and I would love to go back. I miss it, so much. I think about it all the time and keep in touch with a lot of my friends there. It just has to be the right project that makes sense. I keep my fingers crossed that something will come my way.”

Sarah is pragmatic but wistful as she continues, “I’m not used to being the minority. I’m not used to having roles so limited. I know I’m probably never going to play a heroine in one of the films because I think they want Indian heroines. I got it, fine. [As her agent says] ‘There aren’t going to be that many roles for you. You can only play these types, probably.’” But that doesn’t mean the offers to play ‘White Girlfriend Thrown Over for Indian Wife’ are thrilling enough to tempt her back to India.

“And it’s so weird being on the other side because here [in Hollywood] there aren’t any of those limitations, so I definitely have an appreciation for how an Indian actor might feel here in the US, where their casting is so limited – it doesn’t have to be but it just is, in a lot of cases. It’s a weird shift being on the opposite end of it. Being like, ‘Oh no, I can only play a small percentage of the roles.’ But that’s okay, I’m a visitor in their industry.”

Sarah is forgiving towards Bollywood for its stereotyping of pretty, blond American actresses but acting can be a cruel profession. Actors and actresses, through no fault of their own, can end up in roles that are poorly received for various reasons. Actresses playing the third point of a love triangle are especially prone to this kind of thing - and it’s especially understandable that Sarah in particular would be hesitant to take on one of those ‘White Girlfriend’ roles because of her experience in Hollywood. I was a huge fan of the show
Angel back in the day and Sarah was subjected to some brutal Internet hatred for playing the character Eve.

“In this particular field you have to develop a strong backbone and that was pretty early on and I hadn’t really developed that,” says Sarah when I ask her about
Angel. “I’d worked a lot but I hadn’t worked on something with that kind of fanbase where it was fans that were so passionate. It was really hard and I would go online and I would read things and it really hurt my feelings and I became super-insecure about that work.”

“And then, I was like, I can’t keep reading this stuff. I can’t. It’s too painful; it’s too upsetting. And then I moved onto other things and other roles where the characters were better received. But it’s hard, you really take it personally. I’m pretty sensitive so… maybe if it happened now... I try not to read anything anymore – even on
Raajneeti, I really didn’t read much. Or I’ll have my husband read stuff and he’ll just report back pieces. It’s tough. And I think on Angel it was especially tough because the fans were so passionate but if they don’t like you, they really don’t like you. They want you off. It’s not just, ‘Well, I don’t really like her.’ It’s like, ‘I HATE HER!’”

“But on the flip side I did a lot of conventions for
Angel and met a lot of people that were really positive and were really supportive and encouraging. So I had that experience also but I try to just push it out of my mind because otherwise I’d just be depressed.”

I don’t want to end this on a downbeat note, so I’ll you with her response to the last question I asked her. Sarah does still watch Bollywood films and goes to her local Indian cinema to see them. The last film she saw that impressed her? “I loved
Anjaana-Anjaani! Did you see that? With Ranbir and Priyanka? It’s a beautiful film and it takes a very serious subject, the main theme is suicide, and it handles it beautifully. It’s a love a story but it’s really dark and really interesting. It’s a beautiful movie and they were fantastic in it! Fantastic! I love Priyanka Chopra, she’s so good.”

Well, I love Sarah Thompson Kane for taking the time to speak with me and share some of her memories of
Raajneeti. And maybe one day we'll see her in another Bollywood film - a two heroine film with Priyanka Chopra, perhaps? The ball is in your court, Bollywood!


Ness said...

OMG I am SO loving this series - it's so interesting!

maxqnz said...

Another excellent interview, thank you! I especially enjoy reading yourinterviews of people who were films I have not and will not see, like Rajneeti and Apne, so keep up the good work. I also really liked her comments on the negativity and "hate" she has received, it seems especially apt coming from someone who's worked with BW fandom's "hatee du jour" Katrina Kaif. I'm sure the two of them could have swapped many stories on the subject.

Anishok said...

Great interview! I love that she's still following Bollywood movies and is turning into a fan...I remember when I saw her in the promos for Rajneeti I was so jacked to see two of my fandoms collide (Buffyverse and Bollywood)!

Amaluu said...

Wonderful stuff FG!

Anonymous said...

I loved the character Eve in Angel and I liked sarah in Raajneeti. She held her own in both and it's nice to see she's become a Bollywood fan. :)

~ Layla

Abhijit said...

Much as I like your daily Bollywood gossip posts, FilmiGirl, I couldn't help grinning a small little evil grin when I read the part where Sarah said "I love Priyanka Chopra, she’s so good". I imagine you must've had to try really hard to let that pass without an acerbic PC put down or two in retort *Small little evil grin, part deux*

Fantastic concept, though, and extremely well written, as always!

Filmi Girl said...

@abhijit You know me so well!! Ha ha ha! I was, indeed, biting my tongue. :D

aham said...

Interesting interview,thoroughly enjoyed it,Keep up the good work.

KJ@SLA said...

Another excellent interview, Filmigirl. These actors are obviously thrilled that there's interest in their work in Hindi movies, and it really shows in the way they're prepared to share and open up in the interviews! Kudos, this is a really fascinating series. :D

Carol said...

It's the first interview I'm reading from the series, and I must say with all my heart: I loved it. I loved it so much that I'm trying to tell my non-English speaking mum what Sarah said. She saw Raajneeti and loved it.

She was so sweet and truthful. I thought that she would speak all that stuff about being a different experience, but people who say only that usually make me think that they did not get Bollywood seriously. But she was so in love with Bollywood that her words made my heart warm. It was nice to know that Arjun is such a funny guy, too. I like him even more now.

I have never heard about Angel, but I hope its fans are more nice now. We know that people usually say anything on the internet, as if their words were not affecting anyone, but I disagree with that kind of attitude. Words build feelings and actions, and unfortunately, the ones Sarah heard made her go through a bad moment. I'm glad that it all passed and after that, she even worked with Ranbir Kapoor and Arjun Rampal. When the whole world starts loving Bollywood, all Sarah-haters will know what that means!

And I loved Raajneeti, it's one of my favourite movies ever. I love almost every politic film that comes on my way...

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