Priyanka Chopra’s much talked about debut on American television Quantico premiered on Sunday and while the reviews of the show itself have been mixed, she has generally been praised, for her striking looks if not for her acting chops. She has “a poise and sexual spark”, says The Wrap, an online site that covers Hollywood. Chopra plays Alex Parrish, an FBI agent accused of terrorism.
Social media reaction in India has, as usual, swung between extremes, with many making fun of her American accent – she does play an American, after all – and others admiring her for making it to Hollywood on her own steam. It is no small feat for a foreign actor, that too of an “ethnic” background to get a lead role in a prominent network television show.
Priyanka Chopra is the latest among a growing list of Indians who have landed significant roles in Hollywood films and television series. From Bollywood, actors Anil Kapoor (24, Mission Impossible), Irfan Khan (Jurassic World) and Naseeruddin Shah (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi) are among those who have played parts in Hollywood productions. There are many others – of Indian origin — such as Kunal Nayyar, Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari – who are visible on American television and movies and others, like Sanjeev Bhaskar, Meera Syal, Zohra Segal and Dev Patel who are well known in Britain.
But while a growing trend, this is hardly new—it goes back to the 1930s. Over the decades, many Indians have found their way to Hollywood and the west, some in small character roles, others in significant parts and still others who then on to become stars. Here’s a look at Indians who made their mark in films and on television in the US and other countries. This is a long and impressive but by no means an exhaustive list.
The first, and perhaps still, the biggest Indian name was Sabu Dastagir, who was discovered in the elephant stables of the Maharaja of Mysore. He was first cast in the 1937 film Elephant Boy by Robert Flaherty and then in The Drum by Alexander Korda. But it was Alexander Korda’s Thief of Baghdad (1940) that made him a huge international star, after which came well-known films like Jungle Book, Arabian Nights and, in 1947, Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. A couple of Indian producers tried to bring him to Bombay, including Mehboob Khan who auditioned him for Mother India, but nothing worked out.
I S Johar
While Johar was known as a comedian in Hindi films, he got several assignments to act in Hollywood films, beginning with Harry Black and the Tiger (1958), starring Stewart Granger. North West Frontier (1959) followed and in 1962 he got a role in the prestigious David Lean film Lawrence of Arabia.
He has completely vanished from the public eye and memory, but at one time young Sajid Khan was a heartthrob of American teenagers, mainly for his role in Maya, a television series about an American teenager and his friend travelling around India look for the latter’s father. The series ran for about a year during 1967-68 till it got cancelled, and made a star out of young Sajid, who had till then done two films with Mehboob Khan, Mother India and Son of India. In this clip, the two boys are in Bombay, moving about in a Mercedes Benz, looking for an address in Charni Road.
Summoned by an Indian princess, Tarzan goes to India (1962) is the story about the Ape man who heads to this hot and humid country where hundreds of elephants are in danger because a company is building a hydroelectric dam. The princess, played by Simi Grewal, speaks impeccable English, which was hardly surprising, since she – the actor — had lived in London till then. It got her noticed by Hindi film producers and Mehboob Khan gave her a role in Son of India which kick started her career. Another up and coming Indian actor in the film was Feroz Khan.
He acted in several English language films, all of which were made by James Ivory and Ismail Merchant. Starting with the Householder and then moving on to Shakespearewallah, Kapoor became a staple of Merchant-Ivory productions but act with other directors in Hollywood. Since the duo made several films in India, many well-known actors, such as Helen, Nadira, Utpal Dutt and Leela Naidu acted in them. Here’s the famous typewriter song from Bombay Talkie (1970), starring Shashi Kapoor.
In the 1970s, Kabir Bedi was an advertising professional and a stage and film actor in Bombay. Then he got a lucky break-a running role in a European television serial called Sandokan, in which he played the eponymous Bornean pirate of the 19th century, a character created by Italian author Emilio Salgari. The pirate fights many battles in the jungles of India and the Dutch Indies. The show never made it to India but Bedi, with his strapping looks and light eyes, became a big star on the continent. He also later played a significant role in Octopussy (1983) and shows like Dynasty and Murder, She Wrote.
He had a British career much before he had an Indian one, acting in several television shows and movies. It was his role in The Man Who Would Be King (1975), directed by John Huston that really gave him a fillip and made him a much in demand actor. He managed to act in commercial Bombay films, British and American films and was equally comfortable acting in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khiladi. His ex-wife Madhur Jaffrey too was seen in a few films and their daughter Sakina is a well known actor, last seen in House of Cards.
She was already a veteran of art-house films and commercial blockbusters when she got a role in Madame Souzatzka (1988), playing a Bengali immigrant mother whose son learns the piano from Shirley Maclaine. The film was directed by the famous John Schleisinger, (Sunday Bloody Sunday, Billy Liar).
After his superb turn in East is East (1999), Om Puri began getting a lot of offers for international projects. He has been seen in Canterbury Tales, West is West and recently in Hundred Foot Journey.
He is now the go to actor from India for international projects. Films like The Namesake, Life of Pi, Jurassic World are in his portfolio and many others still in production. Khan is now no longer taken for token Indian roles, a testimony to his acting talent.