Monday, March 26, 2012

Bollywood For Beginners Post #34

For previous installments, please visit the index.

That's right, baby! It's back! And continuing with the 2000s theme, I've got three heroines whose brightest days were in the 2000s. This doesn't mean I think they are washed up or that we won't ever see them again but just that they will probably always be tied to that glorious decade known as the 2000s.

You know today's heroine by many affectionate nicknames. She's the Bong Bombshell, the dusky beauty, the Billo Rani who can light our
beedis with a shake of her hips! Yes, it's the fabulous Miss Bips!


The 2000s were a divided decade in Bollywood. With the discovery of the untapped market of wealthy Diaspora audiences in the late 1990s and the opening of upscale multiplex theaters in India, producers were falling all over themselves to try and appeal to wealthy audiences from Delhi to New York with films that celebrated traditional family values while also affirming the new consumer culture. Children respected their parents, wore the latest brands, and had big, happy weddings. But if the glossy, family friendly films from studios like Yash Raj aimed to depict the shining face of the new capitalist India, the dirty, erotic thrillers from studios like Vishesh Films wanted to tear that upwardly mobile fa├žade down.

Greed and jealousy were the calling card of films like Raaz and Jism and nobody embodied our greed and jealousy better than Bipasha Basu.

Tall, dark, and sensuous, Bipasha Basu - or “Bips” as she is affectionately known in the press - was the antithesis of the unthreatening and girlish heroines that traipsed through the cotton-candy romantic fantasies that ruled the overseas box office.

Like many other heroines of the modern era, Bipasha began her career as a model. She was still in high school when she was faced with the decision that would set the course of her life - continue to study science or chuck it all in and concentrate on her burgeoning modeling career. Bipasha picked the latter and, at only 17-years old, went on to win the Godrej Cinthol Supermodel Contest and the Ford Supermodel of the World Contest. Still, as many aspiring starlets have discovered, a pretty face - even an award winningly pretty face - is not enough to land a girl on the A-list. And advertisers soon discovered that Bipasha Basu had a rare quality, that she projected a genuine sensuality and wasn’t afraid to show it.

[The infamous Calida ad with Dino Morea...]

Bipasha’s unapologetic use of her assets landed her an infamous commercial for Calida brand lingerie. Though she was already gaining attention in Bollywood circles, the Calida ad and the outraged reaction to it from cultural conservatives gave Bipasha national attention. And though she hadn’t considered acting before, Bipasha decided to leverage her growing fame to a bigger platform - Bollywood. After a few false starts, (1) Bipasha finally got her debut in 2001 in a film called Ajnabee, directed by those Bollywood schlock-meisters Abbas-Mustan. (2) The film flopped but her sultry performance as the married-but-available Sonia who arranges her own murder got people’s attention and Bipasha won the Filmfare Award for Most Promising Debut. (3)

[With Dino Morea in a promo image for Razz - notice whose eyes are meeting the audience. Usually it's the hero who gazes out like that.]

After solidifying her bold-name status with two box office hits - erotic thrillers Raaz (2002) and Jism (2003) - Bipasha spent the next couple of years just trying to find a place for herself. (4) Perhaps in an earlier era, Bipasha might have found herself a niche as a vamp but as it was, she struggled. She drifted through a series of mediocre films opposite heroes going through some pretty epic career lows, starring in thrillers that had no thrills and romantic-comedies for which she was ill-suited. Bipasha was too much of an adult to play the girl-next-door, too self-confident to take on poorly-paid vixen roles, and too new to acting to move to art house cinema. Meanwhile, her successes in Raaz and Jism had brought with them a flood of scantily clad imitators willing to do anything to steam up a movie screen. And producers didn’t seem to care that the underwear brigade was missing the erotic je ne sais quois that was Bipasha’s trademark. Bipasha needed to reassert herself and fast.

So, while lesser actresses might have given up or drifted into obscurity at this point, Bipasha had two things going for her that those lesser actresses don’t - intelligence and tenacity. And as 2005 rolled around Bipasha struck box office gold with an unexpected hit.

Actress Neha Dhupia once famously said that the only things that sell in Bollywood are sex and Shahrukh Khan. Now, Bipasha had success with the former but, due to the aforementioned lack of a “Godfather,” had never previously been privy to the power of the The Three Khans. But Bipasha’s box office luck would change in 2005 with No Entry, her first (and only) Khan-starrer. Rumor has it that Bipasha was initially hired only for an item song but her charisma and screen presence got the role expanded to the point that she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress that year at the Filmfare Awards. No Entry is a wacky mistaken-identity comedy in which Bipasha, naturally, plays a sexy call girl hired by Prem (Salman Khan) to disrupt the marriage of Kishen (Anil Kapoor) and Kaajal (the insufferable Lara Dutta). Though she didn’t win - it was the year that Black swept the awards - the fact that she was nominated at all and for a role that wasn’t opposite either hero in the film speaks volumes about her ability to leave a lasting impression when given the right role.

[Bips in her Dhoom 2 bikini avatar...]

No Entry made Bollywood sit up and take a second look at Bipasha and the following year, 2006, was her most successful yet with one massive box office hit (the ridiculously enjoyable masla film Dhoom 2), one critically acclaimed performance (Corporate), and one iconic item song (“Beedi” from Omkara). Bipasha’s abs may have gotten most of the attention from audiences in Dhoom 2 and Omkara, but it was Madhur Bhandarkar’s Corporate, in which she played the tough-as-nails vice-president of a powerful company, which finally let audiences get a glimpse of her rock-hard will.

After raking in the cash from performing “Beedi” at every function in Mumbai, Bipasha coasted through a lackluster 2007 with only a couple more item songs to show for it. But then things begin to get a bit more interesting. She teamed up again with her old friends Abbas-Mustan for the by-the-numbers thriller Race, which was a major hit at the box office in early 2008, and then turned in an scene-stealing performance opposite the newly debuted Ranbir Kapoor in romantic-comedy Bachna Ae Haseeno.

Though she was just one of three heroines in Bachna Ae Haseeno, her performance is noteworthy because she was not only playing opposite a younger hero - something very rare - but she was also playing a mature, adult woman - something even rarer in romantic-comedies. (Which is probably why Bipasha does so few of them.) In Bachna Ae Haseeno, Ranbir Kapoor plays Raj, a playboy who doesn’t believe in in love. The first half of the film shows Raj breaking hearts while the second half has him making amends to the girls he hurt in the first half. Bipasha’s character of the independent-minded girl-next-door turned supermodel who refuses to accept Raj’s apology was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise soppy narrative.

[With younger man Ranbir Kapoor in Bachna.]

While (kindly) blaming heroine Deepika Padukone’s performance on poor writing, critic Rajeev Masand had this to say about Bipasha in Bachna Ae Haseeno: “Bipasha Basu is the best she's been in a long, long time, and plays her part so well, you can literally see the growth her character's made in the film.”

Of the three heroines in the film, only one was nominated at the Filmfare awards for her performance - Bipasha Basu.

And this brings us to 2009 and I think it’s important to mention here that Bipasha Basu has always been very proud of the fact that she made it into the industry without a “Godfather” and deservedly so. It’s an open secret that many actresses, at least initially in their careers, have a “Godfather” helping them to get roles. A “Godfather” can be a relative or a boyfriend or even just an interested party; he can be vocal about his support in the media or keep quiet; but without a “Godfather” to protect and look out for her and help her pick good projects, an actress can be made very vulnerable. To navigate these shark-filled waters without help takes a strong personality and a lot of self-confidence.

On top of having no Godfather, Bipasha also had two very public relationships with two models-cum-actors who were even less powerful than she was in the industry. First there was Dino Morea, who ceased to matter at the box office as soon as she stopped starring in his films. And then there was John Abraham, who she not only outperformed at the box office during their entire relationship but who did him the favor of appearing in his films when his career was at an all time low in 2007. (Read more about John in Lesson #31.)

That Bipasha managed to make an initial impression on her own merits is unusual enough but that she managed to last this long in such a sexist industry without the backing of a powerful man or a powerful family is nothing short of astonishing and it speaks volumes about the tenacious nature of Bipasha’s character. Of all the heroines who debuted around Bipasha’s time, only Kareena Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra are still actively starring in mainstream films - but Kareena and Priyanka are backed by (one or another of) the Three Khans. (5)

As the decade ended, Bipasha’s career had hit a plateau and she had grown cynical - or at least more open about her cynicism.. As she told Tehelka magazine: “If you are a Bollywood heroine, you have very limited choice. I was intelligent enough to realise it long back and pick up roles that look good on screen. It's a man's industry and it's never going to change. There is no use taking a stand verbally or through action.”

[A promotional still for art house film Pankh, in which Bipasha played the fantasy alter-ego of a troubled former child star. A male former child star.]

So, for the next few years, Bipasha took a stand by not taking a stand. She did some artsy films and some serious films and some ridiculous films (6) and released a workout DVD. She signed onto an English-language film (that seems perpetually stuck just short of release) and did another film with her friends Abbas-Mustan. Though she hasn’t tasted real box office success since Race in 2008, she has had a few minor hits, including Dum Maro Dum and All the Best.

And, appropriately enough, aside from an item in Race 2, her next big release is going to be Raaz 3D, the third film in the Raaz series.

[A promotional still from her upcoming English-language debut Singularity.]

Though her career seems to be at the same plateau it hit back in 2008, I wouldn’t count Bipasha out just yet. She’s a competent actress with a sizzling screen persona and a backbone of steel. Unlike the girlish heroines who can only believably cling to young innocence for a couple of years, Bipasha’s appeal has always been in her adult sexuality. Though Bollywood has had a difficult time figuring out what do with a heroine who is tall, dark, and dangerously sexy, when she clicks, she really clicks.

Bipasha’s filmography is all over the place in terms of genre. And fans of the sort of happy romantic-comedies that Shahrukh Khan makes will not find much of interest here. That said, here are three films to sample for a taste of Bipasha Basu.

Jism (2003)

The perfect example of the early 2000s erotic thriller genre and, as a bonus, it’s also the film during which John and Bipasha got together.

Dhoom 2 (2006)

Though Bips is just one part of the multi-star cast of this silly and super-fun film, it really captures her at her charming best. She plays a double role - a cop in the first half and a beach bunny in the second half - though both are equally lethal. The cop with her gun and the bunny with her bangin’ bikini bod. Yowza.

Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008)

Again, Bipasha is just one part of this multi-star film but she shines brighter than everyone else as the girl-next-door turned supermodel. It’s also notable as one of only a handful of Yash Raj-style romantic-comedies that she’s done.

1. Notably the film Akhri Mugal, which was supposed to be Ahibshek Bachchan’s debut. Later the film was reworked into Refugee and the new heroine role went to Kareena Kapoor.

2. Bipasha would continue her with them throughout her career - even starring in their latest flop, Players.

3. It’s also worth pointing out that the film is responsible for the “feud” between Bipasha and Kareena. Rumor has it that the two actresses got into a scuffle over costume selections while they were filming in Switzerland and two have only recently patched up.

4. And facing a scathing feminist backlash in certain corners.

5. Yes, yes... I know. John Abraham and Salman had some fight. And Bipasha is way too tall for Aamir. And she’s way too much woman for Shahrukh to handle.

6. Seriously, how much fun was All the Best?!


luscious-words said...

I adored her in All the Best. :)

~ Layla

Yunus Perveez said...

awesome post and one of my favorite actresses. Where is the white dress picture you promised me though :-)

Filmi Girl said...

@luscious-words ME, TOO! That movie was a lot of fun!

@Asim I couldn't find a good one! I still kind of have DMD on my backlist of films to watch. Maybe it's time to give Abhi-Baby another chance to impress me.

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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