Discovered by an agent at age 16 while vacationing in India, Canadian actor Lisa Ray juggles her work in the Indian film and modelling industries with Canadian film and TV assignments. Deepali Dewan, ROM curator of South Asian Arts and Culture, speaks with the movie star about the Bollywood film industry.
Deepali Dewan (DD): You have the unique perspective of participating in a number of film industries in India— Kollywood (Tamil) where you got your start, Tollywood (Bengali and Telugu), Bollywood (Hindi), and the alternative Indian film industry—as well as the Canadian film scene. What similarities and differences do you see among them?
Lisa Ray (LR): There’s a saying: there are good films, there are bad films, and then there are Bollywood films. Bollywood is a self-referencing phenomenon. While the typical ingredients in mainstream Bollywood films are song-and-dance numbers, nubile young heroines and macho heroes, and plots charged with lots of
melodrama and family values, I believe that what makes a Bollywood film is the attitude. Bollywood films are full of confidence and unapologetic moxie. Their primary objective is to entertain—the concept of paisa vasool (something that’s worth its price) comes to mind—and they go about this in such a focused manner that the audience is completely engaged. Even if they hate it, it’s a type of engagement. Bollywood films are the original interactive entertainment—you’re not expected to be a passive watcher.
Kollywood has something of the same element, but with a Chennai twist. If anything, their stars are even more revered. They have a habit of garlanding their movie stars on special occasions. The extravagance and idolatry is in interesting contrast to the relatively humble, down-to-earth lifestyle of most Tamilians—even the wealthy. I remember working on a Tollywood film and fighting only with the choreographer. The dance moves were like MTV on ajinamoto. The dance master would bellow: “hee-pah! hee-pah! amma! sharp-ah
move-ah heep-ah!” referring to the movement of my unappetizingly slim hips, which while padded liberally still fell woefully short of the desirable ideal.
I could go on but basically, these film industries have their own unique grammar.
As far as Canadian cinema goes, there’s an orderliness which is a contrast to Indian cinema, but by nature, all film sets are chaotic. I had moments of alienation when I first started working in Canadian film. The process felt more dry and less passionate than being on a Hindi film set where it was always a hive of activity. However, this Canadian method ultimately serves the performance and creative output much better. Perhaps another reason I felt lonely was that there are far fewer technicians at work on a Canadian film—for every person on a Canadian set, you’d find 5 on an Indian one. For the first while I missed how the assistants would hand you milky Indian tea, the heat, the smells of burning lights. But Canadian films managed to finish on schedule and the efficiency is impressive. It feels more like a job and less like a lifestyle—unlike actors’ lives in India.
There’s a movement of growing alternative cinema in India, which fascinates me. Working in independent, alternative cinema anywhere in the world is rather thankless work but there’s a passion that inflames the players on the set. I love that contemporary Indian cinema is turning the mirror onto itself to explore more provocative, uncomfortable themes.
At the end, cinema is cinema. You have a story you want to tell. Only the syntax is different.
DD: Any advantages or disadvantages as an artist in each?
LR: Many. The star system in Bollywood has no real equivalent in other parts of the world. Actors become
shielded from reality and true public opinions. It’s extremely seductive and glamorous. Who doesn’t want to
taste that level of fame? Often this leads to creative stagnation and an inability to innovate. I left India
to act abroad, since I was offered only mainstream Bollywood productions, but my heart was in smaller,
more reality-based cinema. The Bollywood system had cast me as a starlet and it was difficult to make my own authentic choices. However, star power can also be used to pave the way for new opportunities and creative expression, as in the case of Aamir Khan. He has used his influence to make the type of cinema he believes in.
In Western cinema, an artist will face an equal number of challenges as the business of cinema is so monetized by the studio system and other factors, but there’s also an emphasis on the creative contributions in filmmaking.
DD: What attracted you to Bollywood and to continue working in India?
LR: I landed in Bollywood through sheer serendipity. I never wanted to be an actress, much less expected to find myself in Hindi cinema. However, I love India, and its commercial cinema is a kind of expression of the culture, though in a popular format. And shockingly, I made it big in India, so I like to go back and keep getting a dose of the country. I’m fortunate I can work in two different worlds.
DD: What are your thoughts on Bollywood going global?
LR: I’m not sure that the cinema is going global as much as the symbols and style are getting exposure across the world. Here, people point to Slumdog Millionaire as Bollywood’s breakthrough moment, but it’s not a Bollywood film. It’s a film about Mumbai. Having said that, the Indian Diaspora is so large and influential, I guess we see a ripple effect on the global psyche. Bollywood is infiltrating!
DD: How does Bollywood tie into other Indian visual arts? Do you see a connection?
LR: There’s a strong synergy. Traditional Indian motifs and choices in colour are one obvious example. It’s a very visual medium and Bollywood plays that to the hilt.
DD: What distinguishes a Bollywood film?
LR: My guess is that it’s the unabashed emotion. Again I say: there are good films, there are bad films, and then . . . there are Bollywood films.