Is there anything Alia Bhatt cannot do? Exactly one year ago, I had written a cover story for this newspaper headlined ‘Last actor standing,’ where I celebrated Bhatt as the sole headliner propping up a wounded industry. She had featured in the year’s biggest Indian film RRR, had kicked off as a producer with the critically applauded Darlings, and, with Gangubai Kathiawadi, she brought Hindi film audiences back to movie theatres. Since then we have had the successes of Brahmastra and Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani, films that demonstrate Bhatt’s unrelenting hold on the box-office.
Last week, however, came Heart Of Stone. Bhatt’s first Hollywood release is a spy actioner featuring Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot and Belfast actor Jamie Dornan, produced by Netflix. Playing the film’s villain, Bhatt is visibly handicapped by having to act in English, with every line of dialogue—like “You’re going to secret agent our way back to civilisation and I’m going to follow three steps behind you with this gun”—uttered in a bewildering monotone, as if the actor is focussing on getting the syllables right, regardless of sentiment. Such a complete lack of voice modulation is a rare thing. Bhatt may be a performer at the peak of her powers, but this is her feeblest work.
“For us, when we have to perform in English, sometimes we falter,” Amitabh Bachchan had told me in 2010 ahead of Teen Patti, a film where he starred opposite Sir Ben Kingsley. “You suddenly discover that the temperament and the tone that you use, and the feeling that you have in your thought in, say, Hindi, is not the same when you’re speaking in another language.” That’s a significant hurdle, and our actors, used to finding their pitch in Hindi, often struggle with English. That effort of thinking in Hindi and acting in English shows on Bhatt’s face.
She isn’t alone. Deepika Padukone starred in a catastrophically forgettable action movie xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage opposite Vin Diesel, and in the recent Amazon dud Citadel, Priyanka Chopra took a stab at the spies-saving-the-world genre. Chopra, to be fair, has carved out a visible niche for herself in America, and frequently gets high-visibility projects. Chopra’s been quite solid in most of her English-language work, but none of her projects—from Quantico to Baywatch—have been any good. Yet.
Padukone’s Serena in xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage, on the other hand, is a reasonably pointless character. Wearing dominatrix boots on a beach and destroying things with great intent, Serena feels like someone who was always on Diesel’s crew, not an intriguing new addition to the franchise. A role like this doesn’t feel special enough for the Piku actress, and were she offered something like this from a Hindi filmmaker—something that wasn’t meaty enough—she would surely have passed on it. Why, then, was this excursion necessary?
The game is surely to get onto the world stage, but any international actors who have truly broken through—including Bhatt’s co-star Gadot—have made their impact with striking films and roles, not by showing up frequently, or by looking pretty in mediocre work. At a time when the acting pool is getting more diverse and textured, its important to select the right roles, and to ensure the proper kind of representation.
In 2015, after the tedious blockbuster Jurassic World, I had confronted the legendary Irrfan Khan about why he would do such drivel. “As a statement,” he had explained. His point was that as an Indian actor working in American cinema, it felt like a big step to him that he was playing the helicopter-riding Indian owner of the Jurassic Park, not some Indian engineer in charge of securing dinosaur enclosures. It was shifting the goalposts of perception.
Xtreme City could, on paper, have been quite something. Produced by Martin Scorsese, and to be directed by Paul Schrader, the film would have starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Shah Rukh Khan. In the gangster drama, Khan would have played a don and DiCaprio would have been a cop. But nothing came of it despite Khan and DiCaprio both being interested, and having meetings in Berlin. Neither actor, however, finally committed to the project.
“In the end, I don’t think Shah Rukh wanted to make it,” Schrader told Open Magazine in 2013. “It was really up to him, and I just got the feeling that he was never going to be comfortable doing an international film that he didn’t control. You know that everything SRK does, he has total control over? So if he did something like this at an international level, he wouldn’t have that control.”
It’s impossible not to lament that lost opportunity—that pairing of Khan and DiCaprio, the tools Scorsese and Schrader could have added to Khan’s armoury, the articulate superstar killing it in English… Yet it’s important also to recognise Khan’s choice, that he decided not to be yet another player, another token international face added to the mix. The reason for doing or not doing a film is an immensely personal one, one that often doesn’t make sense to those on the outside, but it has to add up for the performer. Exposure, as we are seeing with these generic action movies, can’t be reason enough.
Right now, our top heroines are punching well below their weight in the West. They’d be better advised to wait for a knock out.
The animated blockbuster Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse is now streaming on BookMyShow Stream, and the visually sensational entertainer includes Spider-Man variants new to the big screen, such as Pavitra Prabhakar, the wisecracking Spider-Man from India.
Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about killing critics, and is now creating an absurd comedy series.