With the increasing global popularity of Indian cinema, countless actors and actresses outside of India are being lured towards the wonderful world of Bollywood. Especially in the last few years, there have been several notable leading firangi (English) personalities that have graced the screen: Rachel Shelley in Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan, Antonia Bernath in Subhash Ghai’s Kisna, Alice Patten in Rakesh Mehra’s Rang De Basanti, and recently Shannon Esrechowitz in Nikhil Advani’s Salaam-E-Ishq. These talented faces have brought life to lovely roles in Indian cinema. They have held their own against some of the finest actors in Bollywood and some have even impressed with their Hindi.
Rachel Shelley (Lagaan)
In Lagaan, a small Indian village is forced to wager their yearly taxes in a cricket match with imperial British rulers during the Victorian era. Rachel Shelley’s role was that of Elizabeth Russell, who in defiance of her brother, is the one who coaches Aamir Khan’s character Bhuvan and his village team in mastering cricket. In an article describing the filming of Lagaan for the Guardian Unlimited, she explains that it took a lot of preparation for her to speak her lines in Hindi. Right before shooting this scene, much to her dismay, she had received new lines in Hindi:
“Imagine the scenario: young tearful Victorian gal attempting to plead her innocence to skeptical handsome Indian villager is forced to confess the unrequited and doomed love she feels for him. Emotion fills her flushed and tearful face as her eyes meet those of her beloved:
(During the filming the lines in Hindi were written phonetically for the actors):
Elizabeth: Mayray bahee nay mujhay dhoka dhaka toomhay giruftar kuraya. [My brother deceived me and arrested you.]
Bhuvan: Kyookee kah? [Because what?]
Elizabeth: (over-wrought) Kyookee … [Because ...]
Aamir steps aside briefly to reveal a small and very badly written cue board. Our gal reads it once, and then again, because it’s all just too unsettling and quite a tough line …
Elizabeth: Mayray bahee ko yay maloom ho gaya ta key . . . [My brother found out that...]
Aamir steps back into my eye line for me to deliver the rest of the original script . . .
Elizabeth: May toomsay pyar kurnay lugee hoo. Ha, Bhuvan, may toomsay pyar kurnay lugee hoo. [I've fallen in love with you. Yes, Bhuvan, I've fallen in love with you.]
Filming is so often like this. Last minute changes wipe out months of preparation. Our director, Ash, was very happy so I had to accept it. But I could have been much better.”
She was very well received in her role as Elizabeth and Lagaan emerged as one of the most successful Bollywood films. It was nominated for many awards, including a Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. Since Lagaan, she has gone on to many other projects, with her most recent the television series “Ghost Whisperer”.
Antonia Bernath (Kisna)
Antonia Bernath was getting her degree at the London School of Drama when the chance to audition for Kisna came her way. After auditioning through 190 other aspiring actors, Antonia landed the role of Katherine, the daughter of a commissioner who falls in love with Kisna [Vivek Oberoi]. It was a period-romance, set against a backdrop of India’s turbulent struggle for independence during the 1940s. Kisna saves her from an enraged mob of nationalists that includes his own uncle and brother. He escorts her to the safety of the British High Commission in New Delhi, from where she can be sent back to her home in Britain. In the end it is a love story that is torn between ‘ Karma ‘ (the noble deed) and ‘ Dharma ‘ (the duty).
“Beautiful, talented, committed” is how Subhash Ghai described his firang find.
About filming Kisna, Bernath said, “At the same time as being chaotic, filming was also beautiful. The locations, sets and songs were just incredible. I got the chance to wear stunning costumes and jewellery. I even got to kiss Vivek in a romantic scene. He was lovely, a fantastic person.”
Though the film flopped, Antonia was well-received. Critic Raja Sen in his review of the movie said of Antonia, “Kisna is a showcase for Antonia, a fantastic actress, who just happens to be classically beautiful. The film is hers. Her teardrops are authentic, and her dialogue delivery is excellently modulated. She’s plodded through the Hindi with considerable